Jason Sabala, owner of the lumberjack-themed coffee shop Buzz Mill, is expanding his rustic, ax-slinging empire. Sabala says the coffee shop will soon add a location on South Congress as well as franchises in San Marcos and New Orleans. He’s also revamped the club adjacent to Emo’s on East Riverside to create a new 500-capacity music venue and event space with a log cabin motif, Grizzly Hall.
Sabala’s plan for the space, which has previously housed Beauty Ballroom, Antone’s and, most recently, the sports bar, Midway Field House, is deliberately flexible. He plans to book a mixture of all genres of music, comedy, film and sports events while also renting the space for private events.
A longtime employee of Emo’s who began saving his bartending money to buy ownership shares of the club in 1996, Sabala wants to recapture the sense of scene that long defined the iconic Red River haunt with eclectic and carefully curated programming. In the ’90s, a diverse group of Austinites gravitated to the club regardless of who was playing. “It had that ambiguous feeling of, ‘Just show up dude, it could be crazy,'” he says.
When Emo’s moved to East Riverside in 2012, Sabala went along, but after promotion company C3 Presents took over the venue he shifted his focus to the club next door. With the neighborhood in flux, he struggled to find a formula that would appeal to both the working class folks who had long occupied the apartments next door to the club and the more transient, young professional transplants who were moving into the upscale condos across the street. Beauty Ballroom’s focus on EDM and hip-hop came “five years too early” and Antone’s blues programming was too much specific to bring out a regular crowd.
When the sports bar also failed to take off he decided to circle back to what he knows best, creating a solid, mid-level club that offers patrons a meaningful experience. He also hopes to recapture the intimate relationship between artists and their fans he observed in the early days of Emo’s. Some of that connection is lost when artists move to bigger stages or festival set ups which generally have some sort of barrier between the stage front and the crowd. “I don’t want to have anything between the venue and the band or the bands and the fans,” he says.
In a hat tip toward the old Emo’s, one of the club’s first bookings is influential noise trio the Unsane with Honky (led by old Emo’s hand Jeff Pinkus) and the (expletive)Emo’s opening. The club’s grand opening is on May 28 with High on Fire, Eagle Claw and Bridge Farmers. Sabala says the programming right now skews slightly toward metal, including a show from Mongolian Folk Metal band Teggner Cavalry, but he’s looking to book all genres of music. Hip-hop promotions juggernaut, Scoremore is using the space for a JMBLYA pre-party next month and he has NYC DJ Jonathan Toubin on deck for a summery “Soul Camp Party” in late July.
Mostly, his goal with the programming is to keep it unique and interesting.
“Don’t just fill the calendar with cookie cutter stuff,” he says. “Let’s make every aspect kind of fun and exciting.”