On April 1, Dennis and Kathleen Ford will celebrate the third anniversary of their purchase of Schmidy’s Tavern in Palm Desert.
Under the Fords, Schmidy’s has become one of the Coachella Valley’s most welcoming local-music venues, and has developed a great reputation among beer-lovers thanks to its impressive selection of craft beers and good food.
That’s why it’s heartbreaking to many that on that third anniversary—barring a miracle or sudden change of plans—Schmidy’s Tavern will close.
“As of April 1, 2016, Schmidy’s Tavern will be closing our doors for good,” Dennis Ford said in a Feb. 8 statement on Facebook. “We do not have a lease and have not had one for a year now. Our landlord wants to raise the rent 112 percent, and we simply cannot afford that. We have been paying 50 percent more for the past year, and it has taken its toll.
“We cannot continue like this.”
Several days after the announcement, Dennis and Kathleen Ford sat on the patio of Schmidy’s and discussed the anguish they were feeling—anguish they largely blamed on the landlord, Realty Trust Group of Wildomar, Calif.
“Our original lease expired a year ago this month. We’ve been month to month ever since,” Dennis Ford said. “I tried to negotiate a new lease with them back in December 2014, and they weren’t responsive. When they finally did respond, there was a 112 percent increase. I sent them the counteroffer that December, and didn’t hear back until March 2015, after the lease expired. They’ve been stuck on this number, and that’s something as a small business we just can’t absorb. I can’t sell enough beer to justify a 112 percent rent increase.
“For the last year, we’ve been paying 50 percent more. Anytime you’re month to month, you pay a higher rate. It’s to the point where it’s not worth it anymore. We have to do something before we die a slow and painful death and become completely broke.”
Dennis Ford said the problems with the lease have roots in the Great Recession.
“The original owner opened this place in 2009 and had an original lease in place,” he said. “In 2010 or 2011, during the heart of the recession, everyone was struggling, and they renegotiated their lease down to a certain dollar amount for the balance of the lease. When we came in and bought the place, we assumed that was the lease (with) the dollar amount that was renegotiated.
“When the lease expired, they went back to what they were getting at the end of the lease, before it was renegotiated. They’re trying to make up the money they lost when they renegotiated, and from what I see around here, that (lower) renegotiated rent amount should be the rent.”
Dennis Ford explained how they came to own the bar.
“We lived in Carlsbad for 25 years, and I worked in a manufacturing company. (The company) relocated to Dallas, and we moved to Dallas and lived there for about four years,” he said. “I ended up actually leaving the company after 20-something years, and we wanted to move back to California. We talked about buying a bar for years and always wanted to do that. We decided to move here, and instead of looking for jobs, we looked for a place to buy, and found this on a business-for-sale website. We’ve always liked it out here, and when we lived in Carlsbad, we would come out here whenever we could.
“We saw this place. The price was right. It wasn’t doing a lot of business at the time, but we saw the potential in it, and we thought, ‘What the hell? Let’s give it a shot!’ On April 1, 2013, we took over. Three years to the day we took over, we’ll be closing.”
The Fords didn’t originally intend for Schmidy’s to become a music venue; they just wanted it to be a regular neighborhood bar, and had no plans to have live music at all. However, in time, Schmidy’s became one of the most-welcoming music venues for local bands.
“About a month and a half after we took over, we had Caxton and Burning Bettie play here,” Dennis Ford remembered. “One of my old bartenders who was here after we just bought it was friends with Caxton. He had arranged it and left. Christina (Reyes) from Caxton got hold of me and asked, ‘Are we still doing the show?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’
“They came in and did it on a Saturday night—and the place was packed. I thought, ‘Wow, this might be something.’ Being as naïve as I was at the time, I thought if you brought any band in here, this place would be packed. I’d bring in cover bands, and there would be 10 people, and I realized that wasn’t working. I don’t know how, but somehow, it just evolved, using original bands. That’s when I realized that was the key to this place: You get three local bands a night, and that’s three fan bases. Cover bands don’t have a fan base. We had no idea that it’d turn into what it did.”
The Fords also had no idea Schmidy’s would become one of the valley’s most-liked craft-beer purveyors.
“I knew nothing about craft beer when I took over this place, and I’m still not a craft-beer drinker. I don’t care for it myself, and I drink Coors Light,” Dennis Ford said with a laugh. “We have it because of a bartender we had, and he knew craft beer. When he left five weeks into us owning it, it was basically up to me to decide what beers to bring in. … That was tough, because I knew nothing about it. I’ve learned a lot about it over the past three years.
“I don’t like (craft beer), but I know a lot about it.”
Many local bands have a love for Schmidy’s; the bar was the site of the first public shows for more than a handful of them. Jack Kohler, of War Drum, also runs his own promotion company, named Fortune Finder Music Group. He recently started booking shows at Schmidy’s after leaving The Hood Bar and Pizza.
“I think Dennis and Kathy are really genuine toward local bands,” Kohler said. “We do local acts most of the time—and it’s tough to do all local all the time. Dennis and Kathleen have always been about equal-opportunity toward bands and letting them play: rock, rap and hip hop, whatever—everyone has a chance
“Now with this venue closing, it’s a very critical wound to the scene, because this is another original local music venue being thrown under the bus. I know that there are other venues such as The Hood Bar and Pizza and Bart Lounge, and (local promoter) BB Ingle is going to open up something where he does live and local entertainment, but Schmidy’s was crucial for bands to play at, and there’s a lot of history there. A lot of bands have cut their teeth at Schmidy’s, for sure, and it’s going to be very damaging when it closes.”
