It was a sight almost unbelievable after over a year in lockdown and restricted openings: Last Sunday, Lady Gaga made a surprise appearance at the 30th-anniversary celebration of the Abbey, West Hollywood's most prominent gay bar. Fans of the singer and the establishment filled the venue on Robertson Boulevard, which began as a coffee shop and has since grown into a hip institution, where celebrity sightings and political events are now the norm.
David Cooley, the Abbey's owner and founder (pictured), had doubts the bar would make it to this milestone. Even before the pandemic, disasters ranging from the AIDS crisis to earthquakes posed trials for the queer watering hole, which survived despite the odds. Below, Cooley shares memories and life lessons learned from the Abbey's 30-year history.
Photo Credits: The Abbey Food & Bar; Location Images: AVABLU
The Abbey and [neighboring property] the Chapel are doing well, but it was the most difficult 15, almost 16 months now. Probably the most difficult year in 30 years of doing business. Because of the pandemic, we force-closed. We opened and closed four times within 15-16 months. Each time, we weren't too sure what the future was, as well as, a few times, we didn't know if we were able to even reopen. We would order quite a bit of produce and meats and cheeses and pastries and etc., only to find out within hours that we would be forced to close. So it was a very difficult time for us. … Will we make our 30th anniversary? All that just kept bringing the stress on us.
But we're doing it, we're making it. The city has been extremely supportive with the Out Zones [program] to support restaurants and businesses, to utilize the sidewalks or the streets to help bring sales in. The Alcohol Beverage Control [Department] has been very supportive to restaurants. Never in 30 years I would imagine you could order a couple of cheeseburgers and take four margaritas to go. We're sitting actually on Robertson right now and having martinis. So they've been extremely supportive. The government agencies, most of them have been very, very helpful to try to keep the small businesses open, and I'm truly appreciative of that.
It's going to be great. Of course, the Abbey is known for their events. And their parties have been very lavish. We go way overboard for our Halloween decorations, we go way overboard for our Christmas tree lighting, and our Christmas events with our decorations and choir. … We might have one of the larger trees on the West Coast. … We’re still limited. Even though our president and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] says, "Business as usual." It still goes down to the local health department authority to give us the rules and regulations of what we can actually operate in a safe manner.
Some might question how they came up with some of these regulations. … But we're gonna do the best we can. We've been busy. People are so excited to be out, so excited to be out to meet friends and have drinks and have lunch, but everyone is so anxious to get up and dance. But you know, what has really kept us going on … over 30 years, we've had a lot of hurdles thrown our way. When we opened up in 1991, we were dealing with the AIDS crisis, which of course was a great tragedy to our community. We lost our brothers and friends, to the point where our president won't even announce or speak the word AIDS.
I remember a group called ACT UP having their meeting place at the Abbey and then we would start our marches and are protesting going through the streets. We had the Northridge earthquake, which was really devastating for so many of us here in Southern California, [but] for some reason, the Abbey’s lights were kept on. And it was like a town hall where people could come just to be together. … We’ve had the L.A. riots. We've had many marches coming through our streets and protests, and now we've dealt with COVID. So we've gone through it and we managed and we survived and we got this one. … I'm just so grateful for that. That we made it.
I really have to give thanks to my management team, my staff, as well as the customers who are waiting for us to reopen. We run it not as a corporate business, but we run it as a family business. And that's what got us through. We really all stuck together and help each other out. … So running as a family business and seeing the joy of our customers coming back really gave us the enthusiasm and the joy. And our prayers were answered and we're doing business. We’re open.
I never imagined that, [after] 30 years, I’d be still on that corner. It's a blessing. [People asked] how are you going to make money just selling coffee and a couple of cakes? This was prior to any Starbucks or anything. I just had an idea. One of my clients, when I worked at the bank, opened up his first coffee shop … and he's one of my closest friends to this day, and I studied his business model. And I thought, I could do this, I could do this in West Hollywood. And I took part of the dry cleaners, there's 1,100 square feet, and I stayed there for three years and then I made my first move across the street, and I expanded there for four times and then was able to buy the bar next door to make that the Chapel, which is celebrating five years this October.
