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Nashville, TN – Most people you meet in Downtown Nashville who frequent Back Alley Diner, located at 217 Arcade Alley and nestled—literally in a back alley—between Church and Union Streets call it one of those rare “hidden gems.”
They didn’t have to convince me of the “hidden” part as it took Jordan and I a half-hour of walking in circles last February in the snow to find that it was actually less than a five-minute diagonal dash from his apartment.
But if finding it was difficult, discovering the “gem” part of the equation was more than easy. Welcomed by a friendly, soft-spoken young man into the warm century-old structure—we could see right away that the atmosphere was one of a kind.The first thing you notice is the barn-style, 2-story high, wood-beamed ceiling (that is if no one is playing and singing at the entry area that doubles as a stage…) and the long bar with mostly regulars and smiling bartenders ready to mix you a signature martini or hand you a PBR. (One of the first and favorite bartenders we met is the awesome Sarah Golden, also a talented singer/songwriter with a killer voice!)
After you seat yourself (that’s right you get to pick where you like!) you realize this is a place where people are really letting their hair down—especially when you notice the hula-hoops that decorate some of the walls and are told that you’re welcome to use them…
Beloved by the locals who live and/or work in this part of Downtown Nashville, Back Alley Diner (or BAD as it is better known; their placard signs out on the street boast BAD food, BAD drinks and BAD service) is the kind of place that everyone claims to be “their own.” There’s nearly always someone you know hanging out and eating one of the diner’s signature burgers, soups, or fried catfish.
But atmosphere, history, and hula-hoops (and a great “Po-boy” sandwich) aren’t the only things that make BAD unique. Most people will tell you that it’s the owners who make or break a place—and in this case, the restaurant has youth and family ties working for it.
Owners, Jacobie and David Olin, are 50/50 business partners and just 24 and 26 years of age respectively. When you learn that they’ve been making a success of the offbeat establishment since taking over the lease in May of 2011 (when Jacobie was only 21) you note that these are not your typical brothers.
While most young men were still in college, partying, or just setting out on their own, the duo was meeting with accountants, and taking on a rehab of the less than stellar interior of the former “dive bar.” What is even more remarkable is the fact that the siblings remain as close as business partners (spending intense long hours together Monday through Saturday) as they did growing up and sharing a bedroom.
“We really don’t fight at all, and we never talk business when outside of BAD,” says Jacobie, has taken on the role of the “front man,” while his brother, David, prefers to handle the “back of the house.”
Though their youth has not deterred them from transforming BAD into a hip (without being arrogant or artificial) and well-recognized songwriter venue, they do admit to a lot of “trial and error” in opening and developing the place of their dreams. Originally, the pair thought they’d take a leisurely six months to clean, renovate and open the place officially. But after just one month, they found they were going broke, so they handed out paintbrushes to the kitchen staff, paid friends with beer to come and help clean and do labor, and stood on ladders themselves to paint and open up within a month and a half.
“I got pretty fat during that time,” he says laughing. (The young restaurateur is lean and fit so this is hard to imagine…) “We knew we wanted to be a great burger place, and he must have made about 500 different kinds of burgers over those months,” said Jacobie.
Another “on-the-job” discovery made by the brothers was what crowd they would be chasing: day or night. “One of the funniest misconceptions we had was that we’d be mostly a late-night bar place. We thought we’d have to really work to get the lunch crowd to recognize us,” Jacobie said.
In fact the opposite occurred. The brothers were seeing full houses during lunch (though the location of BAD is out of the way, it’s smack dab in between several corporate office buildings of downtown.) “We were thrilled with the business but found ourselves at night standing around wondering where everyone was.”
At that point, the brothers didn’t have any music programming or theme nights. “We started trying everything,” Jacobie said with a laugh. “There wasn’t anything I was afraid to try. Illusionist nights, we had magicians, a D.J. Night which went horribly, and more.” David, the admittedly quieter partner, has the ability to overlook his brother’s mistakes and encourages him to “try out ideas and see what happens.”
“Luckily, I have an endless array of ideas, “ Jacobie joked.
“Trivia Nights” became one of their most popular event evenings. Jacobie enjoyed running it, but has taken some time off from it currently while enrolled in school. He’s going for a Bachelor’s in Economics at MTSU. His days start at the crack of dawn to get to morning classes, then mid-day he’s at the helm at BAD, then sometimes runs back out to an afternoon class before coming back to BAD and helping to run the place until closing time. “My schedule is insane, but I’m young,” Jacobie says with his characteristic twinkle in his eye and sly smile.
