March 15, 2016

STRANGER: Doug Schantz
LOCATION: Nellie’s Sports Bar, 900 U Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: One man’s dream of opening a gay sports bar in the District

Doug Schantz doesn’t care much for sports, doesn’t cook, and has never tended bar.

Yet he succeeded in achieving his dream of opening a gay sports bar in Washington, DC. Although his only qualification would appear to be that he’s gay, Doug told me during a dinner interview that he’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit and a dream of how he could make such a bar a success. So in 2007, after a lot of hard work, he opened the doors of Nellie’s, named after his great-grandmother. It was an almost-instant hit and continues to thrive today.

“I still work seven days a week for this place,” said Doug as we met in mid-March at his bar, which is on the bustling U Street corridor. “It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life, but it’s very rewarding. Nellie’s has become the friendly neighborhood bar that I always imagined.”

A self-described “very social guy,” Doug said he frequently held massive parties for his ever-growing network of friends in Washington. “Eventually I thought, well, why don’t I charge for this?”

When Doug moved to DC in 1995, U Street wasn’t a promising area for a bar. As he describes it, some of the buildings nearby were mere shells, missing windows and, in some cases, roofs. He recalls the late 90s and driving out of town via U Street — back than much less populated than you’ll find it these days — with his friends, accelerating until they hit the Maryland border.

Nevertheless, he saw promise in the area. He bought a home in nearby LeDroit Park, which he said was “an abandoned area, but the architecture is extraordinary and very unique to the city. I got roommates, and kept talking about doing some type of bar in the area.”

What inspired him to pick the location for Nellie’s? How does someone with zero experience in the industry set about launching a bar? And what was I going to have for dinner?

All important questions, and all answered with patience by Doug, a charismatic and friendly guy, quick to laugh. “People love to see me here, they like to see the owner,” he said as we took two seats on an upstairs balcony. “Plus, to them I’m a walking free bucket of beer,” he added, chuckling. Then he saw me eyeing the food menu, and winked. “Or a free meal.”

Doug laughed again and then we raised our drinks to toast the interview. It was a mild Monday evening in mid-March, a few days before St. Patrick’s Day. Downstairs has a traditional rectangular bar running alongside the wall of one room, while another room has more than a dozen tables dotted around for dining and drinking, all packed with a mixed crowd that night.

Upstairs has two balconies and a large open floor, and in a few days it would be jammed with people dressed in green piggybacking onto the luck of the Irish as an excuse to wake up with a hangover. In anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, Nellie’s was handing out free “O’Nellie’s” branded green t-shirts the night Doug and I met. “We’re all about the customers here,” he said. “And I’m always thinking of what they might like and what would be nice to offer them.”

Yes, I got an O’Nellies t-shirt. No, I didn’t have a hangover the next day.

Doug only had one drink at our meeting, so I doubt he woke up the worse for wear the next day. After we placed our food orders from the menu — which offers salads, burgers and more atypical fare like corn dogs and empanadas — he explained how his experiences living as an out gay man in Chicago and New York City laid the groundwork for Nellie’s.

Doug, 54, was born in Phoenix, Arizona, and was in the closet until he was 29. That’s when he moved to Chicago to start a career in advertising. It’s also where he met his first same-sex partner. Doug lived in a blighted neighborhood which was home to a growing gay population. “People were moving back into the city and reclaiming these buildings,” he said. “The reality is that those men weren’t accepted into society, so they made their own communities.”

Later on, Doug and his partner then moved to New York and once again to a neighborhood full of abandoned buildings with promise. “There were all these beautiful brownstones with homeless people living in them. There was blight, and then there were gay populations, and that was it. Everyone else was in the suburbs,” he said. “But new businesses were starting to come.”

Doug’s career then brought him to DC in 1995. He was tired of working for other people and ready to quit advertising. He wanted to be his own boss, but doing what? During his time in Chicago and New York he had loved the bars in the gay neighborhoods where people could gather in a relaxed atmosphere. While he enjoyed visiting the gay bars in DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, he knew something was missing. Although he’s not a huge sports fan, he noticed a distinct lack of a gay sports back in the District. His ideal bar was going to be a locals’ sports bar that would be free from any attitude from the start.

“I’ve been to bars in New York where I’ve spent $40 for two drinks and gotten attitude served with them,” Doug said. “From the beginning I said that wouldn’t work at Nellie’s.”

With his concept in mind, Doug then moved to the difficult task of turning it into a reality. He scouted locations and found the spot at 9th and U Streets NW. Nellie’s at that time was an Ethiopian restaurant, which was renting the building. Doug saw promise in the venue and in 2005 bought the business, which enabled him to adopt its hard-to-win liquor license.

Then he renamed it Nellie’s in tribute to his beloved great-grandmother, and set about the process of refurbishing the place and re-branding it as the city’s first gay sports bar. “When I started I figured that would all take nine months. It took almost two years,” he said.

