Sometimes a nightclub isn't a nightclub. That's the message from a person affiliated with Spire after the downtown hotspot came under heavy criticism for video that showed customers dancing in the venue despite Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's order that shuttered bars statewide.
"Back in November 2019, the main owner had come to the realization that he no longer owned a bar," Bret Hightower tells CultureMap content partner ABC13. "He owned a lounge/venue hall because most of the revenue was not coming from alcohol or liquor sales. It was coming from ticket sales, and then to be able to reserve your own private section."
Since the venue is a "reception hall," it is not subject to the restrictions on bars, Hightower argues. In his view, the problem isn't that Spire had too many people; it's that customers simply ignored the rules the venue tried to enforce.
"That's why we have an emphasis on a social lounge with food," Hightower says. "Our emphasis is not to have drunk partygoers. From the videos, we were doing our best to control that."
Clé Group's Zack Truesdell spoke to CultureMap exclusively and says that Hightower is a "liaison" between the club and the City of Houston. He defended Spire's actions, citing a late-night visit by auditors from the The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
"TABC came to our establishment at 1:30 in the morning," says Truesdell. "We had about 200 people there — our occupancy is about 1,200, so were operating about an 18 percent load. They saw everything — from the entrance, to the signs, to us making people wear a mask on the way to the restroom — and they took many videos. From that, they allowed us to remain open — and continue to open."
As for whether Spire is a nightclub or a reception hall, Truesdell says it's "a little bit of everything."
Whether the staff at Spire was truly "doing its best" might be a matter of some dispute. As videos circulated on social media over the weekend, the business drew sharp criticism from others members of Houston's bar and restaurant community.
Bobby Heugel, who closed his bars Anvil and Better Luck Tomorrow in compliance with the governor's orders, concluded a length Instagram post with the following statement:
I don’t know these guys or frequent their bars, but it’s clear they redefined the club experience in Houston. It’s even hard to not be impressed in a morbid fucked up way that they can actually pack a bar during a pandemic shutdown! But Clé Group, y’all (and others) are crushing other operators with your greed and lack of consideration for every single out of work bartender, server, busser, etc. Quit fucking the rest of us...y’all are better than this right?
"I think he's a great operator and he's certainly entitled to say whatever he feels on social media," Truesdell says, responding to Heugel's post.
Sean Beck, beverage director for H-Town Restaurant Group (Hugo's, Backstreet Cafe, etc.) expressed a similar sentiment in a public Facebook post that's been shared over 200 times:
Restaurants have been working for nearly 2 months to operate responsibly with tons of space, separation, sanitation, cleanliness procedures and staff testing. Restaurants are fighting to stay alive and to be safe for our communities and yet this place is doing this. I don’t know who gets to make the call, but this place shouldn’t be allowed to operate based on any of the guidelines we have been pressed by state and local officials.
Whether the government will act against Spire or any of the other nightclubs that operated over the weekend remains to be seen. Hightower tells ABC13 that the downtown nightclub passed an inspection over the weekend, and sister property Clé did not suffer any regulatory consequences for the massive pool party it hosted during Memorial Day weekend.
"Do we have challenges keeping people socially distanced when they're fighting us on it," Truesdell says. "Yes. Have we received even one violation from any of the City's departments? No."
With additional reporting by Steven Devadanam