The Abbey Food and Bar is celebrating its 30 year anniversary this month. David Cooley, the founder and CEO of what has become an attraction for tour buses in Los Angeles, has seen it all these past three decades. From the AIDS epidemic, earthquakes, protest riots, and a business-crushing pandemic, the Abbey has grown both in size and popularity. It continues to offer a community space where people from all walks of life can “Meet at The Abbey”.
In an interview with WEHO TIMES, Cooley looks back at the little coffee shop that could, which opened on May 23, 1991, at 685 N Robertson Boulevard. It would move across the street three years later to become what was once deemed the best gay bar in the world. Here he shares some history on West Hollywood when he first moved to the gay city in 1981 and what it was like to open his small business and succeed despite so many odds.
Did you think you would be around for 30 years?
It’s a dream come true in many ways. A small business, especially one in hospitality, has a high failure rate in most instances.
How did you get your start?
My degree comes from the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. It’s in hotel management. When I moved to Los Angeles, actually to West Hollywood, I was just coming out. I was a late bloomer. I saw how West Hollywood was so accepting to the gay lifestyle, so I packed up a U-Haul. I moved out here and I waited tables, cleaned houses, washed cars, kind of what I still do today. I eventually ended up in finance. One of my clients, Robert Katz, had a business—the very first coffee house on La Brea and this was before Starbucks. We became friends and I thought, ‘you know what, I can do this.’ I opened up where Bossa Nova was.
So you moved to West Hollywood in 81, correct?
Correct. I graduated on a Sunday and I moved here on a Monday.
What was your life like in West Hollywood back in 1981?
My first apartment was in West Hollywood. When I moved here, I think it was the week before gay pride. My West Hollywood experience goes back to when I was in school and I would come out on the weekends. My first bar was motherload and then going up to La Peer to Studio One where the dance floor was packed. I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m not the only one.’ I moved to West Hollywood to start my new life.
What do you remember about opening day in 1991?
We opened on May 23, 1991, which happens to be my mother’s birthday. I was quite nervous. I remember thinking, ‘Will people come?’ People didn’t really know what a coffee house was, and they didn’t think being on Robertson was a good idea. They told me I needed to open at La Peer where Studio One was. How was I going to make money on coffee and cake on an off street? I was nervous people weren’t going to come, and they did. And they kept coming. In 91 we were dealing with the AIDS crisis. I remember ACT Up coming and having their meetings at The Abbey, and they’d start their marches throughout the street. We dealt with riots. We dealt with the earthquakes. The AIDS crisis was the worst, but from a business sense this past year was bad. We opened and closed four times this year. Twice we didn’t think we’d be able to open.
At what point did you decide you wanted to transform your coffee shop into a bar?
I try to keep a step ahead. Starbucks were opening in every corner. That’s when I brought in food elements after three years. The landlord at the time, Denny Edwards, asked me to move across the street. When he retired, I took over the entire square footage and eventually bought the real estate. He was an extreme supporter to our cause. He was a gay man. He was so proud because I would tell him what joy his allowing me to expand the Abbey brought to our community. He was so much a part of it.
What’s your history with the City of West Hollywood?
You may not know this, but I opened two retail stores on Santa Monica Boulevard. It was the first time City Council allowed a rooftop business. It was called Trade where we now have Fiesta Cantina. That was once my retail store that became a restaurant.
Was this before the Ruby Rosa Restaurant?
Yes. I sold that space to Jeffrey Sanker and Christina Applegate and it became Ruby Rosa.
Then Spike was for sale. I bought Spike and I kind of cleaned it up and sold that. They have a late-night license and I decided I didn’t want to work 24/7. I just focused on the Abbey. Here Bar came and I was able to purchase Here Bar and make it the Chapel. Then I bought the closed adult bookstore, the closed ballroom dance studio and jewelry store and was able to bring in Bottega Louie. I’ve been on the street.
What’s your take on West Hollywood now?
It breaks my heart to see all the boarded-up businesses. It’s really an eye sore to me. I take pride in West Hollywood and to see it all boarded-up and developers not moving ahead with what they planned, it hurts me. I’m doing my best to bring it back to life a little bit with the support of the city. For OUT on Robertson, I’ve got some olive trees and am bringing some life. People are loving it that it’s a pedestrian street.