Dennis Ford said his reputation in the local-music community is a great source of pride.
“That’s the one thing I’m most proud of with this place: I’ll give anyone a chance,” he said. “You don’t have to be an established name to play here. It doesn’t matter to me, and we do all genres. We’re the only place that did that. We had a Motown show here where the average age was 65, and it was so full in here at $20 a head that we had to turn people away. We had metal, country music and whatever else.”
Schmidy’s has also been willing to open its doors to good causes. During a recent open-mic night at Schmidy’s that Blasting Echo frontman Josh Heinz hosts on a weekly basis, he talked about the support Schmidy’s offered him for his annual Concert for Autism.
“Schmidy’s, to me, is Dennis and Kathy, and their role and their warmth toward the music community,” Heinz said. “They provide a place to play for a lot of bands that some of the other places wouldn’t let in—not because the bands are bad bands, but because they’re young. They did underage shows and would let them play in the afternoons and early evenings. No other place would do that.
“Dennis and Kathy were 100 percent supportive of the autism benefit and me doing it. They let us come in here and would donate some of their receipts at the end of the night to the cause. It’s very nice to have owners of a bar like that, because not a lot of venues are that nice. That comes from experience of more than 20 years of my playing in Memphis and playing here.”
It wasn’t just Heinz’s autism cause that Schmidy’s helped out; many other local charities and people who had fallen on hard times found a helping hand at Schmidy’s. Just one example: When Musicians Outlet in Palm Desert burned down last year, the Fords hosted a benefit show.
“When we saw what happened to Musicians Outlet, we were like, ‘Oh my god! I can’t believe that happened!’” Kathleen Ford said. “We’re a small business, and that would crush us if that happened to us. That’s why we did that.
“We also did one benefit where we helped a young kid with leukemia.”
While the Fords didn’t originally intend for Schmidy’s to become a local music venue, Dennis Ford said it was never a question whether Schmidy’s would give back to the community.
“To me, that’s something that needs to happen. People come here and spend their money, and if someone needs something, we give back,” he said. “Pretty much all of the benefits we’ve done, we’ve donated anywhere from 10 to 20 percent of the bar sales that night to that particular cause. For one, it makes you feel good, and two, you get publicity out of it—and you can’t buy that kind of publicity.
“A local musician named Rob Lawrence is putting together a benefit we’re doing in March for abused and abandoned animals. Kathy and I love animals, and it’s something I wanted to do. When I made the decision to shut down, I didn’t want to look like we were raising money and keeping it for ourselves before closing down and leaving. I don’t want to touch the money, because I don’t want anyone saying anything. But I enjoy doing benefits for genuine causes.”
When the subject of retirement came up, Dennis and Kathleen Ford laughed. “In your dreams,” Kathleen said to Dennis, laughing.
That laughter temporarily masked the fact they’d just endured one of the toughest weeks of their life, and that Schmidy’s closing has taken a financial toll on the family. The Fords said they had already decided what to do after they close Schmidy’s doors on April 1 (barring a miracle).
“Three months ago, we knew we had to pick a date. April is our worst month, because everyone is going to Coachella and Stagecoach,” Dennis Ford said. “There might be a small glimmer of hope that we’ll be able to stay open or find somewhere else, but I’ve been telling everyone, ‘I hope for the best, but expect the worst.’
“We own a house in Dallas, Texas, and we’re moving back. We have grandkids down there in Houston, and Kathy wants to be closer to them, and we’re a little closer to my family in Illinois—and my parents aren’t getting any younger. It just seems like the right thing to do to go back there. Unfortunately, we’ll probably have to find jobs, and there are no jobs out here. My experience is in manufacturing, and there’s not any of that here—and tons of it down there. I would love to open up another bar, because it’s so much cheaper to do business down there. Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. because of the amount of money we’re losing here by closing up.
“People ask, ‘Why don’t you sell it?’ No one is going to buy this place without a lease.”
The Independent left several messages with the Realty Trust Group requesting to talk to somebody for this story, but received no response.
In Schmidy’s Tavern’s final days, the Fords plan to thank the local bands that have played there by bringing them in for a marathon series of events.
“We’ve just been so immersed in the music scene here, and I feel like we’re letting these local bands down,” Dennis Ford said. “I can’t help but feel it’s my fault, and at the same time, I have to look out for what’s best for Kathy and me. We put our retirement into this place.
“The day that I made the announcement we were closing, I went home at 2 in the afternoon. I couldn’t be here. I jumped on my bike and went for a ride, and I thought, ‘I want to have a blowout month of March.’ I want to get all the bands who have ever played here back in here during the month of March. I stopped, and I sent Jack (Kohler) a text to try to get every band that ever played here.”
For more information on Schmidy’s Tavern, located at 72286 Highway 111, Suite J3, in Palm Desert, call 760-837-3800, or visit the Schmidy’s Tavern Facebook page. Schmidy’s will host the End of the World Festival from Thursday, March 24, through Sunday, March 27, to celebrate Schmidy’s brief but powerful local-music legacy, and to support the Fords. Watch the event’s Facebook page for details.