Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sometimes I Hate Having a Scoop

I love ice cream. It can be the accompanying part of a dessert such as with a helping of bread pudding and make complete the entire dessert. And I've enjoyed this very dish at RAGIN CAJUN PIANO BAR in downtown Alton several times.

I am a reporter by nature. On occasion, I've been the person who had a "scoop" on a story. Sometimes this is a positive thing of which to be proud, and sometimes it's just another in a long line of stories.

UNFORTUNATELY --- I HAVE A SCOOP involving both ice cream and the RAGIN CAJUN. Well...sorta.

Last night on Facebook, RAGIN CAJUN PIANO BAR announced its own scoop. It will be closing this week unless an agreement can be worked out between the partners involved in its ownership.

Chris Keidel has been a face that all kinds of people from around the RiverBend have come to see inside the Ragin Cajun --- he is one of the two owners --- as far as I know there wasn't a day in the life of Ragin Cajun when Chris was away from the business. Aaron Agne is the other and was frequently seen behind the bar, in the balcony (office), outside with customers during the warmer weather, or even in a restaurant booth on the busier nights. Aaron wasn't around 100 percent of the time, but in any business one person usually takes a less hands-on approach. Such is how it is with these partners: Chris was hands-on, and Aaron --- while still a presence --- was not there every night.

If my scoop is correct (anyone who has taken a tour knows this to be true), Chris and Aaron have been putting their sweat and lives on the line to open up, maintain, and expand Ragin Cajun during one of the worst economic times in the history of any currently-living person. Despite this, countless people came in during 2010 and gave the restaurant (or the bar) a chance. Some of the spring and summer customers left thinking "I liked it, but it isn't open enough" --- thus, they expanded their hours in late summer and it was paying off. Chris and Aaron had listened to these people. There were new customers, new piano players, and bigger sales of food and liquor. As you can tell, I was partial to the food --- my family ate at the Ragin Cajun on several occasions, and even though our own personal economy tanked this fall, we still went and enjoyed ourselves greatly.

But...if the two cannot come to an accord today or tomorrow, this is the swan song for a destination for so many.


Now a bit about the "DESTINATION" part of RAGIN CAJUN PIANO BAR.

Note that key ingredient in the name: PIANO.

Over the summer, the staff who played on the keyboards grew. They added a drum set behind the keys, and suddenly it was taking a new life. This fall I was part of something special when on a Monday the musicians/entertainers were practicing. They were having a good evening, mixing it up, trying new songs out on those of us who were there --- getting some tips to improve their show. Suddenly there came a stranger into the place. We patrons didn't know what to expect, nor did the keyboard performers who had been working on their craft, when Travis sat at the keys with a drink in his hand and started playing. Actually, I think Travis said to Charlie and Jeff, "Can I sit and play one?" He did. And then another...and another...and suddenly we were all singing with him, myself included. Chris took notice. Several of us had the same reaction: hire this guy. And Chris did just that --- hiring Travis, setting things in motion for the remainder of the fall/winter. His existence helped push the younger piano talent in a positive direction --- in a matter of days there was a buzz about how much fun it was inside the restaurant on a regular basis. And the customer base was larger, spending more time and money in "the Cajun" --- the business was finally growing in a way that many of us recognized. It became clear that what happened was putting a happy face on so many people. You could see it when Charlie and Jeff played; when Carl and Travis were teamed up; when Brian beat on the drums and the electricity was in the air; when Melanie had so many customers that she couldn't rest on her trips from the kitchen to the tables and booths, and even on Chris' face on the slower nights when the bar was busy but the kitchen crew was able to do detailed cleanup. Customers, whether bar regulars or restaurant regulars, all had this feeling that we'd just witnessed the turnaround of the business at the Ragin Cajun and perhaps the entire downtown Alton economy --- because 2009 was pretty humdrum outside of the block parties. Now, we had another piece of the puzzle --- a place where the music flowed, the energy was terrific, and the atmosphere was electric. We had a destination --- even for nights when we didn't want food or drinks from the bar we could go and have dessert or a late night breakfast --- and we had musical talent enriching our lives --- Ragin Cajun Piano Bar drew people from outside of the immediate RiverBend on a nightly basis.
(One patron has so many pictures on Facebook that weeks ago I deemed her the Ragin Cajun photojournalist. She comes regularly from Edwardsville, and I dare say that her routine will be dramatically altered if this venue closes.)


It takes quite a lot to make any place a destination. But it was apparent that RAGIN CAJUN Piano Bar was a destination to hundreds of people each week.

Now, I have to wonder if there will be a last-minute savior who can keep open one of the brightest upstart businesses Alton has seen in quite a long time. I do not know what it is that Aaron wants or expects (other than money) out of a deal like this one, but if he simply wants too much money in a buyout, I guess he's going to lose a lot more than most of us. If Aaron forces the closure of Ragin Cajun, the customers cannot help him out.

What I wonder is this: is there someone in the RiverBend who can come into the picture and "save" our endangered destination? Who is he or she? Will they show up in the nick of time?

I will be at RAGIN CAJUN tonight. I need to show my personal support for these people, even though I am unable to put up the money necessary to buy out Aaron --- unless I won the jackpot of a lottery and don't know it.

It seems like an appropriate time for me to ask more questions and, as the late Paul Harvey always said, get THE REST OF THE STORY.

I sure hope that I have good news by this Friday.