Major Fixes Needed to Keep Iconic Bar’s Legacy Alive
THE SANTA CLARA
January 11, 2017
As students gripped umbrellas and splashed through puddles on the way to their first classes of winter quarter, the sound of power tools emanated from The Hut’s open doors.
Inside, the walls and ceilings are bare—the dollar bills that Santa Clara students and alumni had been tacking onto the drywall since the 1980s now absent.
Also gone are decades worth of business cards and wedding announcements that accompanied the singles, some of which were yellowed from when the bar permitted indoor smoking years ago. The light-up beer signs, Budweiser lamps and jukebox have also been retired, and the wooden bar covered in laminated Hut logos was ripped from the floor.
But San Jose resident Ray Lychak, who has owned the property since 1993, is fighting hard to reopen the bar’s doors after former business owner Mike O’Brien shut down the operation and vacated the property last month.
“I’m definitely going to get it up and open again,” Lychak said.
The Sudden Announcement
On Nov. 2, Jim Lyons, Santa Clara’s vice president for University Relations, emailed the campus community to announce that O’Brien was closing the bar, which had been open for over 70 years. That night, alumni and students flooded the bar and celebrated the Chicago Cubs’ historic World Series victory. From that day on, the foot traffic only increased.
Up until the last day of operation, many alumni made pilgrimages to the bar to relive their glory days and collect their dollars from the bar’s walls. Current students also swelled the bar almost every open night of the week. Many current seniors put dollars up on the walls and ceiling rather than waiting until graduation, since they were under the impression that it was their last chance to make their mark on The Hut.
On the last Tuesday of fall quarter before finals week, the local watering hole was so crowded that many students did not even get a chance to step foot inside unless they had arrived early. In the early morning hours of Nov. 29, the line stretched down the sidewalk and poured onto the street.
On Dec. 15, the last night of operation, the bar was filled with Broncos from all walks of life who snapped photos with the bar’s popular bartenders, Dan and Anthony. They guzzled mixed drinks and shooters of whatever alcohol was still left at the bar out of The Hut’s signature plastic cups.
Behind Closed Doors
In an interview with The Santa Clara, Lychak said that O’Brien did not contact him prior to announcing that The Hut was closing. He said the announcement came as a “shock,” since he had no plans of shutting down the business. According to Lychak, O’Brien has operated the business since 2004.
“This whole thing caught me by surprise,” Lychak said. “All he had to do was come to me and say, ‘I’d like to sell this.’”
Lychak said that O’Brien had a total of 120 days to negotiate and extend his lease for an additional five years, but Lychak never heard from him.
“To this day I haven’t heard from him,” Lychak said.
He said that if O’Brien told him several months ago that he wasn’t planning on renewing his lease, they could have found a new bar operator. At that point, O’Brien could have sold his liquor license to the new proprietor, allowing him to profit handsomely from the sale.
“It was his responsibility, the lease was very clear about that, and he chose to do nothing about it,” Lychak said. “I’ve heard from other people that he was thinking about getting out, but the best thing to do is get your money out by selling it.”
But even before the unforeseen decision to close The Hut, O’Brien and Lychak’s relationship was arguably tense. The two entered into litigation regarding the terms of O’Brien’s lease several years ago, and they have not spoken since then. O’Brien paid rent for the bar through direct deposit, according to Lychak, which allowed them to carry on for years without speaking.
Lychak began running the bar in the late 80s with Santa Clara alumnus and former NFL tackle Gary Hoffman, who played with the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers. Lychak purchased the land and the building in 1993, when he was the sole proprietor, and has owned the property ever since.
When he ran the business, Lychak prided himself on employing Santa Clara students in the bar, and formed close relationships with alumni and athletic teams. He fondly recounted Santa Clara’s rugby team having cookouts and using the bar’s outdoor grill.
“Some people think that The Hut is as important as the Mission (Church),” Lychak said.
After O’Brien’s departure, Lychak is now tasked with finding a new business owner and obtaining a new liquor license to reopen the bar’s doors.
“I don’t think I’m going to have trouble getting a new owner,” Lychak said.
The Santa Clara was unable to reach Mike O’Brien for an interview.
“As much trouble as everyone else has getting a hold of O’Brien,” said former Hut bartender Dan Johnson, “I sometimes have as well.”
Keeping Up with Market Value
Johnson, who worked at the establishment for eight years, said that O’Brien chose not to renew his lease due to concerns about paying rent.
