Around Town

POETS stages comeback

by Leslie Turk

Get ready for Tenacious Tuesday, ladies, ‘cause it‘s returning, too.

Lafayette nightclub entrepreneur Shannon Wilkerson hopes memories of good times at POETS on James Comeaux Road will translate into success in Downtown Lafayette, where he plans to reintroduce the concept. "Tenacious Tuesday will be in full force," Wilkerson says of the long-popular ladies‘ night that offered free and discounted cocktails, app specials and great music. "The Vinyl Meltdown is another theme night I am looking forward to bringing back."

Photo by Robin May

Wilkerson is opening the restaurant/bar (it will be licensed as a restaurant) at 520 Jefferson St. in the spot most recently occupied by The Pie Hole. He aims for a soft opening by Festival International (April 23-27) with a limited menu; he‘ll then close for training and re-open with a full menu in mid-May.

POETS closed in 2004 after the James Comeaux Road shopping center housing it was purchased for redevelopment. Wilkerson says he retained ownership of the POETS name and also kept a significant portion of the memorabilia, including the signs. "The new POETS location on Jefferson will have the exact same signs that existed on James Comeaux Road. I have saved them for several years with the hope of re-opening," Wilkerson says. "Unfortunately, I don‘t have the lion," he adds, referencing the large stuffed lion that greeted patrons and accompanying POETS tag line, "Where the lion keeps on roarin‘." (Considering it good riddance, we didn‘t ask what happened to it.)

Wilkerson took over a then-struggling POETS in the mid-1990s - about a decade after it opened - and says it took a few years to turn the business around. But turn it around he did, and even into the years before it closed, POETS remained a Lafayette hotspot, with monthly shows like the Molly Ringwald‘s and Bag of Donuts drawing huge crowds. New Year‘s Eve was the party of the year for POETS and for Lafayette. A yuppie fern bar (the plants will return, too) catering to singles at night, it was also a very successful lunch stop, attracting a diverse white- and blue-collar customer base.

The new POETS hopes to capture much of that old flavor, Wilkerson notes, but there will be one big difference: 500 people could and did pack into the old POETS on any given night (many more moved in and out), whereas the Jefferson Street capacity is about 100. "The new location on Jefferson simply does not have that kind of space, [but] operating in a smaller venue will also allow us to host private events - Christmas parties, birthday parties, and other events can now be hosted in a private setting either in the main room, or on the back patio," Wilkerson says. Like the former location, this one has a terrific outdoor patio, which was a big selling point for Wilkerson as he looked to revive the concept.

Wilkerson retained a significant portion of the POETS memorabilia, including its signage.

A lot will be the same, however: "The new location will be able to provide the same type of lunch and happy-hour atmosphere," Wilkerson says. "The interior has the same type of feel that we had previously. POETS on Jefferson will also play lots of old school‘ music. Although we will not be able to bring big bands in, we will have entertainment; deejays and smaller bands will fit nicely."
Like the original, the Jefferson Street POETS will also enforce a dress code at night. (Wilkerson has not yet defined the dress code, but a tank top won‘t make it through the door.)

Wilkerson hopes the Jefferson Street address will give the new venue much more exposure to both pedestrians and vehicles. James Comeaux Road, in contrast, had almost no exposure outside of those driving to destinations in the shopping center, forcing the venue to do heavy radio advertising and consistently look for ways to get the word out.

Wilkerson is hoping for a second chance at what he sees as a great opportunity for tremendous success in the restaurant and bar business. His latest expansion comes after a 10-year slowdown that saw his bar businesses drop from seven entities to the current three: The Bulldog on General Mouton, Sidebar on Johnston Street and The Wagon Wheel on Cameron Street. A series of bad investments (the biggest being the Mardi Gras Club in the Jackson Brewery Mall) and heated competition from then-Graham Central Station on Bertrand Drive and several new venues downtown combined to deliver what could have been a fatal blow to the nightclub entrepreneur. In August 2003, for the inaugural issue of ABiz‘s sister pub The IND, he spoke openly about his financial problems ("Surveying the Damage"), which led to personal and corporate Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings that were suspended a few years later, after he worked out a deal to pay off his major creditors.

Wilkerson still does not hide from those troubles.

"I have been spending the past 10 years paying back a lot of debt," he tells ABiz, noting that he‘s repaid two major creditors, local and state sales tax offices, and continues to fulfill his financial obligations to the IRS (saying he will be paying that one back for the rest of his life). He and his wife, Elena, a group fitness instructor at Personally Fit, also took the time to return to their studies at UL Lafayette, with Shannon, now 49, completing his general studies degree in 2010. The couple has a 19-year-old son, Scott, who attends Lafayette High School. An electronics whiz, Scott suffers from cerebral palsy and is wheelchair bound.

Shannon‘s also got a side gig with older brother Gary, president of local Sonic franchisee Kergan Bros. Inc. Every Friday morning from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on ESPN 1420 AM, the duo talks sports - and whatever else comes to mind.

It‘s a major departure from the bar biz, but Shannon relishes it. "We are having way too much fun," he says of "Oh Brother," admitting that he likes the show so much he‘d do it full-time if he could (Gary‘s real job gets in the way of that, not to mention that it wouldn‘t put food on the table). "We go in with no agenda," he adds. "We intentionally don‘t talk about what we‘re going to talk about."