Doug made a deal with the building’s owner where he could make an offer to buy the location outright if the bar was a success after five years. “I took two big gambles,” he said. “First, I put a ton of money into this. Second, I could have been turned down at any time.”

But it all worked out, despite his lack of experience in the industry.

“I’ve never bartended in my life — well, I did wait tables in college. That was fun, I liked the social aspect of it. But never tended bar. Not a huge fan of sports. And I’ve never cooked a meal in my life. There’s a gas stove in my house, it’s beautiful, but I’ve still not hooked it up after three years,” Doug said with a laugh. “Yet Nellie’s still worked out, which I put down to hard work, my marketing background, my entrepreneurship, and a little bit of luck.”

Doug credits his team — the long-serving, outgoing bartenders (turnover among bar staff is apparently much higher at other  places) the managers, and others — as helping to achieve success. “I treated opening Nellie’s like I would have treated one of my advertising accounts: I got the best people.”

He also believes that Nellie’s came to be at the perfect time. “There was nothing like us in this area. People would come out to see what we were all about,” Doug said. “From the start I said this would be a straight-friendly bar, and at the time that was a novel idea.”

Doug then ran through a check-list of what he thinks made Nellie’s appeal:

— A welcoming space for anyone
— Bigger venue with more windows than elsewhere
— Playing sports rather than music videos
— Restaurant-style food not offered at other gay bars
— Different events every night, like drag bingo or DJs
— Roof deck (enclosed a couple of years ago)

Any of the above reasons would bring a varied crowd through the bar’s doors in the early years, Doug said. “And that combination of things, even to this day, keeps Nellie’s busy. If we hung our hat on one target group, it’d hurt us. We’ve expanded our market because we are so diverse.”

Providing consistency to customers is important for Doug, who says it keeps people coming back. He told me about how some regulars even spot when there are changes to the sports memorabilia decking the walls — including medals, banners and fraternity paddles. “If I move a banner, I’ll get an angry call from someone. Same thing if I take something off the menu. But I think that’s a huge compliment,” he said with a smile. “It means people are paying attention.”

People are also praising the place, with Nellie’s routinely winning “best of” awards such as those that run in the Washington City Paper, Washingtonian magazine or gay publications like Metro Weekly or the Blade. Doug’s grateful for both the free advertising and the popularity that his bar enjoys. And over the years he’s been running the place, he’s had some great experiences.

Personal highlights for Doug include the night of the presidential election in November 2008, and what he described as an explosion of happiness when Barack Obama was declared the victor. “People were running out into the streets with their drinks, leaving their tabs behind,” he said, shaking his head and laughing at the memory. He still his strong memories of people lining the bar’s staircase watching all the televisions showing the results. “It was a great time,” he said.

One of his more disappointing evenings — as reported in a recent interview that Doug did for Metro Weekly — was his idea of giving away a slice of free pie for anyone that ate at Nellie’s one Thanksgiving. “One night we literally gave away one slice of pie,” he said. “People just didn’t want them. Now, if I ever came up with a vodka pie…” he added, trailing off with a sly grin.

There was no vodka pie on the menu for us that night, with Doug opting for a salad.

He played it healthy with the arugula salad of sliced oranges, feta cheese, dried cranberries, basil, walnuts, tossed with in a lemon vinaigrette with some slices of chicken.

Spying corn dogs on the menu, the glutton in me couldn’t resist.

“They’re very popular. That’s a heart attack express,” Doug said. Ignoring the threat to my heart and waistline, I went for them — and I’m glad I did. Perfectly cooked, the batter on the outside was crisp without being too hard, with a pleasant buttery taste. The hand-cut fries served with ketchup on the side were a fine accompaniment, and a great example of Nellie’s style of bar food.

While we ate, Doug paused from talking about the bar to explaining how working the nightlife industry in DC is a far cry from his childhood and life in other cities.

He grew up in Phoenix and as a kid would travel to Kansas to spend summers with his grandparents. He never met his great-grandmother Nellie but heard plenty of stories about her, obviously enough for the woman to stay in his memory when he opened his bar. “We’ve always been a family that appreciates the past, I have a lot of family photos that have been handed down,” he said.

Doug went to college at the University of Colorado, where he said he was “the worst student ever, whatever the borderline is for graduating, I crawled right over it. I really didn’t care about school.”

His degree was in environmental design, taking old downtown areas and making them livable again. “This was before anyone realized what a bad idea it was to take old main streets and make them walkable. Now everyone is turning them back after figuring out they don’t really work as walking malls,” he said.

Although he was self-depreciating about his college years, I noted that he’d taken a building in an older part of DC and turned it around.

“I guess school was good for something,” he laughed in response.