So it feels great. But you know, I never thought when I [started] this business that it would become the brand it is today, to see the tourist vans drive by and stopping in front of the Abbey and saying this is one of the landmarks of Los Angeles. [That] really brings a lot of joy to me. To have any political figure that is running for major political office call us and say, "We'd like to do the fundraiser at the Abbey." I mean, this past year alone, we've had Kamala Harris, vice president, we've had Mayor Pete, who's now our secretary of Transportation, we’ve had Barbara Boxer, who was our U.S. senator. And we've had Senator Gillibrand, who's our New York senator. So it's become a political spot. ... We’ve done something for Hillary, we were doing something for Obama, but it became so big we had to take it to a hotel.
And then, of course, being located in Hollywood, you never know what celebrity’s coming in, and we get the calls … everyone from Gaga to … Diana Ross … and [Diana] was great. An hour and 40 minutes she wouldn't let me sit, she kept me dancing and dancing and dancing. So those are great perks, really wonderful perks. I would also have to say that one of the best also is, you know the Abbey really has never advertised … I don't ever use the name David Cooley, I always use the Abbey to donate to so many charities for the Children's Hospital to Project Angel Food to housing for the elderly. And when the Abbey gives those donations, I always give credit back to our customers because I really started with nothing; I had a few dollars and a credit card. And so for us to give back to the community over all these years, it's still the Abbey customers who are coming in and supporting us. … So I'm really thankful for that.
There's always Elizabeth Taylor having martinis … on a monthly, weekly basis…. And to this day, we support the [Elizabeth Taylor] Foundation, and the foundation gave us a beautiful diamond-crusted picture that we hang in our main room. So that was a joy.
Just a few weeks ago, we had a couple, a straight couple, come in, and he asked me, “Hey, David, can I have this table?” And he met his girlfriend there. He got engaged there, and then got married at the Abbey, and then they just celebrated their second anniversary. So you have those moments where you go, “Wow." [This is having an impact.]
I love throwing events. ... Being in Hollywood, when Lady Gaga comes in and [performs] “Applause.” We have those moments. You never know what the day is going to bring.
I'm working with the city now on Out on Robertson, which is, they closed down Robertson on the weekends [for restaurant seating]. And so that's a new venture and it's going extremely well. I was going to take a step back on May 23, which is the 30th anniversary, kind of enjoy a little bit of semi-retirement. I have a great management team and a great team in place. Some of my employees have been with me for 30 years; the average bartender is probably 20 years-plus.
I've been offered to sell … I made that mistake once and I won't do it again. I have no intention. I think it's kind of become such an institution for our community. To have it known that West Hollywood, being a safe haven, but the Abbey is also a safe haven. So right now there are no plans on doing that. I'll just pass it on to the next generation. And keep it going as long as we can. But for me, maybe, [I'll] just enjoy a little bit more freedom and be a little bit more active in my charity and political work.
The life lesson I've learned probably comes from the beginning, when I wanted to leave corporate life, and I had a vision to do this coffee shop, 1,100 square feet, part of the dry cleaning business. And people said, “No, how can you make money?” You know, I offered someone 25 percent of the Abbey brand, which was no brand at the time, for $5,000, and they didn't believe in me. So the lesson I learned is when people say no, don't be afraid to take risks and go with your thoughts and your ambition. It's going to be hard work, and I've had some major failures, but I learned from them as well. So when people say no, you just move ahead. If you believe in yourself, which I did, I would just go for it.
On behalf of the Abbey family, and personally from me, thank you so much for making the Abbey your safe haven place, your second home, a place you could be proud of to come if you're just coming out or the first place to show your parents what a gay bar was. And for the continuous support that you come in and give us. We have made it to 30 years, and without them, coming in and showing the love that they have for the Abbey brand, we wouldn't have been celebrating 30 years. So a big, big thank-you to our customers, who are also our friends and our family.