Marc Daalder Detroit Free Press
Published 6:40 p.m. UTC Jul 31, 2018
By 10 a.m. on Tuesday, there was only one chair left in Cobo Joe’s.
The walls of the famous sports bar had been stripped of the posters and autographed photos that once covered them from floor to ceiling. The tables were being dragged out and loaded one by one into the U-Haul truck parked outside. The bar counter was bare but for a half-dozen, half-empty bottles of spirits.
Richard Cadreau, owner of the bar since December 2004, perched himself on a couple of beer crates and clasped his hands together, then began to recount what brought this Detroit icon to its knees.
“It was a good run,” Cadreau, 72, said of his 13 years at the helm of Cobo Joe’s. The bar opened in 1987, eight years after Joe Louis Arena saw its first Red Wings game, and was owned and operated for 18 years by Joe and Judy Kosky. The Koskys entrusted Cadreau and a business partner with keeping the legendary bar’s doors open.
Cadreau, who had already been in the bar business for 24 years, said he had no intention at the time of owning a downtown establishment. “If you’d have told me 14 years ago I’d be back in the bar business, nah. Downtown? Not in a million years.”
Nonetheless, on a lark, he ventured downtown from his home in Livonia. “I walked into this place and it was packed,” he said. “I sat and watched it for a while and thought, ‘Oh my God this thing needs fixing big time.’” Cadreau told the Free Press that he works best with the logistical aspects of running a bar. “How to get people in the door? No idea.”
In late 2004, that wasn’t a problem. Despite the National Hockey League lockout, business was booming. Over the next few years, Detroit would host the 2005 MLB All-Star game, the 2006 Super Bowl and several games of the 2006 World Series.
“We got it whipped into shape quick,” Cadreau said. “It worked eloquently for stretches and then the wheels would fall off and you’d have to go back and fix it again. The Super Bowl was absolutely phenomenal. It went perfect. Usually you can stand back after something’s over with and say, ‘Well I should have done this.’ There was not one correction I could’ve made to that, it was absolutely stellar.”
By 2018, however, getting people in the door proved a life or death issue for Cobo Joe’s.
The bar, alongside the Anchor and the Post Bar, was a center of Red Wings fan activity. “It was the biggest hockey bar in Detroit for 31 years,” he said. “In the metropolitan area here, this place had probably as much name recognition as Starbucks. Everybody’s been through here at one time or another.”
It was, however, “strictly event-driven,” bringing in the bulk of its 50,000-60,000 annual guests during hockey season. When the bar’s most important events – Red Wings games – moved 1.5 miles down the road, those events dried up. The loss of the hockey business “devastated everybody, everybody took a big hit on this end of the city” Cadreau said. “That was a pretty dirty trick Ilitch pulled on us.”
Conferences at the Cobo Center provided enough business to fund a rebranding effort that Cadreau launched in early 2018, seeking to transform Cobo Joe’s from a sports bar to a Motown bar.
Live Motown on Saturdays – scheduling an appearance by the legendary Miracles – and a new menu helped bring a new crowd in to supplement those regulars who still came by. The rebranding was slow going and Cadreau struggled with finding employees and dealing with social media and the other aspects of business in 2018. “I’m a dinosaur in the 21st century,” he said.
Numerous consulting companies he hired to help enhance his social media presence didn’t pan out as he’d hoped. “I was in uncharted territory,” he said. “I talked to them, they say that the website’s doing great, Facebook’s getting hits and likes and blah blah blah. I say, ‘I might be a little old school here but I’m looking for asses in seats.’”
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Still, Cadreau insists that if he stuck with it, he could have pulled the transformation off. “It looked like, for the long haul, it would’ve been a home run.”
As the end of his lease neared, Cadreau agonized over whether to extend it for five years, turn to a month-to-month lease, or give it up entirely. He began looking for a buyer in early 2018 and by July was offering the place for “a dirt-cheap price. It should’ve sold fast in the last 60 days,” he said. When no one expressed interest, he finally chose to shut down Cobo Joe’s.
“It was tough. A tough decision to make. I went through two or three weeks of, you know that sick feeling where you reach for your wallet and it’s gone? Felt like that,” Cadreau said. In the end, he just didn’t have the “staying power” to stick through the transition.
“I’m not bitter at all about it. I’m a little disappointed that it had to end this way,” he said, “But on the other side of it, there’s always a time. I didn’t want to die in this place.”
He hopes the bar will be remembered fondly. “It was pretty incredible because people got almost as close as family” in Cobo Joe’s, Cadreau said. “It’s the end of an era for Detroit. This was a huge part of it for a lot of years.”
As one era ends, however, a new one begins. “You’ve got to cater to this younger crowd, all these craft beers.”
“I think if somebody comes in here and does it right, they’ll do phenomenal with it.”
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