Johnson said that the rent was $4,500 a month when he first started working at the bar. Up until recently when O’Brien decided not to renew his lease, they were paying $6,500 in rent per month. According to Johnson, it was an amount they “struggled” to pay.
Business was slower during summer months and winter break when many students were away from campus, Johnson said. As the time came for O’Brien to renew his lease for an additional five years, Johnson said that Lychak wanted to increase the rent to $7,500 a month.
He said the potential rent increase was the kicker that pushed them out of the deal.
“Our rent was going up at an alarming rate and we just decided it’s not worth it,” Johnson said.
Lychak confirmed that he wanted to raise the rent to over $7,000, but said that this amount was in line with market value for the area, something that the business was not paying to begin with.
“That’s market value. It’s expensive, but that’s the cost of living today,” Lychak said.
According to Johnson, his sales went “through the roof” after O’Brien announced that the establishment was closing. He said that they would not have closed their doors if they received that amount of patronage on a regular basis. Instead, Johnson said he would have hired “tons more staff members” to help run the bar.
Senior Ray Whelan, said he thinks that O’Brien announced that The Hut was closing so he could turn a profit in his last months of ownership.
Whelan is on the Associated Student Government’s ad hoc Hut Lease Fact-Finding Committee, which was formed to investigate the circumstances behind the bar’s closure and future.
Whelan speculated that O’Brien made the decision to announce the closure, rather than transition to new ownership, in the interest of generating more revenue in his final days of operation.
“Not knowing his side of the story, it really does seem like a play to get a little more cash on his exit, which seems to have worked decently well,” Whelan said. “I know my wallet has contributed a decent amount to that.”
Changes in the Party Scene
Before O’Brien told Santa Clara that he was closing the bar, students began frequenting the bar much more regularly throughout the week—well beyond just Tuesday nights for The Hut’s infamous two-for-one drink special.
The party scene south of campus, an area known as “lightside,” took a hit after Santa Clara converted over 20 off-campus homes into neighborhood units which are now managed by the university’s Housing Office. Over the years, many of these houses were satellite homes of Santa Clara fraternities and the sites of rambunctious parties.
The Santa Clara Police Department also formed a Nuisance Suppression Unit to address “loud parties or music,” among other neighborhood issues, according to the SCPD website.
As a result, SCPD significantly cracked down on off-campus parties during fall quarter, leading people to host parties earlier and earlier in the evening to prevent being fined by the police. With the lack of late-night off-campus parties, upperclassmen went to the The Hut instead.
Changes in the Thursday night bar scene led thirsty students to flock to The Hut in droves, Whelan said, since off-campus bar Blinky’s Can’t Say, located in Franklin Square, recently closed down. On Thursday nights, students could be seen migrating between Da Silva’s Broncos, a bar formerly named The Claron, and Blinky’s.
Just one bar remains in Franklin Square for Broncos to wet their whistles.
Hut operators also announced more drink promotions, special events and and forged stronger relationships with student DJs in the months prior to the announcement that the bar would close.
Getting Up to Code
Despite Lychak’s desire to reopen the beloved local bar, there are many loose ends to tie up. Johnson thinks that Lychak will have tremendous difficulty reopening the bar due to issues with branding, ADA compliance and obtaining a liquor license.
Johnson said that Lychak will also have to carry out major renovations to make the building compliant with the code standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law, established in 1990, imposes certain accessibility requirements in public spaces to accommodate disabled individuals, such as requiring wheelchair ramps in buildings.
He said that when O’Brien purchased the bar from Lychak, he also purchased the “grandfathered” rights that allow it to operate without being ADA compliant due to the building’s advanced age. The structure was originally a farmhouse built in 1910.
“There is no ramp going in the front door or side door, the only wheelchair access is in the back gate,” Johnson said. “Fitting a wheelchair through any door in this place is an issue. The bathrooms are not handicap compliant; there are no handrails.”
The building also has no fire sprinklers, according to Johnson, who added that they would cost about $25,000 to $30,000 to install.
Addressing concerns about building renovations, Lychak said he owns the grandfathered rights that don’t require him to become ADA compliant.
Other Disputes Arise
According to Johnson, there is also disagreement about ownership of The Hut’s namesake, branding, furniture and fixtures.
He said that O’Brien owns “The Bronco Hut” business name, not Lychak, and that O’Brien owned the bar’s fixtures and furniture.
“He thinks he’s going to open back up in three months and he thinks he still owns the name, the branding, the furniture and fixtures and he doesn’t,” Johnson said.
According to Johnson, Lychak will have to receive approval from the police department, fire department and surrounding residents in order to obtain a liquor license. The university owns the majority of the properties in the The Hut’s vicinity, and Johnson said that several professors live close to the bar.
