By Alex Israel
‘Never A Dull Moment,’ reads the back of John Forslund’s shirt as he shakes hands with a local woman outside the bar he has managed for the last six years. For the West End Lounge the phrase certainly rings true—especially for the last two years, as the business has been stuck in administrative and legal limbo.
In the meantime, Forslund is hoping he can help the decades-old establishment—located on the corner of West End Avenue and West 107th Street and known for its live performances and inclusive environment—thrive by expanding its offerings and reaching out to the community. Forslund, who is currently attempting to become the owner of West End Lounge, sat down for an interview with West Side Rag to discuss the lounge’s history, the neighborhood, and moving forward.
While applications for changes to ownership and operation are still pending, Forslund says he has made an effort to operate with respect to what’s currently on paper and build relationships with his neighbors, following some negative feedback regarding quality of life. Part of that effort includes introducing a new brunch menu and a full line of espresso and coffee drinks that he hopes will garner some goodwill with the State Liquor Authority (SLA), Community Board 7, and the locals.
The drink menu, which is served starting at 8 a.m. daily, features coffee from Brooklyn Bean Roastery, a local company that previously only sold their products online. This will be their first physical footprint, Forslund told WSR. The brunch menu, which is served starting at noon on weekends, features items like chicken and waffles, breakfast burritos, egg skillets, and more. On Saturdays, at ‘Boardgames & Brunch’, guests are invited to bring their favorite board games, or borrow one from the lounge; On Sundays, ‘Blackout Brunch’ will feature a free drag show.
The lounge offers free WiFi, free refills, and happy hour starting as early as noon—an ideal place for local college students to spend the day, suggests Forslund. He also plans to host a Neighborhood Appreciation Day on September 28, in honor of National Good Neighbor Day (a holiday first proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978). The details are still being worked out, but neighbors are invited to drop in for deals on coffee and treats.
West End Lounge has been the subject of debate in the neighborhood, following controversial appearances at Community Board 7’s Business and Consumer Issues committee meeting, first in November of 2017 and again in October of 2018. It is at these monthly gatherings that businesses can request approval from the board on several operational matters, including liquor license applications and, in West End Lounge’s case, changes of ownership and method of operation. The community board’s approval, while valued, is not mandatory; the applicants must ultimately receive approval from the SLA.
When the business initially kicked off the process for a standard transfer of ownership to Forslund from longtime owner Eric Fisler (who did not respond to a request for comment on this story at the time of publishing), the CB7 committee—upon being met with complaints from members of the community regarding noise, trash, and smoke—raised the issue that the method of operation on file did not appear to match up with the method of operation in practice.
According to Forslund, the paperwork issue occurred sometime after 1999. That year, a coffee shop called Mocha Lounge became The Underground, which then became West End Lounge. The paperwork for “business type” was changed, but apparently the “method of operation” wasn’t. The original method of operation lists the business as a coffee shop where alcohol can be served until midnight, without music; but sometime between then and now the bar began hosting live performances, ranging from comedy to drag to cabaret.
At prior community board meetings, lawyers for the owners had said that, before their request for a change in ownership, they were never informed that they didn’t have the right documents. They thought that by changing the type of establishment in 1999 and then receiving continuous SLA renewals without issue they were compliant with the law.
When Forslund returned to CB7 in 2018 requesting to modify the method of operation to extend the hours and include live music—in addition to transferring the ownership—the committee ultimately voted to disapprove the application due to the community complaints. Disapproval by the committee led to a rejection by the full board in January of this year, halting any further progress. The full board also requested the SLA enforce the lounge’s current method of operation, specifically prohibiting the sale of alcohol after midnight.
Forslund, who has since been tied up in legal proceedings regarding the requested changes, doesn’t want to dwell on the past. “Because we have a piece of paper missing from 20 years ago, they’re using it to try and get me to shut down,” he told WSR. “[SLA] knows who we are. They’ve approved it every two years without asking us to appear. They did not think that we’re a coffee shop. No one has thought we’re a coffee shop since 1999.”
Since the board’s rejection in January, Forslund says in addition to the new menu offerings, he has enforced the midnight alcohol curfew, developed plans for better soundproofing, and started an email chain (“the town hall email,” he called it) with several of the people who had complained the most. “I’m trying to show them that I listened to them,” Forslund said, outlining these efforts and offering his sympathy to the neighbors.
“I would like them to know that we do care and we are trying,” Forslund said. “Maybe they never had a chance to voice their complaints,” he added, pointing to the fact that the business was never asked to appear before the community board prior to 2017. (Community Board 7 typically only requests attendance from businesses applying for new liquor licenses, new or renewed sidewalk cafés, and changes in operation and ownership. West End Lounge has continuously renewed their existing liquor license, which explains why they were not requested to appear until the ownership transfer application.)
According to information publicly available on NYC OpenData, West End Lounge has received more than 600 noise complaints to 311 since 2010, with more than 300 of those complaints occurring in 2017 or later. This year, the number of complaints is down 47 percent compared to the same time period in 2018. Across nearly two thirds of the total complaints, the NYPD reported they found no evidence of a violation, or determined action was not necessary.
“You’ve been hurt, I hear you,” Forslund said when asked what message he wants to send to the dissenters and the community at large. “I have done just about all I can do, being that I don’t own the place yet. I have poured my heart and soul into this place for the past six years. And I would love nothing more than to be able to own the West End so that I can fully fix all the issues that we have.”
But he also says he can only do so much without being granted approval of the ownership transfer. “People want change. Change doesn’t happen by us closing down. Change happens by giving me a chance to correct the mistakes of the past,” he said. “If what you want is change, then I’m the only one who’s got the resources, or the position here to make changes. And I will make that happen, absolutely, upon approval of ownership and method of operation update.”
In the meantime, despite drawing guests from all over the tri-state area, enforcing the earlier hours listed on the original method of operation has taken a toll on the business, Forslund admitted. And it’s not just Forslund who’s impacted. “The staff, and our guests, and our regulars have been the ones mostly inadvertently affected by this,” he said. “If I don’t cash a paycheck, that’s life. But if people lose the place that they call home and staff loses their jobs, that’s who’s affected by this.”
Ultimately, Forslund hopes friends of the lounge and dissenters alike are willing to help keep the West End alive. Whether it’s coffee or liquor (before midnight, for now), “the best way to support the business is to come in and get a drink,” he said. “Do you really want one more business closed?”