Lexington, KY – Long-time partners in the bar business have ended their financial ties to each other but are still working together as owners of bars across the street from one another.
Chris Heflin and Robert Garrison opened the Chase Tap Room on Fourth of July weekend in 2008 at Victorian Square, and they both have returned to the bar business after the original Chase closed to make room for the recently opened Saul Good in Lexington’s downtown.
In a former market on the corner of Jefferson and Third, Heflin is putting the finishing touches on the new Chase Tap Room, while his former partner Garrison is directly across Third, making improvements to The Green Lantern.
“It’s a very happy marriage post divorce,” Heflin joked Monday afternoon while watching Garrison plug in lights at the Green Lantern. Despite the fact that they are no longer tied to each other through a business entity, the friends and former business partners are clearly still working together.
“We’re in control of the corner,” Heflin said, “and it is a really well placed, prominent corner, and it is going to be an important space — a location to go to, not a specific business to go to,” he said of the space on Jefferson, a street that has become an entertainment hot spot in the last five years.
A view of the new Chase Tap Room
Heflin reopened the Chase Tap Room this past weekend on a limited capacity after a four-month absence from the Lexington nightlife scene. Work on the Chase’s new space is about 80 percent complete, he said, as he’ll add 16 taps, a new color scheme, railings and drywall over the next few weeks while opening Thursday through Saturday nights.
By the beginning of 2014, Helfin expects to be serving some of his own beer at the Chase Tap Room as a large adjacent former mechanic’s shop is converted into a brewery. He’ll also add a full-service kitchen.
Heflin said the idea of making his own brew occurred to him after a year of operating the Chase at Victorian Square, which opened with 12 beer taps and expanded to 22, none of which ever featured the types of beer that would advertise during sporting events.
“There were so many other bars around, I needed something to differentiate myself … I like good beer, and that was the thing that I noticed was really lacking. Every single bar had a slightly different vibe, but it was the same selection and it was the same eight beers over and over again. (So we went) all micro, all craft … we were not going to carry Bud Light, not going to carry any of the standard things,” he said of the original Chase Tap Room.
Even though he noticed the success and desire customers had for craft beers and had plans for how to capitalize on it, Heflin went another direction.
“Downtown took off and I got a little sidetracked with the idea of doing the nightclub thing,” he said. “At the time that made sense; 10 months after I finished it, it didn’t make any sense to be doing that.
“I screwed up and spent a bunch of money on a nightclub and didn’t have it to jump on (the craft-beer craze) when I probably should have. Everybody else did and proved the concept and helped create the vibe,” he said. “If there is anything I’ve learned in the bar business, it’s a lot better to be the last one to do something at the right time than the first one to do something at the right time. You don’t want to do it once it’s no longer the right time to do it, and we’re coming pretty close to that.”
Across the street, Garrison is trading the hoppy IPAs of the craft-beer world for lagers with the “Champagne of Beers,” Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon, at the Green Lantern. A dive bar if Lexington has ever seen one, Garrison hopes to improve it but not change it.
“The trick is getting in here, making the necessary fixes to make it functional, without really changing the cool vibe of the dive bar. I want to clean it up. I want the electric to work. I want the plumbing to work. We want to create a better stage for the bands with better sound and lighting equipment,” he said.
“When I first took over the Lantern, there was a hole in the floor, the plumbing didn’t work, the coolers didn’t work and there was no air conditioning,” Garrison said. “So one of the first things I wanted to do was fix the air conditioning, get the coolers working so we could serve cold beer. So then I thought it’s the same old Lantern, just a little cooler.”
Puns aside, Garrison has shifted the location of the bar in the main room of the Green Lantern to allow access to the men’s room without patrons having to battle the bartenders as they attempt to access the coolers, and has rearranged things behind the bar for more efficiency. A doorway has been added behind the bar to the adjacent room where the bands play, and a bar for that room is under construction. The people behind the bar, however, have stayed the same, as Green Lantern mainstay Mike Sullivan was there Monday night slanging for customers.
In addition to buying the bar, Garrison purchased the building itself, which for the first time brings ownership of the business and the bar together. The lack of such an arrangement previously, he said, was largely responsible for the condition of the bar. It’s hard to put money into something you don’t own, and Garrison said he’ll never rent again.
“Harry Sommerville, the previous owner of the Green Lantern bar, really poured his heart and soul into the place, but without the opportunity to own the whole property, you’ll just end up throwing good money away,” he said.
Now with a “divide and conquer” attitude, Garrison and Heflin said they’re looking to serve a different demographic on the dynamic Jefferson Street.
That will no doubt create crossover with the other establishments on the street, as Garrison said he’s been surprised at the range of people who attend the shows at the Green Lantern. That might grow as he plans to add different genres into the largely punk and metal lineup at the Lantern, “but no cover bands,” he said.
Heflin will gradually add space to the Chase Tap Room, as a large, open-air beer garden will open in the spring and a pass-through “game room” in the brewery portion of the building is ready for customers. He’s also planning to open an offsite brewery for the Chase Brewing Co. that will bottle and distribute far beyond the local area, which he said he’ll do with the onsite beer production.