Rocksport Bar and Grill co-owner Darren Ahlf poses at their S.W. Alaska entrance, ready to greet customers as he has for the past 17 years. Rocksport will close their doors after a farewell party on July 13 and 14. PLEASE CLICK THE IMAGE ABOVE FOR MORE.
SLIDESHOW: Rocksport Bar & Grill making their last call after 17 years
It was 1995 when Darren Ahlf, a 30-year-old bartender and lounge manager at Salty’s on Alki, took a deep breath and met with Frank Holert about renting a vacant bank at 4209 S.W. Alaska and turning it into a bar and grill called Rocksport.
“Oh, Frank Holert won’t give you the time of day,” Ahlf’s real estate agent told him before the meeting. “He’s a cantankerous old man.”
Ahlf had dreamed of starting up his own business since the age of 21, saw a future in that location (at a time when the Junction was not nearly as robust), and came to then 80-year-old Holert with his plan to create something more than a tavern. He presented his vision for good food, prime sports viewing, a stage for rock-n-roll and a family-friendly atmosphere.
“Have you ever owned a business?” Holert asked.
“No,” Ahlf replied.
“Do you have any money?”
Somehow, Holert was sold on the young man’s plan and gave him a shot … with one stipulation: “The only thing Holert was concerned about was (that we put in) nice restrooms because, ‘If and when you go out of business, somebody else will come in here,’” Ahlf recalled.
17 years later, co-owners Darren Ahlf and Dan and Shannon Beeman, their 20-plus employees and a sea of loyal customers will say goodbye to the Rocksport Bar and Grill with a farewell bash on July 13 and 14.
PLEASE CLICK THE IMAGE ABOVE FOR MORE
The end comes as a result of development, with Chicago-based Equity Residential’s plan to demolish the southeast corner of the Alaska Junction and replace it with a two-building, seven-story apartment/retail complex. The project was originally developer Charlie Conner’s, but he sold to Equity for $11.4 million at the end of 2011. Equity has sent letters out to existing tenants letting them know they need to be out by the end of July.
Long days and a vision
Ahlf and three friends/business partners chipped in on the business and, all equipped with mullet haircuts, set off on their nine month journey to turn a bank into a bar.
The safe was converted into a walk-in cooler; they built their own tables and did their own plumbing, electrical, and duct work: all from the ground up. Ahlf’s daily routine was dropping his nine-month-old son off at a relative’s home (sometimes he got to come to work with Dad), working on the bar from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., grabbing a quick shower at Alki Beach, and working at Salty’s from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. Rinse and repeat.
Per Holert’s instruction, they made sure the bathrooms were pristine (something Ahlf takes pride in even today), and opened their doors to the public in March. West Seattle Herald writer Tim St. Clair was there for the opening and Ahlf asked at the time, “What are the staples of life? For men, there’s beer, sports, food …”
“And women,” business partner Ron Jensen chimed in.
That was their formula, and one that took immediately as Rocksport became a favorite destination for West Seattleites and beyond.
“The best part about this business for me is I have a son (who just graduated high school at Timberline as the valedictorian) and a daughter (who has a 4.0 GPA) and this place has given me the opportunity to be involved in my kids’ lives and it’s paid off,” Ahlf said.
Next, his staff. Ahlf takes pride in the family of employees he’s created, many of them with him for 13 to 14 years. Cook Jesus Garnica has been working at Rocksport since the very beginning, helping out with the construction before they even opened.
And last but not least, his customers.
“The dedication the West Seattle community has shown to me, to this business and my staff has been incredible,” he said. “West Seattle is a small town within a city and the loyalty and repeat business we have … there are a lot of old school people who won’t spend their money anywhere else.”
Several married couples met at Rocksport, Ahlf recalls, including his longtime DJ Tony B (Tony Balogh) and his wife Jenn.
“Lots of couples that met here have gotten married,” Jenn said. “That’s why I cried for a week when I got the news.”
Ahlf also looks back fondly on chipping in for local charities over the years and the entertainment he brought to West Seattle as a gathering spot for sporting events, citywide karaoke destination, a good meal and live music. His standout bands include “Subset,” a combo-show put on by Sir-Mix-a-Lot and the Presidents of the United States of America, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. And then there was the time the Cleveland Indians were in town and shortstop legend Omar Vizquel jumped on stage to play some guitar with Magic Bus.
The toughest decision
“Everyone is disheartened we are closing and want to know why we aren’t reopening elsewhere,” Ahlf said. “It’s a big endeavor man, at my age, if I thought I was going to do it over again I don’t know if I could do it.”
Once it became clear Rocksport would either have to move or shut down with the impending demolition, Ahlf said he weighed many options and looked at all the available locations, including the former Chuck and Sally’s near Morgan Junction and the old Blockbuster in Admiral.
“The deal is, I think we were very fortunate,” he said. “We worked hard and we were lucky to create and establish a place that had a good feel, that felt like home, that people felt comfortable in, but I don’t know if you roll the dice that you are going to succeed or have that same atmosphere. It’s not going to be the same thing.
“The outpouring and concern, the support has been overwhelming and it has brought me to tears a couple of times. The support we have felt and the love we have felt has been enormous and the staff members I have, the family …,” his comment trailed off with the rise of emotion.
Ahlf tried to contact Equity Residential several times to find out if he could stay put and become part of the new development, but he said the Chicago firm has not returned a single call. The only communication has been that letter saying he needs to be out by the end of the month.
A symbol of transition
Rocksport’s end is emblematic of the changes that have and will continue to come with the development of the Junction and California Ave. corridor.
In a way, it was the reason Ahlf wanted to open Rocksport at that location in the first place.
“When we opened 40 percent of the storefronts in the Junction were empty,” he said. “We made a shirt a few years back that said, ‘We put the function in the Junction.’ That’s why we opened this place; we knew it was going to come.”
While Equity hasn’t returned calls from the Herald regarding a construction timeline and what kind of retail (big box vs. local) they plan to lease to, Ahlf and Geoff Abdian with Suite Arrangements said the writing on the wall looks like a corporate logo.
“It is noteworthy … that when commercial leasing rates for a new facility are double or triple what Junction businesses have been paying, it is likely that only large chains, such as Starbucks or California Pizza Kitchen, or similarly well-established businesses, will be able to afford the space,” Abdian said recently.
“Here comes the Chicago company and there is no concern about what the community wants, in my opinion,” Ahlf said. “It’s going to be Belltown, and it’s about the dollars and cents.”
Farewell party and an auction
Rocksport will hold a Farewell Party on July 13 and 14, coinciding nicely with West Seattle Summer Fest in the Junction. Hell’s Belles, “The World’s Greatest All Female AC/DC Tribute,” who played one of their very first shows at Rocksport, will play both nights at 8:30 p.m. Ahlf said a final Rocksport t-shirt thanking the community for their support over the years will also be available.
Starting at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, July 24, Rocksport will hold a public auction to sell off nearly everything, including audio and visual equipment, sports and rock memorabilia, and bar and kitchen equipment.
Visit their website, www.rocksport.net, for more details.
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