The rebirth of cool

Marcus Charles resurrects one of Seattle’s cultural icons

To some, the old Crocodile Café was as essential a Seattle icon as Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, Safeco Field or the Ballard Locks. The venerable rock club gave rise to “Grunge” and helped put Seattle on the map, then became the local music scene’s living room for nearly two decades.

And then, in late 2007, the Croc closed—abruptly and without ceremony. There were no takers to resurrect the cultural landmark. Until the former owner approached one last candidate.

Marcus Charles (MBA 2008) had been in the entertainment business since high school, when he would organize massive parties. While earning a degree in communications at the UW he created and test-piloted a management internship at Anthony’s Homeport, learning the ins and outs of the restaurant trade. When he was 23, he opened Marcus’ Martini Heaven, a Pioneer Square club that cashed in on the retro swing craze of the mid-1990s. He opened the Bad Juju Lounge, then Jack’s Roadhouse, then Neumos, then Spitfire. With a partner in 2000 he took on the nascent Capitol Hill Block Party, turning a little DIY event into a full-on music festival, drawing 20,000 fans to hear 50 bands last summer.

But the life of an impresario is not without its downside. “Ten years is a long time in the rock and roll business,” Charles says. “I was (and am) still married, collaborating with longtime partners, and no stints in rehab—monumental achievements in our world. But I was ready to change directions.”

He sold all of his properties except the Block Party, and enrolled in the Foster School’s Executive MBA Program. Despite being one of the least corporate types in the room, he flourished and graduated adept at checking his shrewd intuition through a formal, strategic framework.

But the nightclub business called him back. A terrible job market in 2008 made a small property for sale in Belltown look pretty attractive. Charles recalls, “I told myself, ‘You can do one little bar and the Block Party and still get a job.’”

He opened a bar called Juju. But before the job search could continue came the irresistible offer to buy another languishing property just up the street. Charles negotiated down the Crocodile Café’s selling price, assembled ten investors to finance the renovation, then spent months overhauling systems, reconfiguring the space, hiring the right “taste makers” to bring back the crowds. He cleaned up the place, but not too much. “It had to be a rock club,” he says.

Now, past the one-year anniversary of its rebirth, the Croc is solvent and as popular as ever. “We’ve re-energized the brand, as they like to say in business school,” says Charles

“We’ve lost so many Seattle institutions in the past few years and acted too late to salvage them (think the Sonics). A lot of people didn’t want the Crocodile to go away. And sure, I felt the pull of nostalgia, too, a sense that this was a place worth preserving. But I also knew that its history was also the thing that would make the new business viable.”