How a CFO-turned-Bar-Owner Created a Thriving LGBTQ Nightclub in Palm Springs
A long time ago, when being queer was more or less illegal in California and Hollywood was turning out some of the greatest stars that ever lived, Palm Springs became the location of a discreet but vibrant gay scene among Hollywood celebrities, who needed to escape the city’s prying eyes while remaining within 100 miles of Los Angeles as a condition of their studio contracts.
Greta Garbo helped popularize Palm Springs when she used its seclusion to vacation with her rumored lover, writer Mercedes de Acosta. As decades rolled on, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and Liberace frequented the area, bringing in a new age of high-class, desert-dwelling queerness.
But despite the subculture of influential high rollers, having an openly gay business—even in the sprawling desert— wasn’t yet possible.
Eventually, gay bars opened up in the shadows of nearby still-unincorporated Cathedral City— the only place they were allowed to operate, because Cathedral City was considered a town of vice.
The years were long and the fight was tough, but in 1991, Palm Springs saw its first gay bar, Streetbar, located boldly on the city’s main (and very public) Arenas Strip.
Today, an estimated 40%— 50% of Palm Springs’ total population identifies as LGBT (only 4.5% of the US population identifies as LGBT by contrast), and the city is home to many prominent LGBTQ-owned businesses, including Chill Bar, one of Palm Springs’ most popular and successful gay nightclubs.
This week, we caught up with Chill Bar’s owner, Wolfgang 'Rob' Giesecke, to share his story and get a glimpse of what running a bar in Palm Springs currently looks like, as well as what’s next for the Palm Springs LGBTQ community.
From NYC to the Cali Desert
As with many of the best things that happen in life, Rob’s venture into owning a bar was mostly unplanned.
“My husband always wanted to own a bar. I’ve always resonated with the gay club scene, but I never thought I would be a bar owner or own a nightclub.“
“Then about a year after we bought the bar, my husband realized that owning a bar is not as much fun as he thought it was going to be,” Rob laughs.
“You have to be there every night. If you’re the guy welcoming people to the bar, it’s not a once or every couple of weeks type of deal. It’s all the time— so I’ve been running it, and my husband has gone back to offering financial consulting to his clients and doing the bar’s books.”
Rob and his husband are both former finance professionals who previously ran a successful financial services firm in New York, with Rob as CFO.
They sold the firm in 2015, then purchased Chill Bar in 2017, relocating to Palm Springs full time.
“With the restaurant bar industry, you usually have a six month honeymoon period while your business is new, and everybody goes because they want to check it out. You then have the opportunity to either cement those customers and make them your regulars, or the business is probably going to fail,” says Rob.
“With Chill Bar, the previous owners had already gotten past that hurdle. It was already a pretty popular bar in Palm Springs, so when my husband and I came in, it was basically, ‘just don't screw this up.’"
Rob added more of a nightlife flavor to Chill Bar and was able to grow its revenue 33% year over year.
Though it wasn’t as difficult as making a failing business profitable, every bar or restaurant owner knows that running a successful venue is, well— difficult.
“That sort of image of, you know, the poor restaurant owner, spending all day at the restaurant and then at night doing their books and trying to unwind all of it— that’s the reality,” says Rob.
“The company my husband and I owned before this [being a financial services business] was making a lot more in revenue. Chill Bar is pulling in only a fraction of that, but the record keeping for Chill Bar is still so much harder.”
“To give a case in point,” says Rob, “we recently had our ice machine break. We had four different companies come in to try and fix the ice machine. And meanwhile, we had to buy $100 of ice per day, because we're a bar and people expect their drinks to be over ice.”
“Then it got warmer, and it got busier, and all of a sudden, it was $150 of ice each day,” he says, almost laughing.
“So it’s this whole process of, ‘Well, do we try and fix the ice machine?’ —And, ‘Okay, while we're discussing whether or not to fix the ice machine, we've just spent $3,000 on ice. So yes, we're just going to get a new ice machine, even though it's $14,000. Because by the time it gets installed, we've probably spent $14,000 just on buying ice.”
Rob explains that it isn’t just the money, but also the transactions around the money that are stressful.
“In an office, your expenses are [handled] monthly. In a bar or restaurant, your expenses are [handled] daily. You have new invoices from vendors everyday, and you’re collecting money from customers every day, and it's really easy for expenses to get out of control very quickly.”
“Brex has relieved some of the stress though,” he says. “Mainly through a lot of little things that end up making a big difference.”
Rob initially got introduced to Brex at the start of the pandemic, when he was applying for a PPP loan.
“Big banks were pushing those loans to their biggest customers, and we were clients of a large private bank. I was one of the first people to submit my loan application, literally within the first hour of them opening up their site. We got our loan on the last possible day after a lot of arm twisting. Then I found out that a major restaurant chain had gotten theirs in just a few hours. I didn’t want to go through that again.”
“[When the second wave of PPP loans came,] other business owners in the community told me that they were getting their loans quickly through fintech companies. I signed up with Brex, and they immediately started trying to help me get a loan.”
The Community Bands Together
Rob encountered other issues as a bar owner, though they’ve also had silver linings.
When the pandemic hit, Chill Bar, along with every bar in Palm Springs, had to pivot to serving food.
“It was stressful, of course, but we were fortunate because the former tenant was a restaurant, and much of the infrastructure for a restaurant had been left behind. It just needed refurbishing. And ultimately, I think the pandemic really gave us a chance to take stock of things.”
“The previous owners had thought of Chill Bar as more of a gay version of Cheers,” Rob explains. “So we had invested a lot [to turn Chill Bar into more of a nightclub]. We brought in a lot of dancers, drag queens, DJs… We did it because we were having fun and that’s what we love to do, but we weren’t really thinking about how much of it we needed for the business.”
“So in some ways, the pandemic was actually a reset, because it gave me the opportunity to just say, ‘Okay, well, all this stuff that we were doing—coming out of the pandemic, how much of it is really necessary?”
Rob says the pandemic has also demonstrated the continuing solidarity of the Palm Springs LGBTQ community.
While many iconic gay bars have tragically permanently closed across the U.S. (The Stud in San Francisco, Rage in Los Angeles, and Ginger’s Bar in Brooklyn, to name only a few), all of Palm Springs’ seven gay bars have survived.
“Even though you couldn’t eat or drink inside during COVID, our friends, family, and allies came anyway. They sat outside in 120 degree heat to support us."
"[That's because] these bars are more than just drinking places for people," says Rob. "They’re where the community comes together.”
For Rob and other members of the LGBTQ community, the connection to the city’s LGBTQ venues is understandably deeply personal.
“I grew up in Michigan, and I moved to New York when I was 18," says Rob. "I didn’t have a great time in high school, and I really came out in New York’s gay club scene, which is part of why I’ve brought some of that nightlife over to Chill Bar.”
“For the LGBT community, we are connected to our chosen families. I found my first chosen family in New York, and now my other chosen family is here, in Palm Springs.”
Chill Bar is a leading LGBTQ+ restaurant & nightclub in Palm Springs that combines the best of indoor/outdoor California living with LGBTQ culture and fellowship. Plan on being in Palm Springs? —Learn more about Chill Bar's events here.