“I don’t foresee the university allowing it, let alone several of the professors who can’t sleep on Tuesday nights,” Johnson said.
He said that the school has had a tense relationship with The Hut for decades. A 1964 Santa Clara alumnus even told Johnson that the school used to prohibit students from visiting The Hut.
Johnson said that since O’Brien owned the bar, Lychak “butted heads” with the university a few times and that the university tried to “dictate what he could and couldn’t do.”
Despite Johnson’s claim that O’Brien owns the business name, Lychak still insists that he is the actual legal owner of the name.
When Lychak originally purchased the business from World War II veteran Fred “Freddy” Klein, he changed the business name from “The Hut” to “The Bronco Hut” because Klein named his construction company “The Hut.” But Klein is now deceased, and Lychak said he now owns both business names.
“I own both those names at the county recorder’s office. I pay for that,” Lychak said.
Lychak also said he has no concerns about being able to obtain a liquor license, and is currently working on obtaining one for The Hut.
After O’Brien announced the hut was closing, Lychak said that many people reached out to him about operating the business. He said that people continue to contact him about running the bar almost every day, and that the interest in the business is huge.
However, he needs to spend more time cleaning up the property before entering into any formal arrangements.
Picking Up the Pieces
Since the first week of January, Lychak has been working with his son to replace lights and door locks. They are also upgrading the electrical wiring, replacing the carpet and fixing the flooring.
The floor is well-worn from years of inebriated co-eds spilling their AMFs and pitchers of beer on the carpet. He said the filters in the air conditioning unit were black, and the bathrooms have been poorly maintained.
“That place is so filthy, I’m embarrassed to say that my name’s on it, but I’m going to get that sucker cleaned up,” Lychak said. “I want to make sure it’s done right.”
Lychak also has to contend with missing signage on the exterior of the building.
The iconic Bronco Hut sign depicting a bronco kicking a martini glass, formerly residing on the roof where it had been for years, was gone about a week after the bar shut down in December. Several signs were also ripped away from the bar’s outer walls.
Many Hut connoisseurs are also wondering about what will come of all of the dollar bills that once lived on the bar’s stained, wood-paneled walls.
Lychak said he has no idea where the exterior signs and dollar bills are, but claimed that he owned them—many of which were put up long before O’Brien began running the bar. Lychak said he ordered the production of these signs himself many years ago.
“He didn’t own those dollar bills on the ceiling and he took them all down,” Lychak said. “Those were not his to take down. Those signs aren’t his and those dollar bills aren’t his.”
Lychak said he intends to sue O’Brien for damages to the property and compensation for missing items.
The University’s Involvement
The university’s general counsel John Ottoboni said that Santa Clara purchased three of The Hut’s interior signs, several tables and The Hut’s wooden bar from O’Brien. He said that the university did not purchase the dollar bills inside of The Hut.
“We don’t have the dollar bills,” Ottoboni said. “I don’t know who has them and who doesn’t have them.”
Ottoboni said the university purchased these items because of their “nostalgia,” and hopes to display and use the items during alumni events such as Grand Reunion.
Neil Datar, ASG Senate Chair, said it was good that the university purchased these items, but only if they were willing to give the items back to the bar if and when it reopens.
“I do think it’s a good move of the university to purchase those fixtures but we have to work towards the understanding that the university will reinstate those fixtures once The Hut opens,” Datar said.
Ottoboni could not confirm whether or not the university would sell the items back to Lychak if The Hut reopened.
“We’d have to see what the situation was at the particular time, because we think we’d be able to use these (items) in connection to alumni reunions,” Ottoboni said.
In response to O’Brien’s decision to sell the items to the university, Lychak said that although O’Brien did own some fixtures inside of the bar as part of his lease, he had no right to do so because his lease is in default.
Lychak specified that O’Brien paid his rent in full, but was delinquent on other payments involving The Hut.
On Jan. 10, the first Tuesday of winter quarter, upperclassmen flocked to Normandy House Lounge, another local bar, that is located on Washington Street. Dubbed “NHL” by many, it boasts pool and air hockey tables, dart boards and a larger indoor space than The Hut once did. NHL’s bar staff, likely unprepared for the influx of students, stopped serving drinks around midnight
Missing were the dollar bills and years of Bronco memories, but present were undergrads in search of festive spirits and good company.
Contact Sophie Mattson at email@example.com or call (408) 554-4849. News editor Jenni Sigl contributed to this article.