Most understand how risky entertainment and restaurant businesses are, even in a pre-COVID-19 "normal" environment. The curveball of a global pandemic was absent from the usual list of potential business problems before early March hit. Maintaining a venue was a challenge even prior to the pandemic; a handful of long-lived venues have closed over the past handful of years in C-U.

Rose Bowl Tavern in Downtown Urbana has persisted for decades. Their “grass-roots” music bent is to credit for a lot of this history. Though such genres represent a small subset of popular music — which usually feels exclusive to the majority — Rose Bowl strives to remain inclusive in its atmosphere. Sometimes this sentiment takes a kind of family to make this effective.

And that’s what’s at the helm. Three friends, Charlie Harris, Martin Stromberg, and Sam Payne acquired the venue in 2019. They’ve got an exhaustive plan to not only have the club survive, but flourish. It’s a plan that is at once, brilliant and common sense: enhance an existing model, rather than completely change it. 

Fixture patrons are most likely curious as to how this trio plans to deal with the fallout of closing for an extended period, and how to reopen while keeping everyone safe. Charlie Harris was kind enough to answer a few questions as to how they plan to move Rose Bowl into the “new” future.

Smile Politely: Artists require loyalty, but so do venues. Do you think that the Rose Bowl will have this when the venue can return to "normal"?

Charlie Harris: The Rose Bowl Tavern opened in the 1940's, there are some people that have been and will forever be loyal to [the venue]. Myself, Marten and Sam Payne took ownership in March of 2019, and I believe we were beginning to develop new-found loyalty with music lovers and regulars and watering hole peeps in C-U and the surrounding area. The process of building that loyalty, building trust, takes time. While I think we were (and are) on the right path, I also know we have much more work to do. That being said, we do have a small-ish (but mighty!) group of faithfuls that, before COVID-19 and currently, have been amazing to us in their support (both monetarily and morally.) These regulars/faithfuls/family have kept us alive. If you are reading this, you know who you are. Thank you!

SP: The shock and bewilderment at the event of a global pandemic must have, as it seems obvious — made you think there was no coming back. How has the morale been for you and your staff?

Harris: It's been an emotional rollercoaster. Sometimes it felt like we were out at sea, I'm sure that doesn't come as a surprise to anybody. During the Rose Bodega days, we had to temporarily lay off all our staff, minus [Mark] Peaslee who ran that convenience store like a champ. In additon to operating as a to-go establishment, we pivoted to focusing on live broadcasts, streams, and recording performances (see RBTV on YouTube.) I think this, seeing musicians and performers on our stage, like the good ole days, helped keep spirits up. Our staff knows that our job is to bring people a good time and good beverage service, and an essential part of that is being safe and responsible, so we all had a common understanding that we would get back to it when the time was right.

We wound up waiting until Illinois' Phase 4 to open for service and entertainment because our team didn't want to jump the gun. We watched and made sure it was safe to come out. Since our survival is based around gatherings of people, it is imperative that we proceed with caution. Luckily, at about the time of Phase 4's start, the City Of Urbana granted us the use of the parking lot adjacent to the bar, so we are now able to provide service, outside, with lots of space.

SP: Rose Bowl is a C-U institution, and since you took over ownership, has continued to be a staple of Urbana. To what do you attribute this since the transition?

Harris: Good music and good drinks. Marten, Sam, and I have been performing and producing shows in town for a decade-plus. Between our own experience, and our intentional efforts to collaborate with other artists/performers/producers in town, I think we've done a damn good job with providing entertainment.

I don't have an exact count, but, with The Hootenanny (every Monday), Trivia (Every Wednesday,) CU Broad Comedy Open Mic (bimonthly) and all other performances we had at least 200 events in our 1st year. Then there is the beverage side, Marten has been slanging drinks in town forever. Like a scientist, or maybe a magician, he knows what and how much a certain crowd will drink within 15 oz's (yeah, hyperbole, but he's damn good.) The rest of our staff are real pros, and just the best peeps. If you build it — or keep it standing! — they will come.

SP: The action of reopening is affecting pretty much all businesses. How have your plans unfolded as the phases move forward?

Harris: We've been open for outdoor service in the parking lot for a couple weeks. It's going well! We are so very grateful to the City of Urbana, downtown Urbana businesses, and downtown Urbana frequenters for letting us use the parking lot. It's caused some confusion with parking and traffic flow, but us humans adapt. Thank you all!

We've got the entire east half of the parking lot adjacent to the bar. This provides us the ability to have upwards of 120 people (pending group size) seated with social distancing guidelines (6+ feet between tables) strictly followed. Sam Payne built, sanded and painted some picnic benches, and we got some recycled wooden electric spools for tables. The staff — once again, total champs — are marching drinks out to the parking lot, definitely working off that COVID-19. We're having live music and we're open 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. Things feel "normal" in a way, of course, there are masks and heavy use of hand sanitizer (complimentary at every table), extra sterilization and cleaning, and extra work to maintain an outdoor space, but, again, we know that it is only possible to do this if we do it right, which is why we are not opening inside. We've lost a couple shade tents to weather, not ideal, but no biggy.

SP: How has navigating the booking and working with rescheduling artists for the future worked?

Harris: It's weird. Booking a show is something I have done thousands of times, and, for the bar, at least 200 times in the last year. And now it's different.

Again, I know this is no surprise to anyone, but essentially, prior to COVID-19, we were working our way towards becoming a great place for bands and performers to play and for people to indulge, and this was/is heavily dependent on the space, and the gathering of people in said space, and now it's outside and distanced. For a band to play, a PA has to get set up (which can take 1-2 hours, requiring a bit of extra work), stuff is different, it's not ideal, we're rolling with the punches. Rather, I want to take this moment to shout out to the medical professionals, teachers, grocery store workers, service industry folks, and all them essential people that are working their booties off to keep us all safe and happy.

SP: What are your long-range ideas for the venue?

Harris: Oh, we don't disclose that information... but I'll give ya something though, we may, or may not, build a boat on the roof of the bar.

Rose Bowl Tavern
106 N Race St
M-Sa 3 p.m. to close*
Su 5 p.m. to close*

*Close is typically somewhere between midnight and 2 a.m., call made by bartenders

Top image by Anna Longworth.