The Hip Hop Kafe's time had come. In the spirit of the Hard Rock Cafe, the developers of the Northwest Plaza entertainment center planned to showcase chart-topping tunes on a state-of-the-art sound system, serve a full restaurant menu and proudly unfurl on its walls autographed paraphernalia from rap's most popular artists. Heavyweights including Nelly, Suge Knight and David Banner had already paid visits to the as-yet-unopened flagship establishment to contribute tennis shoes, T-shirts and platinum records. With good publicity and a little luck, a worldwide franchise promised to blossom.
"It was a tribute and a museum to hip-hop past, present and future," says owner Robert Porter Jr.
Located in the space that had formerly housed Dick Clark's American Bandstand Grill, the Hip Hop Kafe was to serve as a centerpiece of Northwest Plaza's revitalization. Though it retains anchor stores Sears, Dillard's and Famous-Barr, the mall at Lindbergh Boulevard and St. Charles Rock Road in St. Ann has hemorrhaged at least a dozen tenants in the past six months, including its movie theater. Stores appealing to African-American customers have found success, however, and the Hip Hop Kafe seemed to fit right in.
"The mall believed we could be the new anchor," Porter relates. "[The area] is a predominantly African-American community. Would we have made money and brought traffic? Most definitely."
By midsummer the Kafe was nearly ready to open. Servers had been hired and trained and were prepared to make their entrances in skimpy, Hooters-style outfits. The kitchen had been rebuilt. Dozens of full-color murals of rap stars, each one painstakingly airbrushed by St. Louis artist James "Tre" Loveless, adorned the walls of the 5,000-square-foot venue.
Then disaster struck, in the form of a flyer promoting the Kafe's opening, scheduled for July 27. Billing the event as a "Wet and Wild Wednesday," the brochure featured a woman wearing a wet T-shirt.
This did not sit well at St. Ann's city hall.
"We didn't know what that wet T-shirt contest was going to disintegrate into," says city administrator Matt Conley. "Flashing? Lewd and lascivious behavior that kind of thing?"
"They were claiming that it was a restaurant, but the city was concerned that it was more of a nightclub than a restaurant," adds Steve Garrett, St. Ann's city attorney. "A member or two of the board of aldermen commented that their menu looked more like a bar menu than that of a family restaurant."
On top of that, Garrett says, Porter had failed to obtain the appropriate permits required to operate the restaurant. On the day of its scheduled debut, St. Ann police refused to allow the Hip Hop Kafe to open its doors.
In early October the St. Ann Board of Aldermen formally rejected Porter's second application for an occupancy permit. A month later the management company that runs Northwest Plaza, the Westfield Group, evicted the Kafe.
(A local Westfield representative confirmed the Hip Hop Kafe's eviction but deferred to a California spokeswoman who could not be reached for further comment.)
Porter insists he did everything necessary to acquire the permits. He also says the provocative "Wet and Wild" flyers were printed by an independent promoter who was participating in the opening. Porter says he was not shown the flyers before they were passed out, and that no wet T-shirt contest had ever been planned.
And, he adds, the Hip Hop Kafe was never intended to be a dancehall.
"A nightclub has a big dance floor," Porter argues. "We basically left it intact the way Dick Clark had it, other than we put murals on the walls and put in a little bigger stage for comedy nights and signings. We have only booth seating. We had hired cooks, we had hired staffs, and our menu had been developed."
Porter's attorney, T.C. Carter, has filed suit against the city of St. Ann, claiming damages of more than $1 million.
Garrett says the lawsuit is without merit and says the restaurant lacked fire, electrical, mechanical and health permits, not to mention a liquor license. "These guys have never, ever, to this day, obtained the permits they need to open a restaurant and a bar," the St. Ann city attorney argues. "These guys didn't come to us with permit applications and we turned them down, they didn't come to us and ask us for anything."
Counters Porter: "We played by the rules as far as we knew the rules. Regardless of what he says, they screwed up as far as I'm concerned. I know all my crap was there. I don't feel like getting involved in rebuttals and he-said, she-said shit. This will be decided in the courtroom, not the newspaper."
The 64-year-old Porter, who once owned the erstwhile MVP Sports Bar & Grill at Union Station, says he'd spoken with investors about franchising the Hip Hop Kafe around the world.
"I have an associate who owns the rights to Baywatch, and they were interested in bringing the Kafe to three locations Houston, Atlanta and China. They were going to come in once we had our grand opening, look at it, and hopefully we were going to ink a deal.
"Everybody associates hip-hop with gangsta rap, and I think that's where they started to panic," Porter says of the city's aldermen, none of whom is African American. "These are good old white people raised in St. Ann who have never left the community. If they could have afforded to flee St. Ann when the people of color moved in, they would have left. They could not afford to leave St. Ann."
Porter says he's looking for an alternate, more hospitable location.
That's a shame, says James Loveless, who along with his father, James Loveless, Jr., painted murals depicting Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Rick James, the Beastie Boys and others on the Northwest Plaza site's walls. Loveless says he was paid $8,000 for the artwork, which took him four months to complete.
"Another airbrush artist said he wouldn't do that amount of work for under $75,000. But I was expecting a big turnout at the Kafe, that people would see what we could do and invite us to do work on bikes and cars, so I didn't mind getting paid such a small amount," he says.
"They didn't have their business work taken care of, and then to have the police down there it was just a big disappointment," Loveless laments. "I wouldn't put the blame on anybody. I just don't think it was handled properly. The club would have benefited St. Ann as well as the owners of the club. It would have helped revitalize Northwest Plaza."