H.G. Rooster’s in West Palm Beach may have partially burnt down, but it’s clear its heart still beats strong.
On May 19, a major fire destroyed the kitchen and parts of the roof at the iconic LGBT bar on Belvedere Road. It was determined by the fire marshal to be accidental – likely starting in a pile of soiled rags.
The bar was closed at the time of the fire. Owner A.J. Wasson got a call from his manager, David Zen, at 2 a.m.
“I was in bed. My husband asked: ‘What are you going to do?’ and I immediately said: ‘I have no choice; I have to rebuild.’ I knew I had to rebuild. If I have to sell my house, sell any real estate – I’ll do what I have to do,” Wasson said.
But the situation quickly got more complicated when it was revealed that the bar’s insurance policy had lapsed in April.
Wasson said when the policy was due to expire; his agent said it would be $25,000 to be paid upfront – a huge lump sum to renew. Roosters was already closed because of COVID-19, so Wasson decided to use the money he had on hand to keep paying his eight full-time employees instead.
“I’ve got eight children and they have to eat and pay the bills and rent,” Wasson said. “They work off of tips.”
Roosters qualified for the federal government’s PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan, which helped with some of the payroll costs, he said.
But after an initial estimate that the rebuilding of the kitchen and roof would cost about $300,000 and take three-to-six months – more damage was discovered at the bar.
“There is smoke and water damage throughout,” Wasson said. “It’s irreparable. We’re just keeping the shell now and taking it back to bare bones. All new – everything. We might be able to save the floor.”
He said the main mahogany bar should be able to be salvaged as well. But the new estimate for repairs to the 2,700 square foot building is now up to $543,000.
“We were hoping for three to six months [to reopen] and I don’t know whether that’s moved at all or not,” Wasson said. “One of the variables we don’t know about is the permitting process.”
Back of Kitchen with the roof collapsed. Photo provided by A.J. Wasson.
LGBT heart, soul
Roosters is referred to as iconic, because it is. Before there was a Compass Community Center, there was an ad hoc Roosters Community Center. It’s long been a place where people congregate and meet with friends.
“Roosters was the original LGBT center here in Palm Beach County. They’ve been helping LGBT people and those living with HIV/AIDS long before Compass was around,” said Julie Seaver, executive director of Compass. “I don’t even know if we would have a Compass without the people that started Roosters. It’s just so heartbreaking. I am sure they will prevail. They will rebuild.”
Its operation since 1984, it’s one of Florida’s oldest LGBT bars and the oldest in Palm Beach County. It’s been in operation since 1984. Wasson has been with the bar on and off from the beginning and has owned it since 2006.
Roosters was helping LGBT people and those living with HIV/AIDS long before Compass was around.
Customers refer to it as the heart and soul of the LGBT community in the Palm Beaches – a lifesaver for many over the years.
Immediately after the fire, a bright side to all the challenges began to emerge. Wasson said the response to the fire continues to be “mind-blowing.”
“There is so much love and support out there for us to reopen,” he said.
A GoFundMe page – “We Are Roosters” – was quickly set up by Rooster’s entertainment director Melissa St. John, to raise funds to help rebuild. The donations rolled in early and often, and at press time more than 320 supporters had pledged almost $57,000 of a $100,000 goal.
Roosters has had quick support from both its customers and city and county officials.
“The city [of West Palm Beach] has been absolutely wonderful,” Wasson said. “Often when you deal with city officials the answer is no. So far I’ve never heard the word no; it’s always – let’s see how we can make this happen.”
Part of the process of rebuilding is permitting, and part of it is securing a small business loan to cover the increasing costs to rebuild.
“The county is helping us to try and acquire a small business loan,” Wasson said. “I sometimes feel that they want us to open as badly as we want to open.”
Fundraising efforts didn’t stop with the GoFundMe campaign, either. On June 28, a gathering was organized by Wasson’s friend and Roosters customer, Chris Rhoades, at West Palm’s Petanque Kitchen & Bar. It was held in its outdoor spaces with lots of social distancing and hand sanitizer.
At press time, Wasson didn’t yet know how much money was raised at the event.
Photo provided by A.J. Wasson.
Tears of joy
The day after the fire was put out, Wasson went to Roosters to start cleaning up. He said the bar area was dreadful, horrific. Everything was black and covered in yucky, greasy soot.
The front door has a slot for mail and all of it was black, too. But there was one clean, white envelope on the pile that had to have been put through the slot sometime after firefighters had extinguished the blaze just hours before.
“I opened it and there was a note that said: ‘Dear Roosters, I’ve never been to your bar before, but I know how much it means to our community. Please accept this donation to help you rebuild,’” Wasson recalled while tearing up.
There was a $50 check with the note.
“All we hear is how hellacious people are today and we never feel the love,” Wasson said. “I wrote the guy back and said how much it meant to me, that the timing couldn’t have been better.”
The tears started up again after another person who had never been to the bar donated $100.
Meanwhile, Wasson and his staff wanted to do something for the firefighters who spent hours with a challenging fire that was tough to extinguish. So they got some meals together for the firefighters and took them to the fire station a couple times.
Soon after, Jayson French with the West Palm Beach Firefighters Association got Wasson on the phone.
“He wanted to say how much our kindness meant to him and all the other firefighters. He said they’d gotten together and pooled some money to make a donation toward the rebuilding costs,” Wasson said.
The amount was $9,000 and the firefighters had an oversized rainbow colored check made for a ceremony at the station July 2.
“This is money out of their own pockets,” Wasson said through more tears. “To see this kind of love, it’s completely overwhelming. The most overwhelming thing about all of this has been the love.”
Same bar, new look
Wasson said when Roosters reopens; customers can expect some changes – good ones.
The bar historically hasn’t served food, even though it had the ability to do so with the (now destroyed) kitchen.
“We’re a bar, we don’t want to mess with that, but we’ll have a larger kitchen and offer some great bar-style food like chicken wings and pizza,” Wasson said. “A lot of customers have told bartenders that it’d be nice to have some food.”
Wasson said it won’t be typical greasy bar food, but “yummy, fresh items” designed by a chef friend.
He expects to also add a showroom in the back by the new kitchen. Roosters is also know for the loyal patrons who attend shows, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.
“We want people to come in and be wowed, but we don’t want them to say: ‘What happened to Roosters?’” Wasson said.
The bar area will be slightly reconfigured and there will be a DJ booth in the back of the showroom.
“We’re going to put in a lot of windows,” Wasson said. “At least 10 windows.”
Visit RoostersWPB.com for more information.