One recent morning, I sat at Farmacy Cafe in the Padre Hotel, while working on my laptop, and heard no fewer than four different languages spoken by guests staying over for a night or two and grabbing breakfast on their way in or out. It’s the most international experience I’ve had in our Central Valley town.
I have been working from this cafe a lot recently, conducting my own form of “research” over far too many glasses of iced tea. Just in the last few weeks, I’ve seen so many groups of lawyers in suits sipping espresso over legal briefs, I lost count. There’s plenty of medical-industry travelers as well. I observed three boozy bachelorette brunches. I’ve seen multiple newlywed couples taking photos on the gleaming marble staircase. I even watched as a movie was shot in the lobby, which involved a brawl between actors. I laughed with the crew as a group of unexpected (and surprised) hotel guests exited the elevator mid-scene.
The Padre’s Farmacy Cafe and Brimstone Bar are often full during business hours. They host a healthy mix of visitors and locals.
And if my own observations don’t paint the picture clearly, the Padre is a bustling, successful hotel, a thriving business. The hotel’s annual occupancy average ended at 75 percent for 2017, and their peak months (October-December and March-May) were all between 78 percent and 82 percent occupancy, according to Jennifer Johnson, the hotel’s general manager. By comparison, In 2017, the annual occupancy rate of the U.S. hotel lodging industry was 65.9 percent, according to STR Consulting, which follows the hospitality sector.
All of this economic energy harkens back to the Padre’s enterprising roots; it was built as a grand hotel in the Roaring Twenties during Bakersfield’s Oil Rush days. The tallest, most iconic building in town when it was built in 1928, it then went through a long period of decline in which most of the building was unused and in disrepair.
In the 1950s and 60s, City of Bakersfield officials told then-owner Milton “Spartacus” Miller that the Padre was in violation of state fire codes, but he refused to upgrade the sprinkler systems, so the city closed the third through eighth floors to overnight visitors. Spartacus protested, even defiantly mounting a missile on the roof and supposedly pointing it toward city hall. It was just a mock missile, acquired from a local military recruiting station, but the message was clear just the same.
The narrative arc of the Padre follows the story of our downtown as a whole. The 1920s saw the height of private investment in city centers across the country, then with suburban sprawl, money was pulled away from more urban areas, and we now see it returning. Downtowns across the country are filled with a new energy and more money than they’ve seen in decades.
Jennifer: “I think it's safe to say the company (Eat.Drink.Sleep) was confident stepping into this project that it would succeed because they were reviving a part of Bakersfield's iconic history, and doing so in such a way that turned heads and showed people the potential of this area and this community. If there were doubters at the beginning, I'm sure we've proven by now that the Padre has something for everyone and it's here to stay. We're proud to be a part of the Bakersfield experience and we love sharing that experience with everyone who steps through the door.”
But it’s easy to forget that this glowing success story in our downtown was not always so. And it’s never been more clear to me than after meeting with Brett Miller, president and CEO of Eat.Drink.Sleep, the company behind the Padre's renaissance.
Ten years after out-of-town investors took a chance on the Padre, it’s easy to forget the hurdles. When Brett and his partners purchased the building in 2008, they took over a building in flux, including a partially completed construction project.
There were ongoing legal issues over asbestos removal. As they got to work, it took much longer than expected. Then the recession hit, and securing construction financing seemed near impossible.
The City of Bakersfield helped bridge the difference to finish construction; they provided a $1.8 million loan. As they neared completion, business owners wrote letters to the editor criticizing the city’s involvement to help finance the project, and they were skeptical that the Padre would be successful at all, at the same time declaring that the hotel’s future success would hurt other restaurants in the area.
But the new owners persevered, and the promise of the Padre has been realized. When Brett first flew his Bonanza private plane to Bakersfield to have dinner at Woolgrowers and take a casual peak at a potential project, he walked through the expansive lobby with its 20-foot ceilings and saw through the boarded-up windows, bolted doors and shag carpeting; he knew this was something special. He had a vision to return it to its original glory.
We are often constrained by our personal and collective lack of imagination. As a community, we can do great things together. The comeback story of the Padre Hotel - like the story of our downtown - is also the story of this heartland city, a hidden gem full of possibility and promise.
NEW LUNCH SPOT
Another healthy lunch spot has opened downtown. Toss It Salad Bar opened downtown at 1917 Eye St. This bright and cheerful space has plenty of options for a healthy and filling lunch, including proteins like meat and eggs, chopped vegetables, bleu cheese crumbles and house-made dressings to create your own salad or wrap. Wash it down with a fresh blueberry lemonade!
NEW BAKERY DOWNTOWN
GhilaDolci Bakery, pastry chef behind Café Smitten’s sweets, is opening a new location later this year at 19th and E streets. Timber trusses and framing were just lifted and installed to raise the roof on the new shop. Courtney Ghilarducci’s bakery offers Italian-inspired desserts, custom cakes and pastries - all from scratch. (Full disclosure: My sister-in-law is the proud owner of Café Smitten.)
The Bakersfield Chamber’s Young Professionals group will be hosting their popular Pub Club on Feb. 20, from 5:30 - 7:30 pm, at Eureka! Burger. Tickets are $5 at the door.
The Padre Hotel’s swanky Belvedere Room is dishing up a Valentine’s Day special all month long. They’re offering a three-course meal for $55 per person, which includes a box of truffles; wine pairings are $10 per course or $30 for all.
The Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame is hosting the first annual Valentine’s Bash to benefit our local Ronald McDonald House. There will be heavy appetizers, champagne and dancing on Feb. 14 from 5:30 - 8:30 pm. Tickets are $50 per person, $85 per couple.