TAMPA – For more than a year, the Hip Hop Soda Shop was Al Chisolm's Wednesday night home.
Then one day the 57-year-old saxophonist got a call to pick up the pay from the On Que Players' last gig. He stopped by during his lunch break from his day job.
"I hate to see them go," Chisolm said. "It was a beautiful establishment."
After barely a year and a half in business, the soda shop is closed, the property is getting a new owner and H3 Enterprises, Hip Hop's management company, is mired in lawsuits with franchise owners and a former company president.
A beautiful scene
The scene was years in the making. Hip-hop's royalty would descend on humble Fowler Avenue for the restaurant and night club opening in December 2007.
Rapper Doug E. Fresh flew in. So did other hip-hop stars. Ben Chavis, a former head of the NAACP and president of H3 Enterprises, was at the gala too.
Planned as a prototype, the 11,000-square-foot restaurant had a recording studio, outdoor patio, 34 flat-panel televisions and 24 Xbox 360 consoles.
One-time backers of the concept included former Buccaneer Warren Sapp, NBA player Ben Gordon, tennis great Yannick Noah and rapper Juelz Santana.
Sapp even had helped pick out a St. Petersburg location in 2006. That site never materialized, and the group went ahead with renovations to the Bull Ring Sports Bar in Tampa.
Ben Chavis became president of H3 Enterprises in June 2007. Within a year, the company was having problems with his leadership.
H3 Enterprises sued Chavis and two associates in U.S. District Court in Tampa in October 2008. The company alleged, among other things, that Chavis strong-armed the company to hire two of his friends and committed the company to a Miami expansion that it could not afford.
Siding with H3 Enterprises, Judge Richard A. Lazzara ordered Chavis to return business records to the company. He also ordered Chavis and his friends not to represent themselves as H3 employees.
By May, the business was months behind in its rent, said Peter Spatz, an auctioneer brought in to sell the property.
Neither Chavis nor H3 could be reached for comment. Former Tampa manager Eric Green, also in the midst of a dispute with H3, did not dismiss the possibility of re-opening at a different location, perhaps in St. Petersburg.
This past week, Spatz said he found a buyer to pay nearly $750,000 for the site. He would not name the buyer, but said the plan was to put a sports bar on the site in the coming months.
"The thing is just ready to go, including the alarm," he said.
"Pots and pans. Knives and forks are all ready to go. All you have to do is put the key in."
In its day, the restaurant was a staging ground for groups like the On Que Players and Got Jokes, an improv comedy troupe.
"Wednesday nights was a pretty happening spot for a while," Chisolm said. "It was a nice building. It was set up real nice."
And while the ensemble still plays, Chisolm said it took a couple of months to get rolling again after Hip Hop's sudden closing this summer.
Daniel Jefferson's time to shine was Saturday night. He started Got Jokes more than a year ago and the Hip Hop Soda Shop was the first place where the group got to perform.
"We really believed in the vision of Hip Hop Soda Shop," Jefferson said. "They really gave us our first opportunity to do a weekly show."
Jefferson said the group still performs locally at the Tampa Improv and in St. Petersburg at Nova 535 art gallery. He said the group has expanded and is thankful for the opportunity the soda shop setting did provide.
"I think it became a hub and people are sad to see it go," Jefferson said. "It is not a matter of the need not existing. What it all comes down to, it just really was not executed well in the end. And that really is kind of unfortunate."
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.