All is not smooth at Velvet

  • by Heather Cassell
  • Wednesday April 11, 2007
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The relationship between Bay Area DJ and women's club promoter Page Hodel and club owners Adam Afuvai, Stephanie Sulivan, and Robert Huff started as many do – they saw an opportunity for a women's bar in the East Bay and went for it. They called it Velvet.

But just over a month after Afuvai and Sulivan, who are married, and Huff approached out lesbian Hodel and accepted her proposal for a seven-night-a-week women's bar in the Oakland foothills, the relationship soured. Their optimism was quickly struck by the reality of their differing values and a huge learning curve, which led to frustration and irreconcilable differences, according to the former business partners.

Breaking up

During the early morning hours on March 28, Hodel, 50, packed up her sound system equipment the club, located at 3411 MacArthur Boulevard in the Laurel District. Later that same day, she dropped off the key and handed a letter to Huff, 38, severing her relationship with the business partners.

Within hours, Hodel posted a public announcement about her split from Velvet to the Bay Area lesbian and bisexual women's community on the Bay Area Sappho list and Craigslist. Her announcement spawned a flurry of discussion about Velvet on community bulletin boards and listserves. The online discussions were split down the middle in support of Hodel and the Velvet owners, but the bar was sparsely filled with women shooting pool and drinking on March 30.

"I'm hurt," Sulivan, 36, told the Bay Area Reporter. "This came out of nowhere. We had no idea that she wanted to do this. She had a lot of trust issues with us and it ended up being the other way around in the end. We would have never done this to her. We would have never locked the door one day and just never let her in. We absolutely respect her."

Afuvai, 41, said that he wished that Hodel had had a discussion with them about her dissatisfaction with their partnership and her plans to leave.

"I think that if there was more time ... we would still be a foursome. It was a very good combination, in my opinion," he said.

Hodel told the B.A.R. that she has no plans to reconcile the relationship.

Ending the relationship with her business partners wasn't an easy decision for Hodel. She said that while owning a women's space has been her dream, her ideal women's space would be a cafe by day with a huge open space that could be turned into a club at night.

What drew her into the project was the fact that Velvet was an opportunity to have a women's club seven nights a week.

"I was so excited to announce a seven-night-a-week bar," said Hodel. "It was a home-based clubhouse for women ... where you could go any night, where you always knew that if you were alone and lonely you could go down and find a friend."

According to Hodel, all four agreed to her proposal, the memorandum of understanding she wrote up, and her suggestion to use the name Velvet.

Huff registered Velvet with the city of Oakland on March 14 and it continues to be the name of the club.

In her March 28 statement, Hodel publicly announced that she does not endorse their use of the name since it was her creation.

"I know that Page feels that remains her personal property. I would disagree with that," said Afuvai. "We came to an agreement on that name. There were a number of names put on the table and we all said, 'Hey, we'll just go with Velvet.' She doesn't have the right to that name. We legally own that name."

Afuvai, Huff, and Sulivan told the B.A.R. that they didn't have a contract, but they did have a business plan, which Hodel wasn't a part of, and that they estimate that they invested over $100,000 in the business.

"We had a wait and see circumstance because Page felt more comfortable waiting six to eight weeks to see what the outcome of the business would be," said Afuvai, who insisted, along with Huff and Sulivan, that it was Hodel's preference to work without a contract. Afuvai told the B.A.R. that in future business arrangements they plan on having contracts in place.

Unfortunately, according to Hodel, due to the nature of the bar and nightclub business, where a handshake often seals the deal, the documents she presented to the group weren't reviewed by a lawyer or notarized. In the future she plans on having contracts. Either way, she doesn't believe that a contract would have solved the types of problems they had.

Euphoria on the rocks

"I understood in coming into this project that I was going to produce this show," said Hodel, who brought to the partnership 25 years of experience producing women's clubs and events. She also made a financial investment, but declined to disclose the amount. "My understanding was that their role was going to be much more in the background."

That didn't happen, according to Hodel.

"What was essentially happening is that the two guys were deciding on things and telling me the way things were going to be. My voice was becoming completely smaller and smaller," said Hodel. "It's absolutely ludicrous that two straight guys think that they can sit and address the women's community. It's not their jurisdiction."

According to Hodel, the arguments she had with her business partners were the result of a fundamental lack of knowledge and understanding about the lesbian and women's communities. The misunderstandings included the necessity of hiring lesbian and bisexual women staff throughout all aspects of the business and not having men behind the bar.

