By Polly Keary, Editor
When Wendy McDowell and Stacie Ballweg took a lease on the old Energy Innovations building, it was an empty furnace outlet store.
The two friends, who shared a dream of owning and running a live music venue and restaurant of their own, completely remodeled it. Wendy was a musician and a construction contractor. Stacie had years of experience working in and managing bars. Combining their expertise, they transformed the building almost entirely by themselves.
They put in rock work around a fireplace. They built a tongue-in-groove pine ceiling, a hardwood dance floor, a professional stage, and picture windows. They created a commercial kitchen, complete with a very expensive grill hood and grease interceptor, and paid the $35,000 in permit fees to put a restaurant in a building that had never held one before. They painted it, created a menu, and called it Eddie’s Trackside, opening in early 2006.
Now they believe they improved the building so much they can no longer afford to rent it. The owner of the building has been unable to pay debts, and the building has gone to the bank. Last week, Stacie and Wendy learned that their rent will double. They cannot afford that, they say.
So they plan to close the Lewis Street venue after one last block party the weekend of July 12, 13 and 14.
Owning Eddie’s has been a rollercoaster ride for Stacie and Wendy.
It began as a dream hatched when Wendy’s band played in a Duvall bar where Stacie was working. They struck up a conversation, became friends, and then took a drastic plunge; they entered into a business partnership to realize their dream of owning their own live music venue and restaurant.
Wendy sold her home in Florida. Stacie raided her 401Ks. They sunk every last dime, about $300,000, into the building.
They named it Eddie’s Trackside, inspired by a song written by local musician Brooke Pennock, with whom Wendy had been performing for years. The song was about a guy who lived in a small town all his life without ever leaving.
And Wendy had played at a place called Eddie’s Trackside while she lived in Florida.
“They had REM there before they were famous, the B52s, Michelle Malone and the Indigo Girls,” said Wendy last week, in an interview punctuated by tears.
The name made perfect sense, given that the club was located right alongside the tracks, and the owners embraced the thunderous noise, offering drink specials every time a train passed.
Two things were more important than anything else to them; food and music.
“I wanted to bring in styles of music people haven’t heard before, artists people haven’t heard, artists from Seattle that play original music, singer/songwriter stuff,” said Wendy.
“I wanted good bar food. Wendy and I spent a lot of time in different bars checking out different food. We wanted to make sure we were better. There’s nothing like going to a bar and getting the best burger in the world, and nothing like getting the worst,” said Stacie. “We made secret sauces. We made everything ourselves. We even made the wings ourselves.”
Stacie’s son helped create the menu as a senior project, setting prices and coming up with names for the dishes.
The club was well-received and business was good. Eventually, even though it was primarily a nightclub, it grew popular for the menu, too; 40 percent of the income was from food.
But there were rocks in the road.
Ups and downs
In 2008, the BNSF railroad company sent a letter saying that Eddie’s was using railroad property for parking and announcing that the railroad planned to fence that parking lot off.
They were within their legal rights to do it, even though the landlord had paid the previous owner for parking rights.
Stacie and Wendy didn’t think the business would survive without parking.
But the railroad relented, merely getting the owners to close off part of the lot with big cement blocks to prevent patrons from backing onto the tracks.
Then, Eddie got a series of liquor board infraction tickets, although they strongly denied having done anything wrong, and they fought the tickets in court for a year. They arrived at a settlement in 2011, closing for two weeks, but one more ticket by 2014 would have closed the bar for good.
They also struggled through the recession; business slowed and Wendy was forced to give up her house in Monroe.
But there were big successes. Roger Fisher, the founding guitarist of the rock band Heart, took the bar under his wing and began hosting friends there on a weekly basis, helping redesign and improve the stage.
They started a tradition of summer block parties, with live music outdoors for people of all ages.
They had special parties with themes such as pajama night or ’80s night. They had gospel music brunches on Mother’s Day, and a crawfish boil with crawfish flown in from Louisiana.
“We consistently got 100 percent on our health department scorecard, too,” said Wendy. “I got to brag about that.”
Oddly, each of the near-misses Eddie’s had with closure happened during the month of July, as they prepared for the annual block party.
This block party will be the last.
Stacie and Wendy began to be aware that trouble was brewing last year, when they learned that Ray Cook, their landlord, was in financial trouble.
“The last we heard, up to two months ago, was that he had a chance to work it out by the end of June,” said Stacie. “If he didn’t the bank would take the property.”
The two found a couple of potential investors, in case the property was going to be sold. The investors were poised to buy the building and continue to lease it to Stacie and Wendy.
Three weeks ago, they learned that Cook hadn’t been able to hang on to the building, and the bank was taking it.
Representatives of the bank arrived and inventoried the building.
When they named a selling price, it was well above what the investors, one of whom is a professional restaurant investor, thought it was worth.
So Stacie and Wendy asked the bank, Columbia Bank, about leasing the building directly from the bank.
Friday before last, the bank returned with a lease price. It was the fatal blow.
“The bankers came to us with a figure for rent that is double what we pay,” said Stacie. “And we can’t afford it.”
The rent went from $2,000 a month to about $4,000.
Stacie and Wendy believe that, by improving the building as much as they did, and by running a successful venue there for eight years, they priced themselves out of their own business.
And they won’t be able to pack up and move into a new building. As renters, they can take out the stuff that can be unplugged. But the most expensive parts of the business; the hood over the grill, the grease interceptor, the HVAC, the tens of thousands of dollars in permits, they cannot take.
And they don’t have investment money with which to start over; since they started, neither ever took a paycheck, living instead on tips and eating at the restaurant.
So they are laying off the 12 people who work there, some of whom have been there nearly since it opened. They are canceling gigs they had booked with bands months into the future.
Stacie said that for her husband and kids, there is a silver lining. Stacie has put in 70 hour weeks for years and tended to bring her work home with her even when she wasn’t at the bar.
“It’s a bittersweet relief for my family,” she said.
It’s the customers that Stacie will miss the most, she said.
“The hardest thing is to see someone walk in and I know I’m not going to see them again,” said Stacie. “I want them to be aware that we have done everything we can to stay.”
And Wendy said that she will miss giving Monroe a place to hear good music most of all.
“We have put our heart and our soul into this, and even though part of me is angry about the money, I never really did this to be rich. I did this because Monroe needed a heart, a place people could feel some sense of community through music,” she said. “This has been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life and I am very, very proud of it. It’s just the hardest thing.”
But before they close, Eddie’s Trackside will have one last party.
Saturday, July 13, live music will start at 1 p.m. and go on outdoors all day in Eddie’s trackside parking lot. After dark, the music will go indoors and continue for the rest of the evening.
“We want to have a really good party before we go,” said Wendy.
They are calling the party Eddie’s Last Call.