back in the catbird seat
Bobby Heugel swoops in to rescue suddenly shuttered Montrose dive bar
A casual neighborhood bar on lower Westheimer, Catbirds, closed July 31 after almost 30 years in operation, but the Montrose staple will reopen this fall under new ownership.
Shelly and Emily Wilburn, the mother-daughter duo who owned and operated the bar since 2018, tell CultureMap that the decision to close may have seemed sudden to regulars but had been under consideration for some time. They explain that Catbirds remained closed for almost 11 months during the Covid pandemic, because it didn’t have a kitchen that would allow it to operate as a restaurant.
That closure led to the accumulation of debt that's been difficult to pay off. In addition, Wilburn’s husband Matt died last year, putting more pressure on Shelly to work a full-time job during the day and manage the bar at night.
“A lot of people think we decided to sell and move on, but it’s not a sudden decision,” Emily says. “It’s taken a lot of time. It hurts. It’s hard for my mom. It’s hard for my family.”
Enter Bobby Heugel. He and Justin Yu, his business partner in the Thorough Fare hospitality group (Anvil, Squable, Better Luck Tomorrow, etc.), purchased the shopping center that includes Catbirds in 2019. When Wilburn informed Heugel of her intention to close, he purchased the bar’s equipment and the rights to the Catbirds name.
Although Heugel might seem like an unlikely patron for such a casual spot, he considers himself something of a regular — even working a guest shift with Anvil general manager Tommy Ho to raise money for the bar’s staff during the pandemic.
“I really liked the staff here. They were always extremely kind to me,” Heugel says. Later, he adds, “Catbirds is one of the five bars I’ve visited the most in Houston.”
While Heugel has the legal right to reopen the bar as Catbirds, he hasn’t made a final decision about whether to do so. As he notes in a written statement provided to CultureMap, he wants to get a feel for how the bar’s regulars feel about him operating the business.
“I know that bar has a lot of history we aren’t part of, and neighborhood bars, more than any others, need to be supported by locals and regulars,” he writes. “I completely understand why some view me — the guy that opened Anvil — as contrary to their sentiments of an older Montrose. I don’t think that’s entirely fair, but I get it. I hope the neighborhood and all of those who have loved that bar will give us a chance to carry on its legacy, but we are going to reflect on everyone’s input before firmly committing to what’s next.”
For her part, Emily Wilburn hopes the space keeps the Catbirds name. “If they have to change the name, I understand, because at the end of the day it’s whatever’s best for your business. I would love to see the legacy of Catbirds live on, and I would love to see the name when I’m driving down Westheimer,” she says.
Whether or not Heugel decides to operate the bar as Catbirds, the bar will maintain the same spirit it always has. The TVs will remain for watching sports, and the drinks will remain affordable. He hopes its regulars, including those he describes as “people who have worked long hot shifts in kitchens and behind bars,” will remain patrons.
“We do not want this place to be a cocktail bar,” he says. “That is not what we’re trying to do with it. We want it to continue to be Catbirds if people are receptive to it. If not, it will be a neighborhood bar that’s very similar to what Catbirds was.”
The sudden closure caught both the bar’s regulars and its employees by surprise. Shelly Wilburn acknowledges that the staff found out they bar had closed via a Facebook post, although she intended them to find out when a manager issued everyone their final paychecks. “It was unfortunate the way that happened, but it was not our intention in the slightest,” she says.
Since Heugel purchased the bar’s assets and name but not the business itself, it will be at least a couple months before Catbirds reopens. The new bar needs a full set of permits and a liquor license before its can operate.
“Because we don’t want to change very much about it, there’s not going to be any major construction,” he says. “We think it can be quick.”
For Catbirds fans who’ve suddenly lost their favorite bar, the sooner the better. While they might not be want to hear it, Emily encourages a little patience.
“Bobby’s going to keep it a Montrose staple that will be back soon,” she says. “Catbirds will be back. It will just be a new owner.”