"Page had a very strong opinion of what a women's bar and venue should be," said Afuvai. "That would be probably no men whatsoever. Unfortunately, I can't change what I am and as a bar owner I should be able to go behind the bar and serve anyone that comes into the bar."

Afuvai added, "I do try to make it a point to try and stay away from the back of the bar myself. I try to honor everything that Page taught us."

Hodel said that other issues that led her to part ways included details about catering to the lesbian community, such as describing the club as a women's bar after the community requested that it not be known as a girls' bar. There were even arguments over a dress code for entrance into the club. Hodel vehemently opposed the dress code and told Afuvai and Huff to wait several weeks and see if they still felt that a queer women's club needed a dress code that included no baseball caps or athletic wear.

"Some of the issues are related to some of the friction, not understanding some of the things in the lesbian community," said Afuvai, who admitted that this is the first time he has ever worked directly with the lesbian community and that Velvet has been a learning experience.

The final deal breaker, according to Hodel and her former business partners, was the graphic designer, whom all declined to identify. Afuvai, Huff, and Sulivan decided to rehire a graphic designer who worked with them for 20 years after he stepped in to work on the grand opening flier. Hodel's graphic designer had a family emergency during the project. Hodel told the B.A.R. that her business partners' designer never returned her calls and consistently missed deadlines, but returned Afuvai's calls immediately. Feeling disrespected by the designer and her desire to have an all-lesbian staff, she was appalled when the partners decided to hire the designer for the next flier.

Shaken and stirred beginnings

Despite all of the problems behind the scenes, Hodel felt like she could handle it due to the tremendous amount of excitement and outpouring of support from the queer women's community.

"It was a slam-dunk win-win," said Hodel.

Afuvai, Huff, and Sulivan agreed with Hodel. When Velvet opened on March 17, there was a line of women waiting to get inside the crowded club.

"Our grand opening was amazing," said Afuvai. "We had ... hundreds of women in line and they were happy to be in line and just happy to have a place to go to. I've never seen so many people in any line so happy to be in line."

Yet the enthusiasm was short lived. On March 24, the Oakland police shut down Velvet. Public affairs Officer Roland Holmgren confirmed on April 2 that the police temporarily closed the club after officers were called due to a noise complaint. At that time, police noticed that the permit to sell alcohol wasn't properly displayed and temporarily closed the club.

The shutdown produced a flurry of posts on Craigslist and Bay Area Sappho. Hodel told the B.A.R. that she wanted to immediately release a statement about the situation to dispel the misinformation and the speculation she saw circulating on the lists that the bar was closed because it was a lesbian bar, but Afuvai was against that idea.

The situation was cleared up on March 26 and Velvet reopened on March 28, according to Afuvai, Huff, and Sulivan who told the B.A.R . that the permit situation was due to an administrative error. They excitedly called Hodel to inform her of the good news, but received a "I'm not feeling well" response, according to Sulivan.

Velvet's future

With Hodel's abrupt departure from Velvet, Afuvai, Huff, and Sulivan insist that they are committed to the lesbian community and will continue operating as a women's bar. On April 6 a list of events was posted on Bay Area Sappho and Craigslist.

Both sides have moved on.

"You know, we don't want it to go anywhere," said Sulivan. "We're not trying to add fuel to the fire. We're not trying to make this an all-out anything. We plan on building our nights to offer as many nights as we can and the nice thing about this space is that it does have the ability to be a club on the weekends. In reality, we are a neighborhood bar and we are committed to doing so."

When the B.A.R. asked if they plan on hiring staff from the LGBT community, Afuvai responded, "We will try and fill positions with the gay community in mind. We want the best people available, but we also know that there are a lot of gay and lesbian bartenders and deejays available."

Afuvai said that he does have a list of people in mind, but didn't want to disclose any names.

"We are dedicated and committed to providing a space to the lesbian community that is safe and comfortable for them," said Huff. "There will be people that don't want to patronize us because of our gender or orientation and that's their right and privilege to do that."

Hodel, who wanted to make it clear that she never said that her former business partners were homophobic, as was circulated on Craigslist and Bay Area Sappho, is moving on.

"I no longer want to have anything to do with them," said Hodel. "I just have much more wonderful things to do with my life and my time."

Hodel said that she is preparing for her annual Pride party, Girl Pride, continuing to host Respect (which just entered its sixth year at Club Rouge), and spin at the Starlight Room on Sunday nights.

For more information about Velvet, visit For more information about Respect and Girl Pride contact Hodel at mailto:[email protected].