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Club-biz 101
The Brink Lounge learns the ropes
Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble at Brink Lounge.
Caravan Gypsy Swing Ensemble at Brink Lounge.
Credit:Chad Palzkill

Note: A brief version of this interview appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of Isthmus. Below is the full interview.

Sixteen months after opening, the Brink Lounge is very much a family effort.

Developer Curt Brink opened the downtown music club in May 2006 as part of his ambitious refashioning of the old Buy and Sell Shop into a contemporary entertainment/office complex at the corner of East Washington Avenue and Blount Street.

Son Matt Brink, a recent accounting and finance graduate from UW-Eau Claire, manages the lounge while wife Elizabeth, an early-retirement school teacher, books the musical talent.

None of them had worked in the club business before.

Their maiden effort features two connected venues in the Brink Lounge--a nightclub that holds as many as 200 people and the larger lounge with bar and couches where music is sometimes staged as well. Cathy Dethmers' High Noon Saloon, a major Madison concert venue, and Larry Walsh's Brass Ring Bar and Restaurant share space in the Brink entertainment complex.

The Brinks are parleying their experience into a second bar and restaurant that will open next year in the massive University Square development now under construction near campus.

What have they learned after 16 months in the business? An edited version of our talk follows.

So what can customers expect at the Brink Lounge?

Curt: We want people to have a great club experience. We have theater lighting and a customized sound system. That room is just dedicated to music because the bar is in the other room.

Matt: We have live music a minimum of three nights a week, sometimes five nights.

Curt: This being the first redevelopment on East Washington Avenue, it's setting the tone by doing everything right. Cathy has her music; Larry has good casual food with a pool hall. The real future comes if the street ever gets developed.

What bars and clubs do you like?

Matt: I like the Angelic Brewery. They have a really nice atmosphere and a good stage. I liked the way that students react to the music. It's lot different than w hen you just have house music playing.

Curt: Café Montmartre and the King Club are nice, but you wish they were larger. One thing we did here is that people can enjoy the music, but they can also leave and go to the other room to have a drink and talk. So the lounge works both ways.

What kind of music do you offer?

Elizabeth: Goodness, we offer a lot: blues, jazz, rock n' roll. Recently, we had Harmonious Wail on a Saturday night with its gypsy swing. Then we had Que Flavor. They came in the night club and we put the band in this corner [by the bar]. People seem to really love it.

Who else? Well, we've had Lucas Cates, Dave Stoler, Mark Croft, Tracy Jane Comer, Richard Wiegel, Gerri Dimaggio, Tony Casteneda, Aaron Williams, Alex Wilson, Piano Fondue, Westside Andy, the Moon Gypsies, Swing Gitan, Tim Whalen, the Velveetatones….

What music draws the best crowd?

Elizabeth: I would like to say jazz, but it doesn't. Its blues and rock n roll.

Is it true that jazz fans don't drink as much as other fans?

Curt: Yes, it is.

Matt: If you're coming to a jazz show, you're coming to enjoy the environment and hear the music.

What do you like about being a club owner?

Elizabeth: I love mingling with the customers.

Curt: I like that we book our own music. That was our philosophy-we're going to run the club. It helps give us a sense of how to design a club in the future. We found out that Madison has a tremendous amount of talent.

With Cathy having music seven nights a week with one or two acts, we probably have a thousand different acts in the building in the course of a year. She deals with one type of genre; we deal with another. We're really a unique venue.

Is the Brink lounge in competition with the High Noon?

Matt: We complement Cathy. She has her own reputation and her own draw.

Elizabeth: We send people to her, she sends people to us. I think it's become a really nice relationship. Everybody in the building gets along.

What lessons have you learned as a club owner?

Matt: The hardest thing when you open a new club is just getting your name out. And can you get people in the habit of coming to you? Once you get them in here, can you give them great service so they come again?

Curt: Parking was a problem for Cathy, Larry and me once we all opened--after nine o'clock you got a $30 ticket for parking on the street. Last summer that was waived. But that's still the perception--that parking is hard. But MGE has been a fantastic neighbor in letting us use their lots, so there's free parking and lots of it.

What's been your biggest mistake?

Curt: It was not having food in the beginning.

Elizabeth: Now we have a nice appetizer and hors d oeuvres menu. It's enough to eat for a meal.

Curt: We wanted to make sure that Larry would succeed, so we didn't want to put in another casual fare restaurant. Now Larry has been extremely successful,

Is the club making money?

Curt: It's closer to breaking even. Your first year, you're just getting going. Now it's closer.

Matt: Now, were starting to see a solid turnaround. We're dong more than music. We're known for hosting wedding receptions and large Christmas corporate events. We're getting known for as a banquet and event destination in addition to music.

What are you going to do at your new place on the 700 block of University Avenue?

Curt: We're opening a club called The Field Pass next Aug. 1.

Matt: It's going to be a sports bar theme, with a full kitchen serving everything from burgers and fries to prime rib. We'll have live music as well. It will be comparable in size to the lounge.

Curt: We're on the corner of Johnson and Lake. For the music, you'll be able to dance, sit or stand. We're trying to create a whole interactive dynamic. We'll have a great business lunch and our own parking. It should be an exciting place.

What's been your most memorable musical experience as a club owner?

Elizabeth: The Wisconsin Blues Challenge. We had seven bands on a Sunday afternoon. They each had to perform three songs. We had such a good time. That's when Bobby Bryan won. Curt and I danced when Bobby played. Any time I can get Curt out on the dance floor, that's a great night.

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