Creating a New Spot in Oaktown

Sky Wegman - 83 Proof, Hopwater Distribution, Oakland Recreation Club

Sky Wegman is not a new face in the Bay Area. With successful concepts 83 Proof, Dogpatch Saloon and Hopwater Distribution in his resume, he’s been in San Francisco for nearly 20 years.

Switching gears to focus on the East Bay, local Oakland residents and visitors alike will have him to thank for their new favorite watering hole when Oakland Rec Club (ORC) opens later this year. Pulling from the best elements at his prior businesses, Wegman is creating a unique business ideal for the growing Uptown neighborhood. Housed in a two-story 1920s-era building, the retro-rustic space will offer lunch dining along with an evening lounge vibe complete with pool tables and shuffleboard.

Not only are Sky’s design and menu decisions based on the community in which he is building his new business, but his funding choices are also influenced by his desire to connect more directly with the folks who will eventually become his customers. Instead of relying on traditional loans, he chose to partner with NextSeed and develop an investment campaign that allows everyone to invest in ORC directly and participate in its growth.

We sat down with Sky to learn more about how he developed the idea for ORC and what it will mean to the Oakland community.

Why and how did you get into hospitality? What key events in your life led you to your current profession?

I went to college at the University of Washington up in Seattle, but I didn’t have a very career-focused field of study. After I graduated in 1998 I moved back to the Oakland area to reconnect with friends for the summer. While I was there I fell into a position as a bar back at Johnny Loves, bouncing around to a few other places and putting money aside. I followed this path for about seven years, in and around the East Bay.

After seven years, an ownership opportunity came up at a bar in San Francisco, taking over an old dive bar in the financial district. After that, I expanded to additional ownership opportunities around San Francisco.

Who has really helped you along the way?

My initial business partner, Chris Barry. I wouldn’t have made it anywhere in this industry without that guy. He brought me into the fold of 83 Proof, our first bar. He and his extended family have all been so helpful and among the kindest people I know. I owe my livelihood to that guy.

How is opening Oakland Rec Club different from opening your prior businesses?

I see this business as pulling together the more functional bits of the previous spots where I was either an owner or an employee. For example, bringing in successful elements like games, killer spirits lists, craft beer and neighborhood vibes. ORC will be different from each of those prior individual spots, but I am drawing on those successful experiences and observations to make a nice comprehensive package for the community.

How did you settle on Oakland for this particular business and in turn how do you feel the business will complement the town?

I’ve lived in East Bay on and off for about 15 years and I am excited to be working on a project so close to home. I also think that ORC is something that Oakland wants because there’s no exact comparable business within the city limits. The next closest spots that offer a similar experience are two cities away. I want to bring the game and drink and food under one roof so people don’t have to travel for that.

Additionally, neighborhood-wise, this venue falls in the Uptown area of Oakland that is just exploding right now. There are concert venues, art galleries, beer gardens, retail, real estate and bars along with new residential buildings. The neighborhood is great, and if it manages to not lose sight of itself I think the complete array of services and entertainment will keep all the nearby residents happy and entertained. There’s been a big push to develop Oakland for a while and while it’s been slow moving in some parts it’s really taking off now.

With the addition of the game tables, I could see the mood/vibe of the bar shifting significantly between lunch and evening. How would you describe your expectations for the sort of experience guests should have as the venue morphs from day time lunch to evening activity?

We’ll have a good lunch service for the business crowd and then close for a few hours before reopening in the evening, which will help define the distinction. Kids will be allowed at daytime, for example, but at nighttime less so. I wouldn’t anticipate the upstairs game area to be open during the day at lunchtime but when we reopen in the evening all the doors will be open, the space will take on a different feel and the music will change.

Will you use décor and visuals to help with the distinction between daytime and evening?

When you first walk in the place downstairs, I want to have a look and feel that’s different from what else is out there right now.  I’m focusing on a 70s throwback nostalgic feel using elements like interesting tile and custom painting decorations. The upstairs, where the pool tables will be, lends itself to more of an industrial space thanks to existing exposed concrete walls, large glass windows and other rustic elements, so I plan to keep those features there. The space lends itself to a pretty good industrial chic décor, but that style is so popular now and sort of overplayed, so I’m trying to get away from that some and go in a different direction.

What guiding principles do you follow when approaching your work?

I’m selling fun so my heart is to treat it as such. I’ve seen a lot of unnecessary attitude in this industry — there’s too much of an “us against them” kind of mindset sometimes. I try to approach everything with a smile. Providing that level of customer service and trying to be good natured and happy with everyone would be my biggest guiding principle when it comes to work.

What helped you commit to the crowdfunding concept for ORC? What made the concept of crowdfunding enticing?

It takes on a few different levels. It can be a great source for the start up cash because it’s tied to a promotional scene. Additionally, it can help get the name of the business out to the public in advance of opening to help connect the business to the community and customers before it even opens.

Is this the first time you have used crowdfunding for a business?

It is. I’m usually more traditional with my investment route but I think the last time we did a build out I don’t think crowdfunding was where it is today. I think NextSeed specifically has been great because it’s somewhere between a bank and crowdfunding. They heavily vet the businesses and review reports with accountants to assure the viability with the business. I think there’s a lot more safety in their offering than a lot of what’s out there right now.

Why is it important to engage the local community?

The town is growing quickly and a lot of people are finding themselves priced out of their long-term homes and neighborhoods. It’s vital to both my business and to the city that I do my part to support the existing culture and not just take advantage of big business and money coming in. I plan on offering space for fundraisers in support of local community needs and creating event space. I think these efforts add an air of good will, bring customers in, and add interest in a way that is good for the community and makes people happy. I feel like that’s how it needs to be in this town now.

How do you unwind and relax?

It’s changed so much over time. When I first started with the ownership thing, it was 10 years ago and I was a different person. I’d get off a 90-hour work week and veg on the computer looking at motorcycle parts. Since then it’s evolved into a fascination with fancy whisky and just settling down and unwinding after a shift at home. Now I’m in my mid-forties and I have 5-year-old daughter. I’m more aware of my life and health and longevity. I run a lot and it really helps me unwind and put me at ease. It sounds so cliché to say exercise but it’s just something that seems to work for me. There’s a park in the hills of Berkeley where I like to run. It’s my favorite place to go for sure.

What’s your favorite Disney movie?

When I was a kid it would have been The Fox & the Hound. As an adult I don’t usually look forward to going to animated movies but then I usually wind up being happily surprised for whatever reason. So if we can bring Pixar into the fold, Inside Out kind of stuck with me.


Check out Sky’s campaign for Oakland Rec Club on NextSeed.