One of the most famous gay bars in the world, The Abbey Food and Bar in West Hollywood, hits its 30th anniversary this week (May 23). It’s become bigger and more successful than its owner and founder, David Cooley, could ever have imagined.
In fact, hitting its 30th birthday was beginning to look unlikely just a few months ago. During the Covid pandemic, the bar was forced to shut on four different occasions, sometimes at very short notice.
On two of those occasions, closure came shortly after his team had made big orders for perishable items.
“Our chef and our barman had ordered $40,000+ in produce: meats, cheese and bakery items,” Cooley says via a Zoom call to GayCities. “Those quotas were for over 30 days.”
Unsurprisingly, to be ordered to close just five hours later was devastating.
“We called our employees in and made a little grocery store for everyone to come in and pick up the produce, and sent them home,” recalls Cooley. “That’s costly for a small business. Even though people think the Abbey is so big, it’s still run as a small business.”
Although its reputation today is international, the Abbey did indeed start small. It didn’t even sell liquor, just coffee.
Cooley hails from Ohio. He picked up a degree in Hotel Management from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and then relocated to Los Angeles in 1981.
He first pursued a career in finance and was a stockbroker for two years before becoming a vice president at Wells Fargo Bank. Then, in 1991, he had the idea to open a coffee store. A banking customer who was also a good friend had done something similar and Cooley had noticed their success.
“I found a location in West Hollywood, I got my espresso machine and a few cakes. I had a business partner for my first three years. He had some stained glass church windows in his garage. We had to think of a name and The Abbey, having the least letters in it, saved us money on signage.”
The Abbey was born. Since that time, it soon picked up a liquor license and has undergone five expansions, including a move across the street and the addition of The Chapel nightclub space next door. It’s now 14,000 square feet in size.
“I never thought in my mind that I would be celebrating 30 years, especially after this past year. We weren’t too sure if we were going to be able to make it. I never thought a little coffee house would one day be, on a pre-Covid Saturday night, employing 22 security and 45 dancers.”
Related: Gay bars in Los Angeles
Cooley says he has his staff to thank for the Abbey’s success.
“We run it as a family business. I think that’s what made us survive this pandemic. We all look after each other. Everyone does everyone’s job. They all laugh at me because I’m the best busboy on the floor. I’ve been in the kitchen, I’ve been in the bakery … We all do everything.”
He says he regularly works 12-15 hour days and is very hands-on.
“We support each other, and that’s why I have some employees that have been with me for 20-30 years.”
Then there is the clientele.
“We have regulars every day at the same table, at the same time,” says Cooley. “They take pride in it, when they come in, and they’re showing their family, or their friends for the first time. They know the history of it.
“And that makes me feel so good when people come in and say, ‘This was the first gay bar I bought my parents to.’ Or, ‘I feel so comfortable here.’
“We’ve gone through a lot. We’ve gone through the AIDS crisis. We’ve gone through the riots. We’ve gone through the pandemic. We’ve gone through the earthquake, and we’ve all managed to be at The Abbey together: the customers, my staff, and of course, with the support from the city I’ve been doing business with, for 30 years.”
Cooley is quick to praise West Hollywood for its assistance during the pandemic and believes its support of outzones (outdoor spaces where people can eat or drink), has been a big factor in helping The Abbey and other venues.
“I never thought I’d be sitting out on my street, having a martini, legally with my city council!” Cooley laughs. “They’ve been extremely supportive, and I think that environment is going to stay, to have outzones within our city.”
Cooley is a big believer in using the Abbey to give back to the community. His annual Academy Awards viewing party has raised nearly $2,000,000 for AIDS Project Los Angeles, among many other causes it supports. He is particularly proud of the Abbey’s annual Christmas in September toy drive for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“I met a customer one September,” he recalls, “and he worked for the children’s hospital.
“He said one of the biggest challenges, where he worked, was … they have a big toy room, and it’s empty around this time because everyone is waiting for the holidays to donate toys. So we came up with this idea called Christmas In September. We have it completely decorated: Christmas trees and Christmas carollers, go-go elves.”
He says in 2019, before the pandemic forced the event to go virtual, they collected around 10,000 toys.
“The Abbey’s annual Christmas in September Toy Drive has become the largest toy drive for CHLA and is reflective of The Abbey’s dedication and generosity in supporting our pediatric patients,” Rosby Lamm, Manager of Volunteer Resources and Toy Program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, told GayCities.
The business is also not averse to becoming more politically involved.
In 2012, Cooley was selected to join President Obama¹s LGBT Advisory Committee, hosting several fundraising events for the President. He also regularly hosts events and fundraisers for openly LGBTQ candidates for public office, such as Pete Buttigieg in early 2020.
Of course, what the Abbey will probably be most known for is providing a good night out. After 30 years, which ones stick in Cooley’s memory?
The first one he recalls is when he got a call from Diana Ross’s publicist, asking if the legend could come down to promote her latest release.
“She did a pop-up concert for like an hour and 40 minutes. So, having Miss Ross in was pretty fantastic,” he says, with some understatement.
Another was the afternoon when Lady Gaga came in in 2013 and asked the Abbey DJ to play her new song. The track had just leaked online.
“She said ‘This song was supposed to be released this week but someone snuck it out. Can you take my phone and play it? That was the song ‘Applause’, and we got worldwide attention for that.”
Cooley also has fond memories of enjoying regular Martinis with the late, great Elizabeth Taylor and “having to pinch myself under the table … that was very special as well.”
Cooley says that because of its location in West Hollywood, it’s not unusual for customers to bump into a celebrity at the bar. However, he says he believes in treating everyone like a VIP.
Another recent, treasured memory, was, “the neighbor who came in and asked if I could reserve this table for him the next night, because he met his wife at The Abbey, got engaged at The Abbey, got married at The Abbey. About two months ago, he asked for the same table to celebrate their second anniversary. So that was pretty emotional for me.”
What about The Abbey makes Cooley most proud?
“To see people look on The Abbey as an institution for our community, makes me feel proud. It makes me feel proud to go into work and see the familiar faces. To see the joy and diversity.
“It’s a gay bar where everyone is accepted, everyone feels special, and I’m very proud of that the most.”