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How I Made It: David Cooley

Straight talk from the man who turned a small West Hollywood coffeehouse, the Abbey, into a popular gay restaurant and nightclub.

November 21, 2010|By Nate Jackson, Los Angeles Times

The gig: David Cooley is president of the Abbey Food and Bar in West Hollywood. Cooley, 51, the restaurant's founder, gained the title in May 2006 when SBE Entertainment Group bought the business and let him continue running it. The Abbey was voted "Best Gay Bar in the World" in 2009 by MTV Network's Logo channel.

Cooley concedes that he still feels like the sole owner, managing day-to-day operations and charity events at the club. He's also on the road a lot. His longtime plan to turn the Abbey into a restaurant-nightclub franchise takes him cross-country, scouting real estate in Las Vegas, New York, Phoenix and Atlanta, although no deals have been signed yet.

Meager beginnings: While attending the University of Nevada, Las Vegas — where he earned a degree in hotel administration — Cooley worked as a night auditor at a small hotel on the Strip. His shift ran from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. His first classes usually started at 8 a.m.

After graduation, Cooley declined jobs in the Midwest and East Coast to move to L.A. in 1981 with zero job prospects. The Ohio native cleaned houses and washed cars in Malibu to make ends meet at first.

Cash to coffee beans: Eventually, Cooley's station in life improved. Venturing into the world of finance, he worked as a stock broker and a vice president at Wells Fargo Bank. But Cooley wanted to create a local hangout for the gay community, and in 1991 he left banking and opened up a 1,100-square-foot coffeehouse called the Abbey. Cooley borrowed everything on credit cards to start the business. Friends told him he was crazy.

"This was before Starbucks," Cooley said. "People were like 'How are you gonna make money off of coffee on Robertson Boulevard?'"

To this day, Cooley says he's never had a sip of coffee in his life. "I always had my friends try my coffee," he said.

Serious expansion: Since then, the Abbey has jumped to the other side of Robertson and undergone several expansions, morphing into an upscale, 14,000-square-foot restaurant-bar-nightclub. It's a far cry from the gay bars Cooley saw in the early 1990s.

"Most of the bars and nightclubs you couldn't just walk in; you had to go through the back door," Cooley said. "When I opened up the Abbey, I said, 'Open up the doors and be proud of who you are.'"

No VIPs allowed: Seeking validation in ultra-exclusive lounges or a bathroom with a velvet rope? You won't find it at the Abbey. "Anyone who walks through my gate is a VIP. Everyone is gonna be treated the same," Cooley said. "I think that's really part of my success."

That mantra has led to the bar's heavy crossover appeal, not only among gays and straight people, but across age and race demographics, Cooley said. He said he applies the same mentality to the business side, maintaining a down-to-earth approach with staff members.

Fundraising activities: Nothing helps promote a gay bar in West Hollywood like flair-filled philanthropy. As a social epicenter for issues involving the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Cooley's club has been hosting charity functions for youth organizations like the It Gets Better Project and supported events such as the AIDS Walk Los Angeles and annual toy drives for local children's hospitals.

Desserts and drinks: In its early days, the Abbey became known for its desserts. Cooley decided to keep his bakery as part of the club's restaurant arm. When the club got a liquor license, Cooley dreamed up the Abbey's trademark 10-ounce martinis, roughly double the size of a standard martini. Cooley also says his restaurant served the first apple martini in town. Now, patrons can order from extensive food and drink menus that feature nearly a dozen cake concoctions — including Almond Roca, Blackout Espresso, Godiva Chocolate — and 26 martini flavors.

So straight; so what?: These days, the club's regulars are noticing its crossover appeal among the straight folk. It's something Cooley is proud of, no matter what anyone says. "Some of my longtime gay customers tease me, they say, 'God, it's so straight in here now.' Well, isn't that what we want? Isn't that what gays have been fighting for, to be treated equally with everyone?"

nate.jackson@latimes.com

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