Faces of the 4th | Nick Niespodziani & Pete Olson
One night only. A cover band plays one hit wonders from the 70's in a smoky basement in the Virginia Highlands. The room is packed, the mood is groovy, and Yacht Rock Revue is born.
Fast forward 11 years and I’m talking to Nick Niespodziani, singer, guitarist, leader of Yacht Rock Revue, and co-owner of Venkman’s, while he’s sitting in a hotel conference room eating a salad. “In the beginning there was an idea to do a night of 70’s one hit wonders. Like songs that everybody knew the words to but nobody knew who the band was. Like forgotten by time, kind of like some of the band members would’ve been if they hadn’t gotten in this band.”
I hear a “hey, hey” in the background, some laughter, and a final “here we are, 11 years later with a retirement plan.”
There sure aren’t any plans to retire anytime soon though. Yacht Rock Revue is still going strong today, as they’re on tour and sidestepping their way through the whole journey. Niespodziani didn’t imagine their success to be as big as it is though. There was a point where he realized that this wouldn’t last forever, and “needed to capitalize on this local C-list celebrity status and cash in on the restaurant.” Now, Venkman’s is born. A modern comfort food spot in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood that “features eclectic live music curated by partners Nick Niespodziani and Peter Olson,” vocalist, guitarist and percussionist of YRR.
Venkman’s is all about eating good food while listening to good music. They’re not trying to reinvent the hamburger, they just want you to have a tasty hamburger. The de facto leader’s favorite item on the menu right now is the chicken sandwich, and just as I’m about to make a joke comparing it to the Popeye’s chicken sandwich, he beats me and says “it’s better than Popeye’s” and I take his word for it.
I questioned whether or not the band or the restaurant would find the same success if they were located in a different neighborhood, but it seems as if it was never really a question to begin with. Their band used to practice in what used to be a rehearsal space across from Venkman’s, so they were familiar with the neighborhood and knew that the idea of the Beltline was in line with the values they wanted to keep with the restaurant. He also jokes: “We had our cars broken into in that neighborhood, so we knew.” A right of passage, some might say.
“We were always going to be a part of urban redevelopment in some way. It’s gone about the way that I thought. I didn’t realize we were as far ahead as we were, as challenging as it was in the beginning, but it’s coming around now.” People have since come up to him after YRR shows to talk about Venkman’s and the O4W neighborhood. “It’s a thing now, where before it was a mystery zone.”
Looking at the Venkman’s website, there’s an event that’s happening almost every night. What’s the best practice to balance being in a popular band while also owning a restaurant? “It’s not very balanced. You just kinda try to keep all the balls in the air and hope that they don’t fall.” And he doesn’t forget to give credit where credit is due. They have a great staff that holds it down while they’re on tour, and that’s “not just a PR statement, it’s actually very true.” They found out early on that people were wanting these events within the space they own, centered around the idea that they wanted to bring people together, sing songs, watch movies and eat food.
“That’s the cool thing about Venkman’s. If a venue only does acoustic singer/songwriter stuff, it has a certain type of audience that comes there. But that’s not what Venkman’s is playing. We have country shows, R&B shows, and brunches for kids that bring in soccer moms from the suburbs. It’s a pretty diverse audience. That’s one of the things about Venkman’s that I’m most proud of is that, on any given night you can go in and there can be a totally different vibe, a different age group, or demographic of people.”
As Niespodziani finishes his salad and our conversation comes to an end, we talk breakfast, his favorite being the duck egg hash from his restaurant. He continues to make a light sarcastic comment about Cracker Barrel being “good” to which I genuinely agree, and he responds with “that was a joke.”
Justice for Cracker Barrel!