Ownership of The Ottobar, the gritty, beloved N. Howard Street rock club, is staying in house.
Head bartender Tecla Tesnau is buying the venue from the current owners, Michael Bowen, Craig Boarman and Brian DeRan, ensuring that the Ottobar–named one of the 10 best live music venues in the country by Rolling Stone–remains in local hands.
WTMD’s Sam Sessa was first to report the news.
Speaking with Baltimore Fishbowl, Tesnau, who’s worked at the Ottobar since it opened at 203 E. Davis St. in 1997, said the ownership transition will likely happen in late summer or early fall.
As the news continued to bounce around social media, Tesnau said “the outpouring of love and support has been surprising, tremendous and a skosh overwhelming, but in the best possible way.”
The club’s current owners celebrated their successor in a statement posted this morning.
“We can’t tell you all how excited and proud we are to have the opportunity to continue the Ottobar tradition – providing Baltimore with the same great quality entertainment it has championed for over 20 years.”
Emphasizing her propensity for collaboration, Tesnau said she has already reached out to several community leaders–and hopes to hear from many more–about making the Ottobar an even more welcoming venue.
“I want to garner more ideas about how we can make the Ottobar more inclusive,” she said. “We already are, but I want to be even more inclusive.”
That could mean having different types of programming, such as more drag nights or literary events.
The Ottobar, she said, is as close to a DIY venue as a fully licensed above-ground space can be, and mom-and-pop operations like it are disappearing around the country. In other words, she has no intentions of making it more corporate.
“I’m not interested in that,” she said. “I’m interested in continuing to make this a spot for the Baltimore creative community to hang out and showcase how awesome they are. Because we are awesome. The creative community in Baltimore is friendly and next-level amazing.”
As for the physical space, it will remain the same, save for perhaps a scrub down of the bathrooms.
The Ottobar hit the market last November with an asking price of $1.25 million. The current ownership group said at the time it wanted a buyer or group of buyers that would “preserve the integrity and carry on the tradition of being one of Baltimore’s premier music venues.”
Nevertheless, there was plenty of anxiety over The Ottobar’s fate after the news got out. Those concerns were not unfounded. Several offers came along, Tesnau said, but there was never anything serious in place. Bowen, Boarman and DeRan discussed closing the bar by the end of the summer if something didn’t materialize.
Since the announcement of the sale, employees talked about what-ifs and how great it would be to buy the bar together or how it would be nice if someone cool came along to make a purchase. But when closing seemed more tangible, it was time to get serious.
“I decided I couldn’t let that happen if it was at all possible for me to make the Ottobar continue as it has,” she said.
A relative had set aside a little money with a goal of getting Tesnau into her own bar. With that backing in place, Bowen got Tesnau in touch with a broker to help secure a loan to finance the rest.
Sessa, WTMD’s Baltimore music coordinator, said news of the sale is a huge relief for local music fans. It would have been easy for Bowen, Boarman and DeRan to cash in, but they didn’t.
“With Remington blowing up the past few years, Mike Bowen and The Ottobar’s other owners could have easily sold the club to real estate developers and had it turned into condos,” he said. “But with Tecla in charge, The Ottobar will still be here for years to come. This is the best possible outcome for one of Baltimore’s best clubs.”
Now that she’s owner, and The Ottobar is joining the ranks of several other successful businesses run by women in the area, Tesnau said she hopes other women and minority entrepreneurs will see Baltimore as a welcoming place for their ideas.
The environment for that kind of organic growth could be a good boost for a city badly in need of one, she said.
Reflecting on her time at the Ottobar, Tesnau recalled how she was working at a Hollins Street eatery called Sushi Cafe when Bowen approached her about, well, how to actually run the bar part of this music venue and bar he was planning to open–what would eventually become a hub for musicians and artists to perform or just grab a drink.
She’s been working there ever since, including the two times she tended bar while pregnant.
“The Ottobar is also my baby,” she said. “Not just my kids.”
This story has been updated.