On the night side with Avram Hornik

Avram Hornik at the construction site of Ortlieb's Lounge, which he plans to reopen in April. David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Avram Hornik at the construction site of Ortlieb's Lounge, which he plans to reopen in April. David Maialetti / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 10, 2012

LEANING BACK in his chair in his sparsely decorated Rittenhouse Square office, Avram Hornik is framed between two disparate images. Over his left shoulder hangs a dartboard, evocative of the corner bars on which he's built his local empire. To his right, Hornik's wife and young children beam from the screensaver on his computer.

If it's not quite the familiar cartoon devil and angel perched on either shoulder, it's a diptych that suggests the path his life has taken.

"I used to say that I tried to open places that I liked to go to," said Hornik, 39. "But I'm a father of three kids under 5. That limits the time you can spend out. Now that I'm a little bit older, the places we're opening up tend to focus a lot on live entertainment."

Once upon a time, the entertainment at any of the establishments run by Hornik's Four Corners Management was provided solely by the patrons themselves. Hornik's bars - cornerstone Lucy's Hat Shop, the three Drinker's (Tavern, Pub and West) and Noche - were unpretentious joints with little on their minds beyond being a bar. One of Hornik's signature contributions to the city's social culture was "Drunken Monkey," the all-you-can-drink Sunday brunch at Lucy's that extended nightlife into Sunday morning.

Hornik has largely stuck to that formula, defying the city's growing gastropub and fine-dining culture with places that disdain expensive microbrews, upscale bar food and cutesy themes for lowbrow atmosphere, rows of barstools and cheap, decent grub. Over time, that has included SoMa Lounge, Loie Brasserie & Bar, Butter and Bar Noir.

But Hornik's most recent venture, the live-music hall Union Transfer, is more indicative of the type of establishment he's interested in now. The move into live entertainment reflects a change not just in Hornik but in his patrons, he said. "People are demanding more when they go out than just a place to sit down and get something to eat and drink. They really want some kind of entertainment element. So that's what we're focusing on now and in the future."

Next week, Hornik and partner Mark Fichera plan to reopen Ortlieb's Lounge (née Jazzhaus), the Northern Liberties brewery-turned-jazz club that has been shuttered for nearly two years. Former owner Pete Souders will return to resuscitate the traditional Tuesday night jam session and help with booking touring acts, though the club will now look beyond jazz to include comedy and other forms of music.

"Ortlieb's is a Philadelphia institution," Hornik said, "but we're not trying to copy what it was before. We're going to bring a different, modern version of it that will work for the neighborhood. We're looking forward to being taught by the Philadelphia music community what's needed."

Beyond Ortlieb's, Hornik also has plans to reopen the Boot & Saddle, the South Broad Street bar with the iconic neon boot, and to take over the former Rock Lobster site on the riverfront with an American beer garden featuring simple cuisine and live music. "For us, it's the perfect Labor Day back-yard picnic," Hornik said "We're taking the concept of seasonal outdoor beer and food and doing an American/Philadelphia twist to it." ( See his holdings.)

Like Union Transfer, both of those venues are being managed in conjunction with Philly music promoters R5 Productions and New York-based Bowery Presents. "It's been a great partnership," Hornik said. "It couldn't be going better. R5's Sean Agnew is a fixture in Philadelphia. If you've been to an indie rock show anytime in the past 15 years, the odds are Sean had something to do with it. The Bowery guys have a national reach and an ability to bring shows that otherwise wouldn't come to Philadelphia. And we're essentially operations people."

R5 Productions founder Sean Agnew had been approached by several would-be partners to open venues over the years, but saw a difference in Hornik's proposal. "Avram had a long track record of establishing new bars around the city," Agnew said. "They weren't promising the world. They didn't hype themselves or the potential of this project up. Everyone trusts each other. All the partners have made sacrifices for the long-term good of the venue."

