The Nightcap: The building of Heart and Dagger Saloon
on December 2, 2011
Allison and Erik Sadauskas were determined to own a bar. They were married to each other, but worked in different bars, in Alameda and San Francisco. Each had been a bartender for more than a decade. They figured the only way to make a steady living was to own their own place, which launched a two-year search that took them to potential establishments all over the Bay Area.
Finally, they found a place to open the kind of bar they thought Oakland needed—an unpretentious “beer and a shot” kind of place, Erik Sadauskas said, with a jukebox that plays only rock ‘n’ roll music. The building they settled on was in an ideal neighborhood—Grand Lake—right down the block from the theater. The nearby stores and restaurants would help drive up the foot traffic, they thought.
They also loved the patio in the backyard. “There’s so little outdoor real estate (in Oakland) when it comes to outdoor real estate for a drinking patio or beer garden,” Erik Sadauskas said. “So that was very attractive to us.”
In November 2009, the Sadauskases signed a lease to open Heart and Dagger Saloon on Lake Park Avenue. The couple commemorated the deal by getting matching tattoos of a dagger driving through a heart – he on his forearm, she on the back of her calf. “We figured it’s our first business, so if it fails or succeeds, we’ll still have great memories,” Allison Sadauskas said.
“Take pride in giving it a shot,” Erik Sadauskas chimed in.
But they had no idea what kind of clean-up effort they were in for. The place was a mess.
“Basically, we had to re-do all the guts, everything from electrical, to plumbing, sewage, including the exterior. We refaced the whole outside,” Erik Sadauskas said.
They also had to make friends with the neighbors, many of whom had tired of the establishment previously located there. For decades, the building, which looks like a big house, had been home to a jazz and blues bar called “the Serenader.” The bar has an odd floor plan—an awkward U shape with a small stage right in front of the main entrance in the middle of the room, a bar and poolroom on either side of the stage, and bathrooms behind it. Toward the back of the room there’s a door that leads to a large outdoors patio space with a concrete floor.
The Serenader was acquired in 2004 by owners who had no intention of keeping it a bar – they envisioned replacing it with condos, and when that plan didn’t work, a McDonalds. Meanwhile, the place slowly fell apart. “Without any on-site management, without anyone to put any TLC in the business, they basically let it go,” Allison Sadauskas said. “Staff didn’t care about it. Nobody cleaned.”
The couple was so determined to make the move to becoming proprietors, rather than the employees behind the bar, that they swallowed hard and went for it.
“We agreed to take care of (the owners’) headaches,” Allison Sadauskas said. Standing near his wife, at the end of the bar at Heart and Dagger, her husband added, “We agreed to clean up the mess.”
There was a lot to do. “We had to replace everything,” Erik Sadauskas said, as he flipped through a binder of photos the couple took of the clean-up effort that they now keep behind the bar. “We’re talking leaky pipes, mold.”
The photos illustrate a sagging mess, and a happy, smiling couple. “There was mold everywhere, the smell was horrendous, there were wires hanging around everywhere,” Allison Sadauskas said, looking at the photos.
“Yeah, we had to re-wire the whole place too,” Erik Sadauskas said.
“It’s a lot easier to say what we didn’t do,” he added, as his wife began to laugh.
The Sadauskases spent three and a half months transforming the place themselves, as well as getting some help from friends to help clean, sand, paint, and do yard work. “We would entice our friends to come by offering pizza parties and beer,” Allison Sadauskas said.
They painted over the turquoise outside with gray, and replaced the dirty old carpet inside with a tiled linoleum floor. They moved in classic video games, like pinball machines, and newer pool table. They decorated the place with movie posters from classic horror films, posters rock shows the couple attended in The City, and old beer trays Erik started collecting on eBay. They brought in vintage cash registers, and decided to maintain cash-only service because they hated dealing with how slow credit cards took when they worked in bars themselves. They moved flowerpots, picnic tables and ashtrays into the backyard, as well as the old “Serenaders” sign from out front, which they light up at night.
Now Heart and Dagger fills up mostly with young people who like to smoke and drink in the back area; and neighbors, some of the same ones who’d become tired of their predecessor and had expressed high skepticism about the new owners’ ability to keep things orderly. The Sadauskases seem to have won them over; they say they have received only positive feedback from those that live nearby, and they haven’t received a complaint yet.
When Heart and Dagger opened, either Allison or Erik was behind the bar every night. Now, because they have a baby son born in August, their time at the bar is much more limited. And even though it took a lot of time and hard work, they both said that things couldn’t have worked out better. They own a successful bar designed in their own style.
“We’re just a neighborhood bar,” Erik Sadauskas said, “with a little rock ‘n’ roll flair.”
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