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Progress report: John Kelly and the Hideaway Café

Bill DeYoung



John Kelly's Hideaway Cafe celebrated an anniversary last week. "The truth is," Kelly says, "it's exciting to be here for 12 years, and still be at it." Photo provided.

Music fans and music makers alike turned out for the Hideaway Café’s recent day-long anniversary event, happy to celebrate 12 years of cool tunes and tasty meals with John Kelly, the concert venue/restaurant’s founder and owner.

What many of them didn’t know was just how close the popular nightspot came to closing during the worst months of the pandemic.

Even now, Kelly confesses, he’s walking a razor’s edge. “Things are better, and things are picking back up, but the last year left such a hole of debt,” he says. “I’ve got stuff to take care of and it’s still as hard as it was. If it weren’t for my landlord’s patience, and the generosity of many, there would be no Hideaway.”

The venue has a capacity of 100; Kelly, his wife Nicole and their dedicated staff are allowing half that many in these days. “Until we’re out of the woods with all of this, that feels the safest,” he explains. “Plus, we’ve been keeping our doors open the whole time, which allows for people to sit outside. So that’s helped too.”

Kelly admits that the open-door policy is attracting much-needed new customers. “You see people poking their head in, and they don’t know what the Hideaway is at all. That’s why selling tickets for shows doesn’t really work right now. People want to get where they’re going quick, and it’s like ‘What’s happening? That’s a great-sounding band. Ten dollars – no way!’

“But if you give them an opportunity to just come in … that potential audience is walking by now. And you don’t want to keep the door shut. When you put a (ticket price) on the door, it’s easy for people to just go ‘No way.’”

The Hideaway has never operated like a “bar with music.” Rather, it’s a listening room, with a roomy stage, state-of-the-art lights and sound (Kelly is also a musician and a longtime audio engineer) that just happens to have a well-appointed kitchen and a beer-and-wine menu. The audience sits at candle-lit cabaret tables.

Looking at a dozen years gone by, Kelly is reflective. “I’ve really learned along the way,” he says. “Every year there’s just been lessons along the way. You learn how to do it better, you learn how to make smarter financial decisions.”

Because of the restaurant license, the Hideaway was able to re-open, in a very limited fashion, in July 2020. Kelly put on special “food and music” package nights “just to keep something going. But that was in the thick of it all, and you always felt like ‘Are we doing the right thing? Should we be closed? How should we operate?’ But everyone followed measures and we were as safe as we could be. We knew if we didn’t do something, we would have to pack it in.”

Under the current schedule, admission is free Wednesday-Friday nights, with Saturdays set aside for a “special” show, with a ticket cost.

Kelly stresses that the artists who perform regularly at the Hideaway – including Kirk Adams, Kid Royal, Rebekah Pulley, Ronnie Dee and others – have agreed to work for a lower guarantee, most of which is paid for out of an audience donation box.

“We’re all working together to try to make sure the doors stay open. That’s another huge factor in why we’re still able to do it. And not everybody can afford to do that.

“It’s like a house concert, you donate to the artist and the Hideaway operates less like a venue and more like a house concert. And in a sense, the artists are performing to support the Hideaway.”

The Kid Royal Band plays tonight at 7:30. Doors open at 6 (admission is free).

RELATED STORY: Listen here: John Kelly and St. Pete’s Hideaway Cafe















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