To an outsider, it would seem that this has been a tumultuous year at Bridgeport’s Bijou Square development. In March, the popular eatery and live entertainment venue Two Boots Bridgeport abruptly announced its closure, citing an expired lease. In August, the Bijou Theatre posted a closing message on its website, with no explanation of what transpired.
But in an exclusive interview with the Fairfield County Business Journal, real estate developer Phil Kuchma, whose Bridgeport-based Kuchma Corp. was the driving force behind the Bijou Square project, the departure of Two Boots and the situation at the Bijou Theatre should not be seen as evidence of a troubled development.
“It was just a timing thing,” he said. “Although Two Boots’ closing coincided with the theater change, it was by design that both changes happen.”
In a letter that was published on its website in March, Two Boots took credit for “jumpstarting the construction of the Bijou.” However, Kuchma noted, Two Boots was originally engaged by Kuchma to manage the theater based on its ownership of the Pioneer Theater in New York City – but that aspect of the business partnership changed when the Pioneer closed in 2008 and Two Boots shut down its film exhibition operations; a local startup called One and Only Entertainment took on the theater assignment while Two Boots concentrated on the dining experience at Bijou Square.
And while many Bridgeport residents loved Two Boots’ Mardi Gras ambience and live music presentation, Kuchma expressed a growing disappointment over time with how the venue was being managed.
“Some of the entertainment early on was terrific,” he said. “But as the neighborhood became more residential, the entertainment changed a little bit and some of it became a little more obnoxious. People wanted to stay later, but then they had to go outside if they wanted to party. It was becoming too cumbersome to control and Two Boots was not controlling it very well. I wasn’t satisfied with what was happening there and decided not to extend the lease.”
Kuchma explained that Two Boots was already operating in much larger markets as a result of a concentrated expansion, and that Bridgeport became one of their smaller markets. (The company opened a Stamford location in August, but without a live entertainment lineup.)
“This was the first place they opened outside of New York City,” Kuchma said of the Bijou Square site. “They now have two places in Los Angeles, they have a place in Nashville, they have two places in Baltimore and couple of other locations. But they no longer have the place in Grand Central station – that gave them great exposure, and that is why so many people here were familiar with the Two Boots name.”
After an extensive renovation on the former Two Boots site, Bijou Square welcomed Milano Wine Bar & Pizzeria, which opened in August. For his part, Kuchma has no problems with this replacement.
“The new restaurant, Milano, is primarily pizza without entertainment, which we think is turning out better,” he said.
As for entertainment, confusion on the Bijou Theatre created something of an uproar in Bridgeport, with Kuchma fielding calls from city government officials and theater lovers that heard a variety of rumors, including a story that the theater would be razed in favor of condos. In reality, Kuchma explained, One and Only Entertainment was experiencing growing pains in running the theater.
“With any startup, it had some things they had to feel their way through,” Kuchma said. “They were part-time operators. Christine Brown (the co-owner of One and Only Entertainment) had her law practice to run. And in order to make the operation work the way they were running it, they set up a number of small groups of people that were doing things there – the Bijou Actors Guild putting on live performances, other people renting theater for events. Ultimately, we agreed management should change.”
Part of the problem, it seemed, was a disconnect between One and Only Entertainment and the entity brought in to run the theater – the latter set up a new website under a different domain that highlighted the theater’s upcoming events. Kuchma stated that the theater only closed for a two-week renovation period on its lobby, and that events were still occurring throughout the late summer and early fall.
As for the new management, Kuchma said they have been running the Bijou since mid-October but preferred to remain completely out of the public spotlight at the moment “because of the publicity that went on.”
“They want to be, by their choice, anonymous,” he said. “People are getting to know them, and they also have some people working for them. They wanted to bring it back in a little more gradually because there were a few things they did not want to continue with. They also have some new attractions: they booked the Whiffenpoofs (of Yale University) to come perform, plus they have another live musical production on stage coming, and they want to do a Sunday afternoon series of movies. The neighborhood needs the theater.”
With a new restaurant and a new creative team steering the Bijou, Kuchma hopes that the Bijou Square destination will help to revitalize the downtown Bridgeport area.
“There still is a stigma,” he said about Bridgeport’s reputation. “And as inaccurate as that stigma is, it becomes real to people that believe it. I don’t think advertising can get rid of it. I think what we need to do is what we’ve been doing over the past couple of years: have quality places, so the stigma is overcome when people say, ‘Wow, I was downtown and I had a great meal and saw a great show.’ People will trust you when you tell them rather than trust an advertisement in a newspaper.”