Surviving the Pandemic at Tommy’s Pub

Jamie Starks, owner of Tommy’s Pub – Photo by Joseph Prater

This year has been challenging to say the least, and our musicians, artists, and venues have felt the impact just as much if not more than anyone else. 2020 should have been an amazing year. Huge festivals were on the horizon, major and local venues were all booked up, musicians and artists had their schedules full of plans…then in mid-March COVID-19 hit. The festivals were cancelled, the shows were cancelled, and the venues shut down almost immediately. Nearly eight months later we’re all still facing an uncertain future. Venues have been doing everything they can to get by, live streaming shows, bake sales, merchandise sales, fundraising events and so much more.

We spent some time last weekend at a local Charlotte favorite, Tommy’s Pub, during the Maker’s Market fundraiser. Maker’s Market is an outdoor, family friendly, and pet friendly event featuring a variety of live acoustic music, arts and crafts booths, baked goods, drinks, and more. And of course masks and social distancing were required. We spoke with owner Jamie Starks about the history of Tommy’s, how they’ve been impacted by COVID-19, and plans for the future. 

FTS: First, can you tell us a little about Tommy’s, how long it’s been around, how you came to be the owner?

Jamie: Tommy Karras’ father, Nick, opened it in 1951 as “Central Avenue Bar & grill.” Tommy took it over in 1977 and changed the name to Tommy’s Pub. When Tommy passed away in 2002, his good friend Jim McNally, aka “Jim Mack”, took over ownership and for legal reasons had to change the name to Tommy’s Pub & Club. In 2016 I bought the business from Jim and was able to register it back to the legal moniker Tommy’s Pub.

FTS: Earlier in the year, I think in late February, most of us first started hearing a little bit about COVID-19. At the time most people didn’t seem to think it was a very big deal, but by early March we were starting to hear about the seriousness of the situation.Then in mid-March everything shut down. How did you feel when you first got the news you were going to be required to close? 

Jamie: I wasn’t too worried at first, like most others. I figured we’d all be shutdown for a couple months tops, but would be back to normal operations and everyday life by summer. Oops, weren’t we all wrong. We were completely closed for six and a half months starting March 17 until the phase 3 limited 30% outside capacity was allowed starting October 2. Technically we’re not reopened to normal operations yet and we’re all unsure when we will be able to.

FTS: So how has Tommy’s been getting by since shutdown? 

Jamie: We were fortunate enough to have been included in a few different fundraiser shows. In June we were honored to be invited by Jackie DeLoach (Hattie’s Tap & Tavern), Zach Pulliam & James Murphy (Abari Game Bar), and Jeremy Ryan Smith (Four Finger Records) to be involved in this fundraiser, the QC Telethon, which included live performances by Solis, Petrov and Sinners & Saints. In July there was a live streaming fundraiser show by Venus Invictus & Rosewave. In August there was a live stream benefit show featuring A.P. Rodgers, Taylor Trew, An Archaic Agenda (Featuring Christopher PK Chaney & Jay Town), Aloha Broha and DuMpSter SeRVice. In September Joe Nelson/King Cackle played the “Helping Hands Benefit Show” and contributed the funds they raised to Tommy’s. There was a run of fundraiser tees, headed by Eric Levasseur (Records On The Wall), benefiting Tommy’s and several other venues. And we had a series of fundraiser tees, headed by Susanna Escobar of Mom & Pop’s Print Shop.The great people at Mom & Pop’s Print Shop offered a couple rounds of fundraiser Tommy’s Pub tees where half the proceeds went to us. We sold gift certificates, which several of our regular customers who purchased one have already declined to take theirs and said just keep the money. We also sold “to go” beer, tees, stickers and koozies throughout the summer and early fall. We still have plenty of all our merch if anyone reading this is interested in supporting us….wink, wink! Plus there were donations by many, many others contributed by donating goods and services. There’s been total community love shown to us. 

FTS: Do you wish the shutdown was handled differently, and if so how? 

Jamie: Yes, from the very top on down. Our President should’ve taken this more seriously. He admitted that he knew the severity of it, but didn’t want to freak our nation out?? Really? Like we weren’t already freaked out, especially the longer the delays kept on dragging out. A total lack of leadership. As far as our Governor, we’ll first off, why were all the corporate box stores allowed to operate in the beginning wide open?? And why weren’t masks made mandatory until late June, when the rest of the states who were taking this seriously made them law in April and May? Cooper kept telling us this was so serious, yet he changed his phase 2 reopening to allow breweries, taprooms, bodegas, and restaurants to open at 50%, but we private bars were kept closed until Oct 2nd. Even now until after the election, we’re restricted to a 30% outside only capacity. It’s ridiculous and legally, it’s discrimination. How is it any safer to eat a sandwich or drink a beer inside any building, whether it’s called a bar & grill, a restaurant, a brewery, etc. compared to doing the same thing in a Private Bar? Answer is, it’s not.The Covid virus isn’t intelligent enough to tell the difference between entering buildings and it certainly doesn’t just come out at 11pm every night. It’s like telling McDonald’s that they can have customers eat in their establishments, but Wendy’s, sorry you can’t, because it’s unsafe. When one asks how is it unsafe, the only answer they’ll receive, like we Private Bar owners have, is because we say it is. There’s been no proof, no “science and data” like Cooper constantly claimed, yet never produced. Also, some members of society didn’t help by not wearing masks in public places around others. It also didn’t help when we saw numerous service industry based businesses that were allowed to be open completely violate mandates and jam pack their places. 

FTS: How did the Maker’s Market come to be, and do you plan to continue it? 

Jamie: The Maker’s Market is the creation of Lidia Werntz. We’re hosting another one Saturday November 14th, and we hope Lidia will allow us to also be the host of another around mid December as a Christmas themed market. 

FTS: You recently had a local artist photo gallery event featuring Joey Prater/Wandering Wizard Photography. Is that something you plan to do again? And are there any other upcoming events in the works?

Jamie: Definitely! We love Joey and his work is amazing. I’m open to allow other photographers, painters, and other visual/media artists to display their work as well. And I’m hoping to get the permission and the permits to host some daytime live music shows out in the same parking lot space that we use for the movies and the Maker’s Market. 

FTS: So what is it you enjoy the most about running Tommy’s? 

Jamie: Certainly the family of regular customers, but also the family of local and returning touring musicians and the people who come out to support them. I always say that without our involvement in the music scene, we wouldn’t be who we’ve become. We have an obligation and a responsibility to our city’s music scene and we’re proud to be entrusted in providing a safe, fun loving and accommodating environment for all. 

FTS: Anything else you’d like people to know about Tommy’s or like to say I’m general? 

Jamie: Yes, please support not only us, but all of our small, independent, private bars and music venues across this city. Thanks again everyone for the support you’ve already given us and thank you for providing this opportunity, I appreciate it.

Tommy’s Pub is located at 3124 Eastway Drive, Suite 710, in Charlotte, NC.

The Maker’s Market at Tommy’s Pub – Photo Gallery by Kenny Brown

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