One night at the end of July, Geek Bar’s management sounded a clarion call for bailout money from their patrons. Rob Stein, the Wicker Park gastropub’s so-called “Galactic Overlord,” announced to the crowd that had gathered for geek trivia night, “We need some help to make sure Geek Bar stays in this neighborhood and that we can continue to hang out with all of you.”
The cry for help worked. In less than a week, nearly 200 patrons donated $11,500 to an online crowdsourcing campaign on GoFundMe, which was publicized with a party entitled “Damn the Man, Save the Geek Bar!” Then last week, a person described by Geek Bar CEO David Zoltan (aka “Fleet Admiral”) as a “fan” offered up a “sizable” private loan. An update on the GoFundMe page reads: “Geek Bar is OUT OF IMMEDIATE DANGER!”
It sounds like a feel-good story, something inspired by the kind of movie sometimes screened at the ten-month-old bar. You know, the ones where the scrappy outcasts band together to save their beloved sanctuary from the clutches of evil. But former employees and volunteers now wonder if the bar was worth saving.
On Geek Bar’s GoFundMe page, in Reddit threads, and in the comments sections of news stories about the fund-raising campaign, there’s been debate about the worthiness of the bar’s cause and allegations of mismanagement. Zoltan has jumped into comment threads on GoFundMe and Facebook to address the criticism.
The July fund-raiser wasn’t the first time the bar’s management had asked the public to help foot their bills. Two summers ago, Zoltan and former CMO Matt Wolff (who passed away in May after a bout with cancer) launched a month-long Kickstarter campaign that raised $44,538. That original Kickstarter page now feels like a piece of Geek Bar fan fiction. It described a massive nerd culture-themed bar/restaurant to open in the Lakeview area by March 2014, complete with bartenders dressed in lab coats who’d pour smoking cocktails from behind a themed “SCIENCE! bar” and a second cyberspace-themed bar “with cutting edge cocktails and dark, cool decor.” Other expensive indulgences listed included 24-foot wooden tables custom built with reclaimed wood and iron to cater to the needs of board game enthusiasts and a promise to hire a professional sound engineer to make Geek Bar a “technological masterpiece in acoustics.” That was if the Kickstarter earned $40,000. If the campaign reached $70,000? They’d purchase a full-size replica of the Iron Throne from HBO’s Game of Thrones.
When I profiled Zoltan and Wolff for the Sun-Times during that campaign, I was struck by their ambitions for Geek Bar despite being many months away from opening a brick-and-mortar location. (The two had hosted roving “Geek Bar” nights at bars around town.) Neither Zoltan or Wolff had experience managing a bar or restaurant, but they talked excitedly about expanding Geek Bar into different markets and hosting events featuring major celebrities. “My dream event right now, I’d call it Neil Squared—a guest panel by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Neil Gaiman moderated by Neil Patrick Harris,” Zoltan told me then. “I think people would pay money to be in that audience.”
Much of what was proposed has not come to pass. Some of Geek Bar’s original Kickstarter backers have never received the embroidered lab coats and other rewards they were promised when they donated two years ago—something that Zoltan doesn’t dispute. “I’ve been looking for ways to get rewards to people,” Zoltan says. “Once we get on stable footing, I want to do that.”
Plans to open a two-story, 10,000-square-foot facility at 1960 N. Clybourn in Lincoln Park were scrapped when Zoltan couldn’t secure building permits, he says, because Geek Bar’s design plan didn’t include the correct number of exits or an elevator. Zoltan blames the building permit denials on city bureaucracy and the Lincoln Park neighborhood conservation association Ranch Triangle, which he says displayed hostility towards the project. Ranch Triangle did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Reader, but Diane Levin, the organization’s planning chair, told DNAinfo that the group “had concerns” about the project in terms of public transportation, parking, and security.
Between the cost of the lease, interior demolition, and fees for an architect and a lawyer, Geek Bar sank $300,000 into the Clybourn location before giving up and instead renting a much smaller, humbler space at 1941 W. North Avenue in Wicker Park. As Geek Bar Beta’s name implies, the establishment was supposed to be temporary until management figured out a next move. Zoltan called it an “R&D experiment.”
Nine and a half months after it first began slinging Cthulhu-themed cocktails, Geek Bar Beta still feels like an experiment, one that hasn’t gone according to plan. Former employees say paychecks began bouncing last fall, soon after the bar opened.
Until recently Geek Bar employed both a full-time and part-time social media specialist. The bar had also hired a “director of business development,” Brittany Yantos, whose job duties included peddling the naming rights to custom cocktails and selling ads on a proposed mural that was to be painted on one of the walls in the Clybourn space.
“A lot of my job was based on us moving into the Clybourn space, and I told my clients they’d be advertising in this crazy beautiful new space, and it never happened,” Yantos says. “Companies kept asking when we were opening and I didn’t have answers. We were left in the dark.” Nearly a year before they secured a physical location, Geek Bar also employed Keisha Howard as a full-time “product manager” to sell a $99 “Geek Fleet” subscription-based loyalty program before laying her off in May 2014.
Yantos says she and several other Geek Bar employees quit in July after bounced paychecks left them without pay for more than a month. Those employees were also upset to discover their health insurance had been cancelled in April without their knowledge, she says.
“It was just a surprise one day,” Yantos says. “I went to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, and was told my coverage was no longer valid.”
Zoltan says he doesn’t feel good about bounced payroll checks and lost health insurance, and he acknowledges mistakes in “unsustainable staffing” led to layoffs. But he says money secured from the loan and the GoFundMe campaign has gone to pay current and past employees.
“I’m doing everything I can to be as transparent as possible. The situation we’re in is bad, and good people have been hurt in the process. I’m doing whatever possible to make things right,” Zoltan says. “We are going to continue to build ourselves an operating reserve so that we aren’t ever in this danger again. And we will be seeking funds for things that can reduce our costs and geek out the space better.”
Geek Bar’s use of free labor from artists, writers, and photographers has also come under scrutiny. In April, the bar began hiring unpaid volunteers to launch a “Geek Bar DLC” website full of news briefs, podcasts, tech reviews, and fictional short stories. “It just felt like everyone was winging it,” says Jackie Todd, who volunteered as a video producer for several months before stepping away. “There was little communication and no real plan.”
“There was this expectation to work for less or for free to fulfill [Zoltan’s] dream,” says a former Geek Bar employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s incredibly disrespectful. I don’t think artists should work for free.”
Geek Bar’s bar operation “always felt secondary to everything else,” the employee says. “[Zoltan] uses the words ‘Geek Empire’ a lot. He wanted Geek Bar to be like [culture website] the Nerdist, and I was like, ‘Look, we have a restaurant to run.'”
Yantos, who quit Geek Bar last month, says she is “heartbroken” about how the place has been run.
“This isn’t what the geek community deserves. The staff worked its ass off to make something out of something so little,” she says. “There have been broken promises to everyone about what it was going to be. It just never came to fruition.”