Interview: Kevin Saftner of James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy

Image courtesy of Kevin Saftner.

Image courtesy of Kevin Saftner.

James Street Gastropub needs your help. The iconic North Side jazz spot, home now to three floors full of delicious food, drink and music (and more than a few Found Sound shows), was hit with a noise complaint from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (PLCB) that could shut the venue down. Kevin Saftner, who's family owns James Street and who runs the front of the house, is passionate about making sure that doesn't happen.

"We love Pittsburgh music and we want to do everything we can to remain a part of it!" reads the IndieGogo site dedicated to saving James Street. The campaign has already raised over $6,500, but even with all of the support already mounting behind the Gastropub, Saftner says it'll take a lot more to #SaveJamesStreet.   


So, you've passed your goal of $5,000, but you need $30,000.

Approximately $30,000. We know for the air conditioning units, it's going to be over $15,000. The electric is going to be over $5,000. And then the rest is we're guessing for soundproofing.

And that's all for the ballroom on the third floor of James Street?

Yeah, that's it. Just up there. That's the only place we have any sound issues. Because there's no air conditioning except to open the windows, you know? And even if they're closed, sound still gets out a little bit.

When did you learn you had an issue?

About a year, a year and a half ago, I believe was the first time we had anybody come around and talk to us from the PLCB.

Have you taken any steps to since then to deal with it?

Yeah. So, we have about 10 windows up there. In the winter we keep them all boarded up and soundproofed. In the summer we open two windows, just because it would get so insanely hot up there if we didn't. And then we leave all of the other ones boarded up so that we can try to keep some sound from resonating out, more or less.

Is the area residential?

Yeah, it's residential. It's so weird how the law works. I don't even know if zoning would matter, honestly. Anywhere that has a liquor license, it's illegal to have amplified sound come out.


Everywhere. So if you walk past a bar, and the bar doors open and you hear the TV outside, it is in fact illegal in the state of Pennsylvania. The PLCB can site you. And that is literally the law we're getting busted with. And from what we were told, it was put on the books in the '30s and it was called an anti-enticement law. It was to stop women from hearing music and wanting to go into bars. From what I've been told, it's like the same sort of thing as like, eight women can't live in a house together because it's a brothel.

Just antiquated.

Yeah, just antiquated laws is pretty much what it is.

So, the plan is soundproofing, AC and electrical work?

That's really all we need to do to get it back up and running. Once that's in, it'll pretty much be a fully-enclosed box in there and we shouldn't have to worry about anything anymore.

Now that you’ve met your $5,000 IndieGogo goal, do you know where the rest of the money is going to come from?

We are going to do some fundraiser shows. [Last] Saturday we [had] a Silent Disco. As soon as this happened I was immediately like, "We're doing a Silent Disco. We have to have this happen." We'll probably do some more of those, since we won't be able to do much up there for a while.

We're doing a jazz jam on Aug. 10. August 14 we're doing a Sunday Funday where just a bunch of some of my favorite bands and some of my friends for a long time are playing. Dave DiCello is a really amazing photographer. He's doing a gallery. That's going to be Aug. 18. He does some crazy stuff. He does some skyline photos I'm sure you've seen of crazy lighting going into the city. Yeah, he's awesome.

So, how long have you been involved at James Street?

It's my family's business. So, December, 2011 is when we opened up. 

Was music always the driving force behind it?

You know, it wasn't at first. At first my mom wanted to just be a restaurant, just the main floor. But everybody that came in just kept talking about James Street Tavern and what it was from the '80s to the early 2000s with all the jazz music there and all of the famous musicians and celebrities. Everybody just really talked it up.

So she quickly realized that we needed to start doing music. We started having music downstairs in the speakeasy a couple nights a week. And then it just exploded and just kept getting bigger and bigger. And then it fully expanded. I've taken over running the whole business in the front of the house.

You like it?

I love it. I went to school for business. I've been in the restaurant and music industry since I was like 15. So it was just, like, second-nature to me. 

What do you think, aside from the history, makes James Street so special as a venue?

I think our diversity there. I mean, everybody always thinks of us as a jazz place. But now with Found Sound doing shows there and Ziggy Sawdust doing shows there and bands from out of town contacting me, Grey Area has shows there. I mean, we do Drag Brunch there. We have Pub Club, which is like a Christian drinking hangout session. We have burlesque. We just have so many different things. I don't think there's another venue in the city that has the diversity that we have. It's a very diverse crowd every night.

Is that important to you?

Oh yeah. Absolutely. It's just more fun that way.

So, aside from continuing to donate to the IndieGogo and showing up to these fundraisers, what can people do to help you? It really seems like Pittsburgh has kind of come behind you to make it happen.

The biggest thing is just everybody being aware of what's going on and to be aware of some of these laws. People have been reaching out to me about wanting to start petitions or wanting to change this law and things like that, which I would love to see happen. But just as long as people keep the dialogue going and talking about it and realizing, how incredibly unjust this is. I mean, it's been a music venue for 30-some years. The same thing has been happening forever.

It shut down as the James Street Tavern in the early 2000s, so it was closed for about 10 years as a major music venue. Whenever we moved there, people were complaining about prostitutes having sex in our parking lot every night. There were literally heroin needles all around the back area. There are so many great people doing great things [in the North Side]. So many awesome groups over there doing so much, and we're definitely a part of all of those people doing all these things.

We don't see the prostitutes over there having sex any more. We don't see heroin needles laying on our block. And somebody's going to get mad now that we're having music? What would people prefer? Those prostitutes coming back and taking over the corner or us having culture? That’s all that we want to get across. We are trying to look at ourselves as a cultural hub that's doing good for the community, not bad.

Do you know of anybody else that's been hit with these laws?

I know that the Rex has had issues. I don't know if they've ever been cited or enforced, but I know that they've had issues. Spirit also has.

Why do you think they came after you? Of all of the places in the city?

It's bad luck. That's all. We've never had any issues. We don't have, like, younger kids coming in. We're a little bit of an older place, so it's not like we've got under-aged kids coming in and trying to sneak drinks or do bad stuff. We've never had any bar fights really. We've never had any issues. It's a jazz club. You know? There's not anything crazy going on there, but it just must be bad luck. That's all there is to it. 

So, is there a deadline for you to get this done?

We have a self-imposed deadline of Sept. 1, because that's kind of when the fall shows start. So we need to be prepared for that. We work with a bunch of different companies as well, and we need to be ready for them, or else they're going to take their shows somewhere else. We're a business that anticipates and employs people for three floors. Right now we have two floors, so our employees are not working as much. You know, we're going to have to lay people off and get people back in and then re-staff and that's something that, as a family business, would be very difficult for us to justify being able to do. So we need that third floor Sept. 1. 


Help Kevin #SaveJamesStreet by donating to the IndieGogo and checking out the upcoming James Street Gastropub & Speakeasy fundraisers.