Old Cloverdale After Dark
Entertainment Express delivers patrons to restaurants and bars
by David Zaslawsky
One night while having some early drinks with four other couples at El Rey Burrito Lounge, Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange noticed a large group of airmen from Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base.
He asked the airmen, a group of 12 to 14, how they got to El Rey Burrito in Old Cloverdale, and they told him they had caravanned in three or four vehicles with three or four designated drivers.
“They were out on the town, starting there (El Rey) and were going to Jubilee,” Strange recalled.
Then, the mayor heard from some of his daughter’s 30-something friends about getting to downtown and not having to worry about parking and driving.
“I put those two ideas together and I knew about this lunchtime trolley route we had,”
Strange said. “The lunchtime route a couple of years ago was appropriate because we didn’t have parking spaces around, and there was no charge. That cost us $75,000 a year without any revenue opportunities.
“I inquired about how many people were riding the trolley and it’s somewhere between two and four. I said, what if we took those assets and redeployed them.”
That is how the Entertainment Express was born. It is a nighttime trolley that picks up airmen at Maxwell and transports them downtown and to Old Cloverdale. The fare is $1 for a one-way ride.
“If nobody rides the Entertainment Express, it costs us $75,000,” Strange said. “Each $1 that someone pays to ride the Entertainment Express lessens that burden of $75,000. I would like to see us break even on that route.”
That means Strange hopes to have 37,500 people annually ride that trolley, which is in service three nights a week – Thursday-Saturday – from 6:30 to 11:30. The goal is 240 riders a night.
“If it works, fine – if it doesn’t work, then we haven’t lost a thing,” Strange said. “The important thing is that today it’s costing us $75,000, and with every rider, we are going to reduce that burden by $2. We have a critical mass downtown; we have a critical mass in Cloverdale. We’ll run this for three months and then we’ll evaluate it.”
It couldn’t come at a better time for restaurant and bar owners in Old Cloverdale. While downtown has been experiencing a rebirth with new restaurants and bars – Dreamland Bar-B-Que, Alley Bar and SaZa’s Serious Italian Food in The Alley and Wintzell’s Oyster House at the Renaissance Montgomery Hotel & Spa at the Convention Center – Old Cloverdale has not had the same kind of fanfare.
The Entertainment Express, however, could impact dramatically Old Cloverdale’s nightlife by transporting scores of airmen from Maxwell to Old Cloverdale via downtown. The trolley service also could provide business travelers and conventioneers staying downtown with other dining options.
“If 20 people got off that trolley and came in here just one night a week that would be great,” said Bill Flippo, owner and general manager of Sinclair’s.
One of the two trolley stops in Old Cloverdale is at Capri Theatre, which is next door to Sinclair’s in the Five Points Area and near Tomatino’s Pizza and Bakeshop, Café Louisa and 1048 Jazz and Blues Club and El Rey Burrito Lounge.
The other stop is at Cloverdale Village near The Chop House Vintage Year, The Pines Bar, Derk’s Filet & Vine and Nancy Paterson’s Bistro.
“If we get 20 people once a night, that is 20 more than we’re getting right now,” said Nancy Paterson’s Bistro owner Nancy Paterson. “At this point, I’m not picky as long as they are paying customers.”
Nancy Paterson’s husband Burns Paterson said, “If I get one customer, I’ll take it. If you get one customer and capture him, you are going to get some others. We’re in the entertainment business. We’re here to entertain them (guests); for them to have a good time; have a great meal; great service in a great atmosphere; and it has to be fun.”
Bud Skinner, who owns both Bud’s Place, an Old Cloverdale lounge near Tomatino’s, and Jubilee Seafood, which is around the corner from Bud’s Place, said, “If I have 20 extra customers walk in my door three nights a week, I would call that a success. It would be really helpful. For a place this size (Jubilee Seafood seats 60), 20 people is huge.”
Old Cloverdale Association Mayor Todd Kirk said that the potential for increasing restaurant/bar business is limitless.
“We are really excited about the opportunity for people outside our area to experience what we have,” Kirk said. “We have a lot to offer, and we’d be drawing business from another part of the city. We think it will open up the neighborhood to a lot of people who probably have not had a chance to experience the stuff that we can offer.”
Numerous airmen stationed at Maxwell as well as business travelers and conventioneers staying downtown don’t have vehicles. If the Entertainment Express is successful, the Montgomery Biscuits, who play their home games at Riverwalk Stadium, could also benefit from the nearby trolley stop at the Renaissance.
“The government’s responsibility is to provide the infrastructure for the entrepreneur – for private business to be successful,” Strange said. “If we get increased taxation, then they (business owners) are successful as well. It’s about trying to help them be successful.”
And getting potential diners to Old Cloverdale’s two entertainment districts is critical. For three Cloverdale-area restaurateurs, September and October were some of the worst months they’ve seen since they’ve been in business.
Sales fell 30 to 40 percent in September at both Nancy Paterson’s Bistro and at Skinner’s establishments. At Sinclair’s, September halted 17 years of steady growth for the restaurant.
“September was the worst September we ever had,” Flippo said.
Burns Paterson said he began feeling the effects of the economic downturn last summer, but the fall was dreadful. “September was brutal.”
Regulars at the restaurants have tightened their belts, they’ve become more price-sensitive and they’ve reduced their number of visits per week, or they’ve cut back on add-ons like drinks or appetizers. Another big hit came from the reduced numbers of business travelers.
The restaurant owners don’t view the Entertainment Express as a panacea, but do see it as an opportunity to help cushion declining revenue.
“I can’t see a 10-percent increase in sales,” Flippo said, “but I would love to have it.”
“We have no expectations,” Nancy Paterson said. “We’ll be happy if we get anything and if we don’t, we didn’t have it so we haven’t lost it.”
Skinner: “The potential is there – there’s no doubt. It was a great idea by the mayor. I have no expectations. We’ll just see what happens.”