St. Pete music venue Hideaway Cafe is closing, but its owner is determined to find a new location and keep it alive

The days are numbered at 1756 Central Ave.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DAVE DECKER / DESIGN BY JACK SPATAFORA
Photo by Dave Decker / Design by Jack Spatafora

When John Kelly got the news that his landlord would not renew his lease for the Hideaway Cafe & Recording Studio, he could’ve folded his tent. No one would have blamed him.

Kelly had spent well over a year in COVID hell, trying everything he could dream up to generate enough revenue to pay his bills and feed his family. During the first few months of the pandemic, when the Hideaway and similar businesses were shut down, he barely registered any revenue at all. Not surprisingly, Kelly fell behind on rent, as many live-music clubs did. He’d catch up, only to come up short again. It’s tough to make rent when your revenue is either nonexistent or a fraction of what it once was. 

And yet: the Hideaway is still open, offering live music—singer-songwriters; blues, R&B and rock acts, and more—four to five nights a week. The living room-style venue’s days are numbered, but just how many are left is an open question. Kelly is determined to find another location and keep the Hideaway alive.

“I’ve had give-up moments, when I said, ‘fuck it,’” Kelly said in a phone interview in mid-October. “But I’m not that guy. I love people. I love music. I love putting on the shows. I’ve got to press on with this.”

So, no, John Kelly is not folding his tent. And for anyone who’s been to the Hideaway—or values music played by real people, on real instruments, up close, through a pristine, studio-quality sound system—that is very good news. 

Even in its best days, running the venue on the corner of Central Avenue and 18th Street in St. Pete came with struggles. As it turned out, presenting live music several nights a week in a 100-capacity room with low admission prices was not a ticket to ride. But Kelly thrives on it. His many hats include booking the acts, running sound, engineering occasional studio sessions during the day, cleaning up, and whatever else needs doing. He has maintained a small, dedicated staff of bartenders and servers, and over the years has employed several talented sound engineers. It’s been a massive undertaking, but Kelly has kept the Hideaway humming in its current location for a dozen years. 

When the pandemic hit, Kelly instituted responsible protocols such as spacing the tables—which trimmed capacity to 80—encouraging masks and distancing, and opening two large doors so people could catch the music at tables outside. He cut way back on ticketed events and staged free shows, anything he could drum up to get people in the door and bring in dollars. Plus, “At key points, we were helped a lot by donations from angels, Hideaway supporters,” Kelly revealed.

Kelly also credits the musicians, “who worked for peanuts,” he said. A large tip jar stood on a table just in front of the stage. 

Still, Kelly has been in pure skin-of-your-teeth survival mode for a year and a half. It was in September that the landlord, Nader Lofti, told him he’d have to clear out when the lease ends next May. Kelly said that he was not offered the opportunity to re-up, even at a higher monthly rate. Closing down, he said, “is devastating. I love this room.”

According to public records, Lofti and William G. Thelen own several properties in St. Pete, including two small, adjoining storefronts in the 2300 block of Central Avenue. Lofti, Thelen and Kamyar Kadivar purchased the 7,000-square-foot Hideaway property in 2016 for $910,000. They list their address as a post office box in Washington, D.C.

Kelly does not know what the landlords have in store for the building. “It’s really not my concern,” he said.

The Hideaway’s near future consists of three basic scenarios:

  • Kelly can operate in the current location until the lease expires.
  • Kelly has been in talks with the landlord about possibly breaking his lease and relocating earlier if he finds a new location that suits his purposes. 
  • Kelly can be evicted if he fails to make a rent payment on time.

Stressful? Very.

“The landlord was patient, I have to say,” Kelly allowed. “It wasn’t like we talked a lot, and I think on his end he probably said, ‘I’m done with this.’ He probably knows he can get a lot more money. I just wish we’d had the conversation about if we could [renew] or not. We never did, and that’s more my fault than his.”

Kelly is toiling to keep the current Hideaway open while scouting for a new space. He recently found one that got him “really excited.” Kelly declined to reveal the exact building but said it’s in Old Southeast, is larger than the current Hideaway, and is ideal for his purposes. He hopes to turn the space into something similar to what he has now: a cozy, pristine listening room that doubles as a recording studio.

Landing the new spot is no sure thing. While the long-vacant building is zoned commercial, city codes that could require major changes that Kelly can’t afford. “I just don’t know,” he said of the likelihood that he’ll occupy his chosen space. “I’m hoping. I’m optimistic.” 