While at college — which had dozens of fraternities and sororities — he started his own business putting together “legacy” yearbooks for the frats. They were hugely popular and he tried expanding it to other universities in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri and elsewhere. But the idea failed to gain traction because the college kids he hired to help were hit-and-miss when it came to work.

After university, Doug moved to Chicago and had his formative experience coming out. He also started work in advertising, which came about thanks to some successful planning. He had sent out 98 resumes to firms and got 98 rejections. “I still have them, I’ve been thinking about papering my toilet with them,” he joked. So he then went back to a couple of firms and put his resume inside one of the yearbooks he’d created, leaving it as an example of his innovative work. Firms would then call him and tell him to come collect the yearbook, given that it looked expensive.

“Perfect!” Doug said. “That gave me an opening. I would go in and charm the secretaries, because my father always said that the person at the front desk controls everything. Sure enough, one of the girls thought I was cute, and I talked myself into an interview and a job.”

He worked in Chicago and New York on accounts such as Chase Manhattan Bank, Ace Hardware, BlueCross BlueShield, AT&T and more. “It was really boring work but they had lots of money, and I eventually I was just worn out by it,” Doug said.

And so he moved to DC and a new life by launching a bar.

Although Nellie’s crowd was initially largely gay, that’s morphed over the years into a wide mix of gays, straights, women and men. It has prompted some backlash from gay men in the city who mock the increasing presence of women in what they consider their own venue.

“When they write the history of Nellie’s, we’ll be blamed for letting all the girls into gay bars. We’re the epicenter, it went out to the entire nation from here,” Doug said, laughing. Then he turned serious to say that having a diverse crowd is exactly what his bar represents.

“I grew up in a very white middle-to-upper middle class environment and didn’t have a lot of diverse friends,” he said. “Owning Nellie’s has opened my eyes completely to how many different people live on this planet, and DC is a great example of that diversity.”

Doug still remembers gay bars from decades ago that wouldn’t even have windows, and contrasted that to the present day where 21-year-old gay guys have grown up with mainstream gay icons like Ellen DeGeneres. “So they’re out, they’re having fun, and they’re bringing their girls and their straight guy friends here, and I love that,” Doug said, then flashed a grin. “There’s always going to be some people that are unhappy, but as a businessman I never single any group out.”

The diversity of the crowd that comes to Nellie’s is perhaps indicative of a generally open-minded, liberal-leaning city. Although Nellie’s opened in what Doug had described as a neglected area on U Street, he said he’s never experienced any homophobic attacks on the place. “There have been times when someone who’s drunk has broken a window trying to get back in to get their coat, or because they think their boyfriend is still here after we’ve closed, but that’s drunk people, that’s different.”

Doug said he’s got a great relationship with the local police force and also praises his security team as knowing when someone needs to be escorted off the premises — although that’s something he tries to minimize. “When we started out our security team perhaps did too good a job kicking people out, even when they were just slightly drunk. I told my team that to get kicked out of a bar is a big thing, people are going to think about that for a while. So I just want everyone to be safe.”

As we neared the end of dinner — Doug left most of his salad, but I demolished the corn dogs and fries — I asked what his plans are for the future of Nellie’s, including its 10th anniversary next year.

“I’ve achieved a lot here and I’m really happy with it,” he said, turning to look proudly over his bar. He gazed at the now-enclosed roof deck. “Maybe I’ll do a retractable roof this summer, but I have nothing huge planned. I feel like something here has always been under construction, so I’d just like to hang out for a while and enjoy owning this,” he said.

He won’t rule out opening another bar in DC or another city, but that’s as much as I could get out of him on that topic. Understandable given the work he’s put in to Nellie’s, which he sees as a firm fixture in the city’s gay scene. Still, he doesn’t see the other gay bars (e.g. Cobalt, JRs, Trade, and others) as competition. “We all offer something unique,” he said.

The uniqueness test for Nellie’s is emblazoned in massive painted letters on one exterior wall of the building, catching the attention of passersby on U Street.

“R U NELLIE ENUF?” it asks.

The question represents a sense of belonging at the bar, using the term “nellie” that was once a disparaging term for gay men, but also a tribute to Doug’s great-grandmother Nellie with family photos and other mementos visible throughout the bar.

Doug likes the double-play on the word, and says that the name can be used for anyone who wasn’t particularly good at sports or who wants somewhere they feel comfortable. He’s appropriating a once-negative term and turning it around to fit in with his optimistic outlook on life. “So here’s my great-grandmother’s antiquated name that is now part of people’s vernacular in DC, and I think that’s so neat,” Doug said. “That term has been brought back to life, and I think that’s fabulous.”

We said our goodbyes, and Doug left the bar before me. It had been another long day of running his dream, but he was in good spirits, proud of his success with the bar.

When I left, I held the door open for some people walking in. A guy and two girls. Friends. All three had big smiles on their faces. They were probably Nellie enough.

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