What do you say about the pushback you’re getting that the OUT on Robertson solely benefits the Abbey?
I didn’t know about OUT on Robertson until the day before the council meeting. I know some neighbors are not being friendly, saying I paid off city council, but listen, the City believes in it. I think it’s a fantastic idea to have this open pedestrian space. Every detail out there is at my expense and people are loving it. I’m really glad the city came to me and trusted me to see what we can do to bring back some life after COVID. I was going to semi-retire on May 23rd, but I have this new project and it’s OUT on Robertson. It’s the next chapter and I’m going to be working very hard to make sure it’s a success.
What makes the The Abbey such a success?
We run the business as a family business. As you’ve seen many corporate restaurant chains have closed up for good and I think the success of the Abbey was the dedication of my staff and the love and support that we got from our customers, which are a part of family too. Also, the city of West Hollywood has been extremely supportive with the OUT Zones on the sidewalks to help bring in more business. The Alcohol Beverage and Support has been a major supporter. I never thought I’d be able to sit out on Robertson and have martinis. We’re getting through it. We never know what tomorrow brings, but the success really comes from the staff and the love and support of the city. The best part is I still have employees from day one. I have bartenders who have been with me 18 years, Eddie, 20 years—I have a lot of that.
Celebrities of many calibers have walked past The Abbey gates, are there any who made you gag?
We have the benefit of living in Hollywood with celebrity access. A standout to me of course, will be Elizabeth Taylor. She would come in a couple of times a month. I would sit with her and pinch my leg so hard underneath the table thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m having cocktails with Elizabeth Taylor!’
It was crazy when I got a call from Mark Young, Diana Ross’s publicist, who said she’s had four number one billboard songs in the last four decades and if we can bring her in, we can make her number one for another decade. She came and did a pop-up with us and that was very special.
We also have people like a couple that met at the Abbey, were engaged at the Abbey, got married at the Abbey and celebrated their two-years of marriage at The Abbey. Those are also my celebrities. Everyone gets treated as a celebrity.
What about politicians?
Just this past year, we had Kamala, who is now our Vice President. We had mayor Pete who is now our Secretary of Transportation, so I love the political as well as the celebrity lifestyle that the Abbey has brought to the City.
What non-profits are you working with right now?
I’m really proud of our charitable work. The Gay and Lesbian Housing for the Elderly started with fundraisers in my backyard. The Christmas in September that we hold for the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles means a lot to me. Project Angel food—we can go on and on. My main point is that I can only give back—remember I started my little coffee shop on borrowed money, so I’ve always used the Abbey name as giving back and not me personally, because if it wasn’t for my customers coming in and supporting me all these years, I couldn’t have the resources to support these charities. Since the Abbey gives back, it’s really the community giving back through their support.
Exactly what do you do for fun?
If I’m in Los Angeles, I’m usually at The Abbey. I go in during the day and do all my administration work. When I go in the evening, I talk to the guests, go to each table and usually clean those tables and that’s my fun to tell you the truth. I really love what I do. I do travel. I do get out and enjoy my time outside Los Angeles. I love working on my homes. I have a place in Palm Springs where I bring in more trees and love being out on the yard. It’s a simple life. When you’re in the bar and nightlife business, really the last thing you want to do is go to another bar. I prefer my life at home with my friends and my family.
How do you plan to celebrate 30 years?
That’s going to depend on the Health Department. The Abbey has a reputation for going overboard with Christmas decorations or surprising people with a 20-piece orchestra. I love to host. I love to throw parties. I don’t want to plan something real special until I know the guidelines and we can do it in a safe environment.
What do you say to your customers who stuck by you for 30 years?
I want to tell my customers, as well as the employees, my family at The Abbey, thank you for believing in me. Thank you for supporting The Abbey. I’m so proud when tour buses drive by and they call it an institution of Los Angeles. It makes me very proud what we’ve done as a community, what we could give back. You have my word that I will only try to make it better and better all the time.