If the desired new location doesn’t pan out, Kelly said he’ll find another. He has a realtor friend hunting places and, when time allows, he stops by to look them over.

Kelly clawed his way through the deepest summer doldrums of August and September. Recently, business has picked up. He can’t predict how long the present Hideaway location will remain open. “I’ll keep looking for a new space, and in the meantime I hope people come out and see some of the great shows we have lined up,” he said. “That’ll make it less stressful to maintain operations for the months we still have.”

This story was originally conceived as an obituary of sorts. Thankfully, it’s not that. Regardless, a few tributes to the soon-to-be-gone Hideaway and Kelly’s contribution seem in order.

click to enlarge John Kelly is toiling to keep the current Hideaway open while scouting for a new space. He recently found one that got him “really excited.” Kelly declined to reveal the exact building but said it’s in Old Southeast, is larger than the current Hideaway, and is ideal for his purposes. He hopes to turn the space into something similar to what he has now: a cozy, pristine listening room that doubles as a recording studio. - DAVE DECKER
Dave Decker
John Kelly is toiling to keep the current Hideaway open while scouting for a new space. He recently found one that got him “really excited.” Kelly declined to reveal the exact building but said it’s in Old Southeast, is larger than the current Hideaway, and is ideal for his purposes. He hopes to turn the space into something similar to what he has now: a cozy, pristine listening room that doubles as a recording studio.

Cue the heartfest testimonials. 

Me first.

I don’t exactly recall the first time I attended a show at The Hideaway, but it was a few years ago and I suspect it featured my friend Ed Woltil, one of the Bay area’s foremost singer/songwriter/guitarists. I was instantly charmed by the room: lived-in couches and simple tables strewn about; a low stage, but a stage nonetheless; an acoustic piano on that stage, rare for a small venue. A nice wooden bar along the wall opposite the bandstand that served craft beers and wine. Unobtrusive table service. 

Then the music began. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that the quality of the sound left me gobsmacked. Ed wasn’t up there by himself with an acoustic guitar and a microphone; he had a four-piece band.

I’ve been to several Hideaway shows over the years, and now wish I’d been to many more. 

The most memorable one was in the summer of 2020. COVID had eased and people were starting to crawl out from their caves. I called Kelly and he ran down his health and safety protocols. I was more than satisfied. My friend David accompanied me to see Kirk Adams, another highly talented singer/songwriter/guitarist, on a Friday night. Kirk was joined by a bassist, drummer and local guitar legend Steve Connelly. The gig started early, around 7 p.m. David and I sat at a four-top about 10 feet from the stage. No one was within six feet. We removed our masks. And basked.

I can still conjure up the elation from that night. We stayed for both long sets. The band was on, Connelly played as if possessed, the mix of originals and covers was engaging from start to finish. The playing was loose—Connelly said he only knew a few of the tunes—but just tight enough. The PA got loud but not too loud. The music reached a thrilling crescendo, like great shows should. 

In all, it was a heavenly night amid COVID hell.

Note: Some of the quotes below were taken from interviews prior to my talking with Kelly. The interviewees did not know at the time that Kelly planned to open in another space. 

Ed Woltil

“[The Hideaway closing] is a huge loss because the place is so unique. The venue is unique and John is unique. He’s a musician himself and has the tech savvy to put together a great-sounding space, but he’s also unique in that he has real empathy and understanding of what the musicians go through.

“John has been tenacious in hanging in there, and all along showed a commitment to keeping the room alive, and with a community feeling. For me and the people in my sphere, that’s priceless.

It was always one of my favorite places to play, if not my favorite. All you had to do was go up on stage and play. Never had to worry about glitches or struggle with monitor sounds. Sometimes those kinds of problems can throw you off. John always had it dialed in on stage and out front, so we got to focus on creating genuine musical moments. That does not always happen, but it almost always did at The Hideaway. 

“One cool thing that would happen: Oftentimes after the show, when most of the people had cleared out, we’d come off the stage and be hanging around. I, or someone else, would sit on one of those couches with an acoustic guitar and we’d start an impromptu acoustic jam. A couple of other people would play and sing. John would join in. We might call out Beatles songs. There would be an audience of five or six people who had hung around. Those were special moments.”

Ed Woltil (L) and Steve Connelly. - ROB VESSENMEYER
ROB VESSENMEYER
Ed Woltil (L) and Steve Connelly.

