My name is Scott Kramer. In 1998, my business partner Steve Zumoff and I decided that Pittsburgh needed a retro-style Tiki bar. There had been a few in Pittsburgh in the '50s — the Hoki Lau and some others that are long-gone. We scoped out three locations in Pittsburgh's South Side, a trendy neighborhood with lots of young people where Steve and I already owned a coffee shop (the Beehive) and a bar (the Lava Lounge). Those three locations all fell through, but finally in 1999, a large doctors office came available. We bought it and began our planning.
INTERNATIONAL JET-SET TIKI QUEST
We traveled to Columbus, Ohio to the Kahiki, a Tiki Mecca of astonishing proportions built in 1961. (NOTE: The Kahiki was criminally demolished in August 2000 to make way for a Walgreen's.) Artist Mike Saxman and I took photos of the restaurant. Seven rolls of film and a small, okay $22.00 piece of Mahi-Mahi later, we left with many, many, many ideas. Steve and I then made plans to go to Thailand and Bali, where an importer friend named George Andrews assured us we would find everything we would need for decorations. The 25 hours of travel on three planes were a bit much, but we made it there in one piece.
Thailand was interesting to say the least. We met a Thai friend of Steve's who took us traveling in Chang Mi, Chang Rai, even Laos. The food was great. We went camping in the forest and rode elephants and got lots of Thai massages, $5/hour, from beautiful Thai women. We looked for wood carvers and bamboo supplies, but the supplies we found were spread out all over the place and we had no export agent to get the articles to the U.S.
A friend of George's named Danial suggested we hook up with his friend and export agent in Bali. Danial's friend Alfonzo was a bit strange. Alfonzo had been in Bali for 6 months and enjoyed living like a king on the American Dollar. There he enjoyed the company of many women and lived the good life on a rocky beach near Sova. Alfonzo asked his driver to help us find the supplies we needed and to be our interpreter. His drivers fee was $10 a day, which included car and gas.
Alfonzo told us not to overpay him so we wouldn't spoil him. In four days we closed all our deals and got all the bamboo/thatch, shells, beads, Tiki masks etc.
FIGHTING BACK AT HOME
Back in Pittsburgh, we began a fight to get a liquor license. The school board had decided that they didn't want another bar near Phillips Elementary School, and the fight began. Luckily, the day before the hearing, their lawyer had announced he was stepping down because of an unrelated political situation. We think he was asked to step down and was pissed. At the hearing, he looked at our menu and said that he looked forward to eating at our new bar/restaurant.
DESIGN WORK (AND MORE FIGHTING)
Mike begins making facade drawings. I give him my input, we fight, he adapts, new designs, we fight. He stops answering the phone. He gives me about twenty drawings for the facade, we make a final decision. Then my fight with the Pittsburgh historical and zoning people begins. Two hearings later, we adapt the design again and it's okayed.
Mike and I fight over the interior — curved seats vs. right angles, stone vs. copper, many arguments over the design of the thatched huts. Mike draws six designs for the back of the bar and Steve and I decide on one. The designs are reviewed by our architect to make sure they are legal. Finally the designs are done.
The space was large, but we decided it needed to be larger. The basement was small, only 1/3 of the first floor in size. So we decided to dig out another third and underpin the foundation, a 2 1/2 month adventure of digging and pouring the new basement walls. We decided to put in a first-floor-to-basement waterfall, every part of which leaked, but with much tweaking we eventually got it to where it worked fine.
Bar tops were made from Pennsylvania poplar, 5-inches thick and 16-feet long. We had to order the wood from a small mill and then have it shipped to a kiln dryer that dried it for five months in five kiln firings (one month and one firing for each inch). It ultimately took 5 men to move each section.
To get a realistic floor, we decided to go with poured-stamped concrete, which we poured throughout the building. (What a pain that was!) Much of the wall surfaces are covered in rock. Some are covered with Mexican Black River rock, others are decorated with small stones, shells, and bamboo all individually glued and cemented.
It's estimated that Pittsburgh has 4,000 artists living in the city, and we turned to many of them to pull off our project. Many worked installing bamboo and matting on the walls, painting murals, sculpting Tikis, and building thatched huts.
Incidentally, when we decided to go with thatched huts (much like the Kahiki) we knew it would have to be fireproofed. Before we installed any thatch we had a company come and fireproof spray all the thatch outside in a parking lot. We installed it and continued working on our project. When we were ready to open, the fire inspector took a hunk of thatch, took his lighter and lit it. It caught on fire pretty fast, so we had to re-fireproof the whole space. We did it ourselves and with better chemicals — a sticky, noxious, and eye-burning experience. I don't recommend it, but it worked. We also sprinklered the building just to make sure. Construction took 15 months and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The bar is busy and successful, and creating the space was fun, but we're not going to build another Tiki Lounge!