In the past year or so, Jacobie and David have gotten much better at knowing what works for their unique place. While Broadway and 2nd Avenue in downtown boast the honky tonks and you’ll hear cover songs galore, Back Alley Diner has capitalized on the music of original songwriters.
In fact, BAD’s “little secret” of being a great venue for Songwriter Nights on Tuesday evening has gotten out. Singer/songwriter, Kelly Murray, had a successful and long-running alternate Tuesday night show of Nashville performers (she recently gave over the reigns to Angela Hesse) and John Nemeth has been booking the other Tuesdays with his well-known “SongwritersLive” nights.
Both bring out some of the best original talent and a mix of established and emerging artists. One night you might look up from your beer to hear a famous song penned with Luke Bryan or Billy Currington (and hey it’s Nashville so not everyone even looks up at the co-writer crooning away) and the next round might showcase a talent brand new to Music City. Just last night, customers were entertained by Scott Sheets who wrote “Fire and Ice” for Pat Benatar.
BAD has a reputation for not being exactly silent during the rounds (it’s not the Bluebird…) and for most artists, they understand and go with the flow. “It’s a locals hang-out, not tourists, and they’ve been around. It’s never a hostile vibe, but you have to capture them. It’s a nice challenge, and it’s great when the crowd is with you in that room,” says singer/songwriter, Amanda Cramer, who has performed many nights at Back Alley.
Jordan, who has also been booked for the rounds there regularly for the past year, echoes those comments and claims it’s one of his favorite places to try out new work and see what reaction it gets.
One of the added bonuses of the writers’ nights with John Nemeth is the house band he provides that accompanies the songwriters sight unseen for their performances. Lee Hines, percussionist, and David Reuter, lead guitar, are usually in attendance, and help to give the performances a rich, full sound. Often the songwriters are a little stunned at how enhanced their solo work can be.
You’ll also see a lot of networking within the crowd amidst patrons, publishing people, and artists. “One of the main reasons I love playing at BAD, besides getting to accompany and connect with great artists, is that the stage area is so integrated into the rest of the room. It’s at crowd level and it makes for a very interactive and dynamic environment,” said Reuter, of Big Tent Publishing and Berklee College of Music alum.
The Olin brothers also enjoy socializing with customers (sans beer now) and often get to hear great stories about the building they own. “Some of the corporate guys who come in who are a little older talk about coming here in their younger days when it was a strip club,” says Jacobie.
“Our place had been their grandfather’s place—way back when the venue first opened in the early 1900’s and they used to help him out. It was called “The Hole in the Wall” and they’d sold hot dogs and bratwurst,” said Jacobie. The two gentlemen (in their late sixty’s) posed for pictures with their much younger counterparts. “They loved what we did with the place.”
BAD may no longer be a true “hole in the wall,” but just like that old Mel Waiters’ song by the same name…you may go in for a minute and “it’s 7 in the morning and you’re still in there!” Even though the Olin Brothers likely won’t keep it open for you all night long, get there any evening (or for lunch!) and you’ll see for yourself how BAD drinks, BAD food, and BAD service from Jacobie, David, and the rest of the amazing staff can be really GOOD for your stomach and soul! (Hula-hooping optional!)
Check out BAD’s facebook page and get links to all the activities there at: www.facebook.com/badnashville
*Sandee Gertz (Sandee Gertz Umbach) is an author and award-winning poet from Western Pennsylvania whose work focuses on working class and blue-collar themes. Her book, The Pattern Maker’s Daughter, is available at Amazon and through Bottom Dog Press (www.smithdocs.net). She is currently completing a book-length memoir about growing up with a seizure disorder in a coming of age story, entitled “Some Girls Have Auras of Bright Colors.” She has a Masters of Fine Art (MFA) from Wilkes University’s Creative Writing Program and has two sons, Jordan, who lives in Nashville, and Christian Umbach, who is a junior at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: email@example.com.
TopicsAmanda Cramer, Back Alley Diner, BAD, Billy Currington, Bluebird Cafe, David Olin, David Reuter, Downtown Nashville, Eddie Mangrum, Fire and Ice, Hula Hoop, Jacobie Olin, John Nemeth, Kelly Murray, Lee Hines, Luke Bryan, Middle Tennessee State University, MTSU, Music City, Nashville TN, Pat Benatar, Salon 615, Sarah Golden, Scott Sheets
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