Christie Lenee, world-class acoustic guitarist and singer, a Tampa native who lives in Asheville, North Carolina

“The Hideaway is my home venue when I’m down there. All my family and close friends come out and it’s always a sweet experience. John feels like a brother to me, and it just really feels like family there.

“I’ve traveled and performed in many countries and John’s sound system is better than any place that I’ve played. I can hear myself really well, and the fact that the audience is hearing what I’m hearing—which is not always the case in venues—feels like we’re all inside of the music together. 

“The stage is elevated just a little bit, and it makes me feel completely connected to the audience. I like that I can see everyone, make eye contact. The lights are good, not too bright, and the fact that I can remain level with the people is important to me. It makes me feel like ‘we’re all here together.’

“The love that John has put into that space really resonates in my soul the moment I walk in there.”

Kirk Adams

“The Hideaway closing is a real shame. For me, it provided a tremendous opportunity to do my own music, as well as see local artists do the same. I grew as an artist there. I got to refine my songs, develop as an entertainer on stage. It was inspirational for me and other musicians to get the regular opportunity to play our own stuff. In most other places, it’s the other way around: you have to sneak in a few originals in between cover songs.

“I had a Friday night residency there, and it gave me the opportunity to play with guest artists [usually guitarists] in a band setting, and in a lot of cases the music would evolve on the spot. That really helped me improve. There was the magic of playing with great musicians.

“The place was set up for people to pay attention to the music. It can be nerve-wracking to play when people are at the bar and it’s really loud with conversation. The people who come to the place understand that they are there for a listening experience. It isn’t like you can hear a pin drop, but the people are respectful and genuinely interested in what you have to play.

“I think a lot of people forget that so many musicians started out testing their songwriting aspirations at the open mic nights. 

“When [The Hideaway] closes, there is nothing to replace it. There’s no place like it. It’s that simple.”

[kelly photo with patron]

Ronnie Dee, musician, leader of Ronnie Dee & The Superstars

“I really hope they can reopen, because it is hands-down the most support I have ever received as an artist from a club owner and venue. At our first show there, I asked John if people really get “shushed”? Would he do the shushing? He put his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye with that boyish grin and proudly stated, ‘the crowd will do the shushing, count on it! They want to hear you.’”

This dude even fed us after the show a few times, stuff that was not on the menu, food that he just made for what he called a “family dinner”!

Tom DeGeorge, owner of Crowbar in Ybor City and a tireless advocate for independent, live-music venues during the pandemic 

“If you want a real musical experience in the realm of the old MTV Unplugged, you know you can see something like that at The Hideaway. Other places tried to do that during COVID, but John had cornered the market.

“It’s a true venue for the artist. Almost every local artist I’ve talked to, Will Quinlan, Shawn Kyle and the like, talked about it all the time—how important it was for new artists, that it was a place to go where people would pay attention and the artists could be an honest version of themselves. They were able to establish a real connection with the audience. You don’t get that at too many other places. 

“I don’t know the particulars about The Hideaway, but what we’re seeing here locally and all over the country is a movement toward gentrification and development. When the pandemic hit, decisions were made to shut down small businesses—but the big boxes stayed open. While we were closed, we were fighting to pay our bills, and then development accelerated. Our business sector became even more vulnerable to developers looking to grab up properties and turn them into large, multi-use projects.

“To me, The Hideaway should have never been put in this situation in the first place. When are people going to wake up and realize that we can’t live in a country where every single place you go for music or food or other parts of work, meet and play are devoid of stand-alone mom-and-pop businesses? That sure seems like the way we’re trending.”

One last thing, Kelly already has a name for the new location: The Hideaway Cafe.

Have a look at the remaining show schedule as of Nov. 8, then head to 1756 Central Ave. in St. Pete as often as you can until the end.

  • The Burke Brothers Nov. 13. 8 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.) $10.
  • Bryan Elijah w/ Gia Ray Nov. 20. 8 p.m. (doors at 6 p.m.) $10.
  • An Acoustic Evening with Jeff Coffey (formerly of Chicago) Dec. 14. 8 p.m. (VIP doors at 5:15 p.m., 6 p.m. GA). $25+$45.

Support local journalism in these crazy days. Our small but mighty team works tirelessly to share music news, events and concert announcements as the Tampa Bay music scene recovers from coronavirus shutdowns. Please consider making a one time or monthly donation to help support our staff. Every little bit helps.

Follow @cl_tampabay on Twitter and subscribe to our newsletter.