Blue Collar Meets High Culture at Cleveland Bar
Cleveland is known as many things: a Rust Belt city with a blue-collar personality prone to constant sports disappointments. But the city, for all its hardships, also is celebrated as a music hub, which is why the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sits on the shores of Lake Erie.
Mixing this well-known fact with hot dogs, French fries and tater tots, Happy Dog co-owner Sean Watterson knew the amalgamation of high and low — culture, food, music, etc. — would attract a diverse crowd to the bar located in Cleveland’s revitalized Gordon Square Arts District.
The hipster bar, noted for its gourmet hot dogs, started diversifying its music scene a couple of years ago in 2010 when it welcomed the Cleveland Orchestra to the venue. Watterson met principal flute player Joshua Smith, and “he mentioned he always wanted to try getting a group together and try playing the bar, and I said why not,” Watterson explains.
Although it took a while to find time in the Orchestra’s schedule to get five musicians to practice and prep for the event, “Orchestra Manouvres at the Dog,” “seemed to resonate with folks,” he continues. The first time the orchestra came, Happy Dog was packed with lines out the door. The second time, after word of mouth had made its way around the city, “it was packed again,” Watterson says.
Members of the Cleveland Orchestra play at the Happy Dog approximately three times a year; the next show is Aug. 15.
“For people coming to the Happy Dog anyway, who didn’t even know about what was happening, it was great because it exposed them to the orchestra and seeing something they wouldn’t expect in the bar,” Watterson says.
“The orchestra is one of the best out there, even though it’s not what you normally think of at a bar — how can you pass up having the best at the bar,” he notes.
Happy Dog also is home base to Classical Revolution Cleveland, a group of classical musicians who play the third Tuesday of every month, rotating artists and instruments.
The turnout to see classical music at a bar known for rock music and comfort food inspired Watterson to pursue the high and low culture juxtaposition to even further depths, including its partnership with Case Western Reserve University’s Institute for the Science of Origins. Happy Dog hosts “Life, the Universe and Hot Dogs,” which brings scientific understanding to Happy Dog enthusiasts seeking academic insights between pints of beer. Watterson also has set up bus trips to the Cleveland Museum of Art, as well as to Severance Hall to watch the Cleveland Orchestra perform.
“We want (Happy Dog) to be a place where everyone would feel welcome,” he explains. “Instead of a dive bar and club, we like to have a multigenerational crowd, with old and young people.”
Happy Dog’s reach extends beyond initial expectations because Watterson seeks opportunities that are unique to the restaurant, choosing innovative ideas over the mundane.
“We try not to repeat ourselves. We try to do something worth writing about,” he says. “In the long run — the big picture — it helps brand us as being innovative, and it gives people access to something they wouldn’t normally think to do or could afford to do.”
“We’re just selling hot dogs and beer. They’re the best orchestra and art museum in the world, and they’re willing to lend their reputations to us.”
And it’s important to Watterson to impart culture on to his clients. All the events are free, he says. “The money we spend to get people in the door — that’s just the way it goes,” he says. “We’ll make enough doing our core business, but it’s better for us in the long run and it’s better for the city in the long run,” he explains.
To Watterson, integrating Happy Dog into the Cleveland zeitgeist is the most important benefit.
“The foodies will come for (Momocho chef and owner) Eric Williams because he came up with the menu. The music fans will come for the rock music. The culture people come for the stuff I do with University Circle institutions and neighborhood people come because it’s a corner bar,” Watterson says. “They all come for one of those things and end up experiencing the other two while they’re here, and they may come back again for those.”