By The Bakersfield Californian
Normally when somebody asks if you think they are crazy, you demur, try to change the subject or do the polite thing by answering, "Of course not."
Not this time. My answer to the question was an uncharacteristically non-evasive, non-weasely "Yes."
However, this was no throwaway question, and when Seamus (pronounced SHAY-mus) Finn-Chandler fixes his deep-blue don't-b.s.-me-eyes on you, it's no time to shoot an airball.
Yes, I do think you're crazy. However, sometimes crazy is good, sometimes crazy gets things done, and sometimes crazy makes people take chances they wouldn't ordinarily take in order to make money and do something beautiful and worthwhile for the community.
I thought Brett Miller, co-owner of the Padre, was nuts too. Renovate the hotel? Install a million dollar air conditioner?
Open several restaurants and bars. Have you taken leave of your senses, boy?
Yes, Miller and his partners were crazy. Crazy-good, and from all outward appearances, they have been crazy-successful,
Finn-Chandler is opening Sustenance 101, a private cooking studio with an annual membership fee, downtown. This will be a place where people can retreat after a rough day at work, sit on comfortable furniture, buy a glass of wine or pour themselves a drink from a stash that Finn-Chandler will allow them to store in their own private locker.
The studio/club will have a kitchen, family-style tables, lamps and art, but it's not meant to look like a restaurant or a gallery. It's designed to feel like home, though you may not have to do the dishes unless you choose to do them as some kind of consciousness-raising or community-building exercise.
Finn-Chandler wants to make money, at least enough to cover his expenses, but he is more interested in creating community and bringing people together in a reasonably fun and perhaps educational way.
"We'd like to teach people about healthy eating, how to deal with food and diabetes, and have classes for children," Finn-Chandler said. "We want to show people how to make bread, roast coffee and cook gluten-free. We'll be talking about global cuisine but tapping into local farmers."
The location, on Eye Street near 18th, could be seen as a surprise, if not a sleeper. Previous tenants include Bakersfield Rubber Stamp and the original Alley Cat. The 1,500-square-foot building, built in 1938, seemed unremarkable until its new owner, oilman Tim Smale, got a glimpse of what it could be.
"I'd been looking for a building downtown, but they were too big or too small," Smale said.
"This was on the market and the owner's wife showed me a copy of the original plans. They'd put in an acoustical ceiling, chopped up the space and covered up all sorts of interesting features. When I realized what the building was, I had to buy it."
Smale exposed the open trusses, brick walls and a 25-foot domed ceiling that will be covered with copper. He's also installing 22 solar panels on the roof. Smale is cordoning off space for his office, but other than that, the inside will be wide open.
Though Finn-Chandler's concept might sound a little out there for Bakersfield, he did operate a Sustenance Cooking Studio in San Luis Obispo. According to patrons and at least one person who worked there, Sustenance was like a comet that burned brightly against the SLO landscape, causing a cosmic stir before hitting the earth at a thousand miles an hour.
Sustenance lasted two years before Finn-Chandler got burned out by the long hours and some breathtaking Central Coast rent (probably three times as much as what he will be paying in Bakersfield).
Still, Finn-Chandler and his crew forged an idea he thinks he can transplant to Bakersfield while making it successful and a kick.
"Bakersfield was the last place on the planet I expected to end up," he said. "It was never on my radar but when I decided to reboot Sustenance, doors started to open here. I fought it, but I'm supposed to be in Bakersfield."
A Buddhist, Finn-Chandler has been a carpenter, built bikes, furniture, businesses and now he wants to build something that matters and will be here after he's not.
"Seamus is good at creating beautiful space," said Anna Starkey, who worked for him in San Luis and met her future husband at Sustenance. "He drew people in. The place was upbeat, and the energy flowed."
Dan Melton, who owns a company called SLO Veg, was a friend and a fan of Sustenance in San Luis.
"Seamus connects people," Melton said. "He believes that although people are socially networked, they are lonelier than ever and a place like Sustenance is a way of overcoming that distance."
In San Luis, businesses like dental offices and engineering companies rented Sustenance and cooked together under the staff's guidance. They made pizza on an open fire, fresh pasta and then ate the meal together.
"It was a combination of team-building and throwing a party with an activity," Starkey said.
Community, creating a better world; Finn-Chandler is persuasive, but I still wondered. How are you going to make money?
"People will be able to rent the place without being members," he said. "We'll also have music, bring in speakers, chefs, have winemaker's dinners and hold cooking classes."
In other words, it could be a surprise a week at Sustenance.
"We had five couples who met at Sustenance and got married," Finn-Chandler said. "I found out later that one of them consummated their relationship on the couch."
He may be crazy but could he be on to something? Picture a place where people can meet, where they have to check their electronics at the door and where they can enjoy being social without the distraction of social networking.
It's Facebook, but face to face. About the club
What: A members-only establishment where patrons can store liquor, meet for drinks and private cooking parties; the space will also be rented out for small affairs.
Cost of membership: Yet to be determined.
Rental rate: Around $100 per hour; $750 for the evening.
Tentative opening date: Feb. 1
About the building
Address: 1810 Eye St.
Year built: 1938
Size: 1,500 square-feet
Property owner: Tim Smale
Sustenance 101 Owner: Seamus Finn-Chandler
Plans for renovation: Owner Smale plans to spend about $100,000 on the building. Sustenance will have concrete floors; brick walls; a fully functioning, hands-on demonstration kitchen; a six-burner gas cooktop on a kitchen island; a 20-foot bar with an acacia top inlaid with copper; comfortable sofas; books; art; new windows trimmed with wood; three new trees in front; a garden and outdoor seating.