Ronald Davis, Rochester's most prolific nightclub owner over the past 15 years, is hoping to reinvent himself this summer.
On June 7, Davis is set to open Tequila Loco, a Mexican bar-restaurant at 7 Lawrence St., the space formerly occupied by his dance club Grotto. Unlike his previous ventures, which have been mostly dance clubs and bars for the 18-and-over crowd, Tequila Loco will be a high-end environment based on good food and craft beer, Davis said.
Tequila Loco is slated to be open Wednesday through Saturday from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. The venue, which has been renovated, will feature a self-serve beer wall with more than a dozen craft beers. There also will be complimentary Mexican cuisine for customers who are drinking throughout the night. After 10 p.m. each night, a DJ will play up-tempo music from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Tequila Loco will be Davis' last standing nightlife venue. In January, he closed the three clubs-Heat Nightclub, Daisy Dukes and A-Pub Live-he owned and operated on Lawrence Street near Rochester's East Avenue and Alexander Street nightlife district. He had operated the three clubs under his business 336 Dukes Inc.
Davis said the clubs had become financially unsuccessful. In a new business venture, he said, he has focused on restaurant and bar consulting. He will run both his consulting business and Tequila Loco under 7 Lawrence Street Inc.
Davis' first consulting client was Brick Wood Fired Pizza & Pasta in Pittsford, which opened in January. Peter Burrill, owner of Brick Wood, said the restaurant has been a success because of Davis.
"Ronnie was everything," Burrill said. "He completely came up with the concept. It's almost like it was a turn-key operation for me.
"When we opened, he pretty much got everything going as far as advertising and operations were concerned. Ronnie maximized our potential."
Davis' new direction comes after a string of problems. Last year, he was listed among the state Department of Taxation and Finance's top 250 individual delinquent taxpayers.
The report said Davis owed more than $1.2 million in taxes for several businesses, including 7 Lawrence St. Inc., Davis Cowden Inc. and RDCuse Inc., the business he uses to operate a Daisy Dukes bar in Syracuse.
"I think there's a flaw in New York State's audit system," Davis said during an interview last week. "I may not agree with it, but I owe the money and I have to pay it. I'm willing to do what I have to do to fulfill my responsibilities."
Over the past two years, Davis also has received bad press for incidents at his clubs. In June 2011, WHAM-TV 13 reported that City Hall and the Rochester Police Department were considering revoking Davis' entertainment license because of several incidents at Heat Nightclub. The incidents included fights, a handgun being found on the premises and complaints of underage drinking.
Davis kept his entertainment license. However, his establishments developed a stigma, which hurt business.
End of an era
In closing the clubs and launching Tequila Loco, Davis has marked the end of an era in Rochester's Lower East End that began in the late 1990s.
Davis' career as a bar owner began when he opened Lloyd's Bar & Grille at 289 Alexander St. with friend and business partner Tabor Cowden around 1998. Davis said the two operated the bar under Davis Cowden Inc.
Cowden eventually moved to Colorado, where he established his own bar business. Davis continued to build his business in the East End over the next decade.
Shortly after Lloyd's opened, Davis opened Alexander Street Pub next door at 291 Alexander St. Then, around 2003, he opened Coyote Joe's, a nightclub at East Avenue and Alexander Street.
Two years later, Davis closed Coyote Joe's and opened Soho East at 336 East Ave., in the upstairs space formerly occupied by Tonic Nightclub. Davis then renovated the space below Soho East at 6 Lawrence St., where he relocated Alexander Street Pub, renamed A-Pub Live, and opened country bar Daisy Dukes.
Davis also opened Vinyl nightclub in the space on Alexander Street formerly occupied by Alexander Street Pub. He continued to operate Vinyl under Davis Cowden Inc.
He then leased the space across the street at 7 Lawrence St., where he opened the sports bar Pig N Whistle. That space is to become Tequila Loco.
At his businesses' peak in the mid-2000s, Davis said, he employed some 300 people in Rochester. At the time, the Lower East End district was drawing as many as 15,000 people on a weekend, he said.
In 2004, Davis took his success on the road. He opened Hush nightclub in downtown Denver. In a 2004 review, the Denver Post said Hush had a "classy-but-casual atmosphere." Davis said the club was a huge success from the start.
In summer 2007, Davis opened three clubs in Raleigh, N.C. The setup was similar to what Davis had on Lawrence Street in Rochester. Two bars, The Hurricane and Blazin' Saddles, and a club, also called Soho East, would operate out of a depot in west Raleigh.
However, in November 2007, things started to go bad for Davis. On an early Sunday morning, a man was fatally shot and killed near Hush's front entrance. Seven other people were injured.
Davis said Hush's business nose-dived after the shooting and never recovered. He closed the club soon after.
Around the time of the shooting, Davis abruptly closed his clubs in Raleigh. He said a financial dispute with his landlord, North Carolina Railroad Co., and a contractor caused him to close.
He next turned his attention to Buffalo, opening Club Vodka in the city's Chippewa Street entertainment district in late 2007. Davis said the club struggled from the start and closed within months.
By the time Davis returned to Rochester in 2008, the Lower East End had evolved. Davis found himself competing with more nightspots in the area such as One Nightclub & Ultra Lounge and Pearl Night Club.
"The pieces of the pie were getting smaller," Davis recalled. "I should have been paying more attention to things in Rochester. Business started to suffer, and I had to rethink things."
In March 2008, Davis Cowden Inc., which by then was solely owned by Davis, filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition. The filing came within days of state tax authorities' seizure of Davis' Alexander Street nightclub, Vinyl. The corporation owned more than $344,000 in unpaid sales taxes.
In 2010, Davis looked to turn things around by rebranding Soho East as an 18-and-over hip-hop dance club called Heat Nightclub. A year later, he converted Daisy Dukes into another country-themed bar called Whiskey River. Then, in 2012, he closed the Pig N Whistle and reopened it as Grotto.
Davis said the rebranding turned business around temporarily. However, he said, the 18-and-over crowds turned away older club patrons.
With the closing of his clubs on Lawrence Street, Davis said, he has just two active businesses. He employs approximately 25 people at the Daisy Dukes in Syracuse and 15 workers through 7 Lawrence St. Inc. in Rochester.
One of his biggest challenges when Tequila Loco opens in June, Davis acknowledged, will be overcoming the stigma of Lawrence Street that he helped create.
"The building across the street is closed. So you won't walk on Lawrence Street, see teens puking on the side of the building anymore," he said. "That's gone. There is no more 18-and-over. At Tequila Loco, we're about providing high-quality food, high-energy atmosphere in a fun and safe place for everyone."
At least one person thinks Davis will be successful.
"I think the restaurant business is Ronnie's new niche," Burrill said. "The club business isn't what it used to be. Brick Wood has been incredibly successful. We're starting to look at a second and third location, and Ronnie will certainly be with me, consulting and helping me every step of the way."
Davis, now 44 years old, said he is happy to be out of the club business, which consumed his life for 15 years.
"I have family now," he said. "I had fun, but it's a relief to not have to be in the stressful world of clubs and bars anymore.
"Now I'm just trying to make a living. I have responsibilities to my landlords. I have liabilities to the tax department I have to fill. I have no choice but to go out and reinvent myself."
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