Behind the Velvet Rope: The Abbey LA, 2017 LGBTQ Venue of the Year

Every year, the Nightclub & Bar association recognizes the top people and venues that are driving the nightlife industry to the next level. NightPro is proud to congratulate these leaders as part of our Behind the Velvet Rope: Nightclub & Bar Awards 2017 series. Next up is The Abbey, LGBTQ venue of the year. We spoke with David Cooley, owner of The Abbey to hear about his story & what makes his business so successful.

David Cooley | The Abbey, Los Angeles

2017 LGBTQ Venue of the Year

Title: Owner

Hometown: Los Angeles, LA

What to Know: Originally from Ohio, Cooley made his way to LA after receiving a degree in Hotel Management from UNLV. From there he pursued a career in finance but In 1991, Cooley and invested in a small space in West Hollywood that became The Abbey, and after 25 years and 5 expansions, The Abbey is now known as the Best Gay Bar in the World. 

 

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Tell us a bit about The Abbey. How did it all begin?
 
In 1991, I was working for Wells Fargo as a Vice President and I had an opportunity to try something new. I opened a tiny coffee shop on Robertson Blvd.  It was less than 1,100 square feet. Everybody thought I was crazy to open a coffee shop on Robertson Blvd. This was before there was a Starbucks on every corner and Robertson Blvd was a sleepy, out-of-the-way street. The community really embraced The Abbey and I embraced them.
 
In 1994, I was able to move across the street to a bigger space, about 1,800 square feet inside and 800 square feet outside, that I could only use at night. In 2001 and 2005, we expanded again and added a liquor license. The neighborhood grew up around us and we grew with them, expanding to today’s venue, which is about 16,000 square feet, plus an additional 5,500 square feet with The Chapel, that opened directly adjacent to The Abbey in October.
 
The reason The Abbey has been so incredible is because the community has supported us each step of the way as we grew. That's why I like to support them as well.  
 
 
 
Fast foward to today. What's one thing that keeps guests coming back to The Abbey over and over?
 
The Abbey offers something for everyone.  We try to make everyone feel welcome.  Every single guest who walks through my door is my VIP not matter where on the spectrum their sexuality lies. The Abbey has always been a place where everyone is welcomed.  When we moved to our current location, I had an opportunity to do something different.  We had an outdoor patio that was open to the street and adjacent to a park. People could see us as they went by, day or night.  That was a radical idea for a gay bar at that time. I tried to make The Abbey feel nice and upscale, so it was a place where you could bring your non-LGBT allies and they would feel comfortable. My guests were bringing their parents and their straight friends. I just focused on making sure everybody had a good time and everyone felt like an equal. 
 
 
I would be halfway around the world and mention to someone that I lived in Los Angeles and they would ask, “Have you been to The Abbey?”  I couldn’t believe people knew who we were. 
 
I also wanted to support our community. I remember hosting our first event with ACT UP and later hosting events with GLAAD, APLA, HRC, Gay and Lesbian Elder Housing and more. We tried to make sure when we hosted special events that we did it right and made them memorable.  We tried to bring production value to all of our events, whether it was Gay Pride, a fundraiser or even a Super Bowl viewing party. Celebrities started to come.  Elizabeth Taylor came on many occasions.
 

While all of this was happening, Gay Marriage came to the forefront of our nation’s political consciousness.   Not that long ago, we saw President Barack Obama elected for his first term at the same time Prop 8 passed, banning gay marriage.  We were happy and devastated at the same time. We saw more groups step forward, like The American Foundation for Equal Rights and Freedom to Marry.  Through their leadership and your support, we saw a Supreme Court Ruling granting the freedom to marry nationwide. 

Along that journey, people would go to The Abbey when there was news.   When we were happy, angry, defeated or triumphant, we commiserated and celebrated at The Abbey, together. I was always proud that I could be part of the community in those moments and that we had a place like The Abbey where we could be ourselves and share our experiences with our friends. 

Today, we are reminded that we have even more work to do. The Abbey will be there for the next 25 years to support our community as we continue to fight for our rights.

 
How does your team at The Abbey stay up to date on industry trends?
 
I travel a lot and when I find things that people are doing in other parts of the world, I like to bring them back to The Abbey.  When we started selling Apple Martinis in the 90s, not a lot of people were doing that. It took off, so I added a lot of different flavored martinis, they took off.  
 
On a trip to Brazil, I had my first mojito, we brought that back to The Abbey and became known for them. When I was in Madrid, I love how they served their Gin & Tonics, we have a whole gin and tonic program at The Abbey now. We look for things that people like and give them a little Abbey twist.
 
What might surprise a guest coming to The Abbey on their first visit? Any pro-tips to share?
 
I think people are surprised at how welcoming and open The Abbey feels.  We are one of the busiest nightclubs in Los Angeles and yet everybody feels like a regular.   Come in for an hour, come in for 12 hours. We open at 9 AM on the weekends. You can have brunch, lunch, dinner, dance the night away and top it all off with a cake on the dance floor at 2 AM.   
 
We are one of the busiest nightclubs in Los Angeles and yet everybody feels like a regular.  
 

What tech trends do you see happening in the nightlife space that you think will change the way our industry works?

Technology is only as good as the people who use it. Some of our customers like to book tables online while some of customers like to make reservations in person.  No matter what technology we use, we can never forget that humans are on the other end of it. The more we can make a person feel welcomed, the better time they will have. 

 
What’s one thing about the company culture at The Abbey that makes it a great place to work?

Nobody ever leaves The Abbey!  We opened The Chapel in October and it was the most hiring we’ve had to do in a long time.  I have some employees who have been with me over 25 years.  What make it a great place to work is the people.  Our managers, our hosts, our servers, everyone is hired because they understand hospitality.  We are a family and take care of each other and our guests.
 

Let’s talk drinks. What cocktails are the most popular on your menu?

Our 3 most popular cocktails are: The Wild Berry Martini with Absolut Acai Berry, The Abbey Original Mojito with Bacardi Limon and The Abbey’s Masc Mule with Stoli Vodka.

  

LA is a hot spot for film, culture and music. Which local events or holidays are you most excited for this year?

Gay Pride and Halloween are two of our biggest holidays at The Abbey but we do so many fun events.   We are probably most excited for our new reality show on E!, which will start airing this summer.  It profiles the people who work at The Abbey and everything that goes on behind the scenes.  

 

What's your favorite event that The Abbey hosts?

We host an annual toy drive for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles called Christmas in September.  The event has been happening for over 10 years and started because I was having a conversation with a patron at the bar. He worked with CHLA and he said that in September their toy inventory is at their lowest point of the year.  People give toys during the holidays but by September they would run out of toys for the children at the hospital. I started Christmas in September as a way to fill the toy chest at CHLA when they needed it most. 

It has grown over the year and now it brings in thousands of toys for children in need every year. We transform The Abbey into a winter wonderland in September, when it’s still 80 degrees outside in Los Angeles. It snows on the red carpet and everybody has a great time.

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What’s a secret or fun fact about The Abbey that you can share?

We were Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite pub. She would come in often and became a great friend.  

So, The Abbey has officially been hailed LGBTQ venue of the year by Nightclub & Bar. How do you plan to celebrate?

I am looking forward to the show in Vegas. I came out last year with several of my managers and because of that trip, we upgraded our lighting and sound systems as well as met a few new spirit brands that we now carry.  Hopefully, this year’s show will be just as a exciting.

 
 
NightPro celebrates leaders like David & his team at The Abbey that are innovating in the nightlife industry. Want to be on the cutting edge, too? Check out NightPro's simple powerful venue management software to streamline your operations and drive more sales.
 
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