Down by the river

The yet-to-be-named beer garden will expand Hornik's reach to the riverfront, a location that until very recently would have been unthinkable for a family-oriented dining and entertainment spot. "I'm Jewish and I grew up in a kosher house," Hornik said by way of explanation. "If something happens to one of your plates and it becomes unkosher, you have to take it out back, bury it underground for a certain period of time and then it's kosher again. I feel like Delaware Avenue has been through that process. We never would have looked at this place five years ago - definitely not 10 years ago. But I think the old Delaware Avenue that you might remember if you're in your 30s or 40s is gone."

While the riverfront is in a period of recovery, violence is a concern for anyone involved in the nightlife business. Most recently, the city was shocked by the beating death of 23-year-old Kevin Kless in January near 4th and Chestnut near Old City. The Temple grad had just moved back to Philly from Harrisburg for a new job.

"What happened in Old City was a tragedy," Hornik said. "Essentially, Old City has become the de facto nightclub district of Philadelphia and, unfortunately, when you get 25 to 30,000 young people out on any given Friday or Saturday night, bad things are occasionally going to happen. We do everything we can in terms of security, our relationship to the police and active involvement with community groups to protect our patrons."

Of course, just because the neighborhood is right for the bar doesn't mean the bar is right for the neighborhood, and Hornik has hit a few snags over the years. His initial foray into a live-music venue was at the former Jumbo Theater at Front and Girard, a plan that eventually crumbled after meeting resistance from residents. (The space is now a dollar store.)

"That would have been a great live-music venue," Hornik said, "but it fell in the perfect storm of four community groups. We reached a deal with three out of the four. Having a live-music venue there might have decreased the quality of life for some people, but it may have increased the quality of life for other people, and it's about balancing those interests. I think it would have been a good spot."

More recently, Four Corners' plans for the Boot & Saddle were met with vocal opposition from the South Broad Street Neighborhood Association. Hornik is confident that a compromise can be worked out in time for a planned September opening. (The SBSNA declined to comment.)

A place to hang out

Hornik's unlikely empire began 18 years ago with a steam pipe break. Born in California and raised in Philly, he had recently graduated from Vassar College with a degree in political science and the realization that "not once, the entire time I was there, did they ever mention the fact that I had to get a job." The burst pipe destroyed what meager belongings he had but netted him a $6,000 check from the school, which he used to move back to Philly and open the Quarry Street Café on North 3rd Street with a friend, which he ran while earning his law degree at Temple.

"We opened that coffeehouse just as a place to hang out," Hornik said, "and I've been doing it ever since."

Thomas Last, an assistant manager and bartender at Drinker's Pub, has worked for Hornik in various capacities for 13 years.

He cites a similar spirit underlying all of Four Corners' establishments. "I remember going to the Quarry Street Café and it was sort of a community living room," Last said. "It was a space where everybody was able to relax and do whatever they wanted to do, whether it be study or socialize. He's brought that idea along to each place. People look out for each other and look forward to hanging out in the places that he creates."?

There seems to be a fierce loyalty in Hornik's patrons and employees. Last lauded him for paying health benefits from the earliest days, while Drinker's West lead security host Troy Jackson, with a decade's tenure, pointed to Hornik's now-legendary annual Christmas trips: Disney World; Graceland in Memphis, Tenn.; Las Vegas; and Puerto Rico.

With the company grown to a less manageable size, those sojourns are more or less a thing of the past, but Jackson added: "The thing I like about Avram is he's always full of surprises. You never know what's gonna happen next, whether it's opening a new business or doing something for the employees."

Hornik shrugged off questions about long-term goals. He said he's content with the current size of his small-scale empire and takes opportunities as they present themselves rather than seeking out the next project. He'd rather concentrate on what has made him successful.

"We take our patrons' experience very seriously. We have a good relationship with our patrons and really make the place more about them than it is about us. If an opportunity comes along that seems like fun, seems like something that will work, and seems interesting, then that's the project that we do. We're doing a lot right now, which is difficult, but they're all great opportunities and I think they're going to make the city more fun to be in."

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