Pouring the city’s rounds: Tacoma businessman, native Jon Tartaglia makes his move on downtown’s nightclub business

If you recently spent an evening of entertainment in downtown Tacoma, chances are you probably did so at one of Jon Tartaglia’s venues. Whether it’s dancing, dining, or enjoying live performance, Tartaglia’s imprint is nearly ubiquitous.

Over the past five years, the Tacoma native has found a niche in downtown’s nightclub scene. He owns The Loft, 21 Commerce, and Taboo, operates Comedy Underground, and plans to open a new club on Broadway this summer.

“People always ask me if I always planned to be in this business,” Tartaglia explains during a recent meeting at 21 Commerce. “It just kind of turned out that way. I put a company of people together that just so happened to be very good at this business.”

Tartaglia is modest, owing his success more to timing and luck. His vision for downtown’s entertainment scene is uniquely creative, highly visionary, and incredibly profitable.

That vision began in Los Angeles, where he attended business school and visited the city’s upscale metropolitan nightclubs. When he returned to the Pacific Northwest, he wanted to create something similar in Tacoma.

That was in 1998, when economic development in Tacoma was in its early stage. “People were starting to talk about a Tacoma renaissance at that time,” he says. “This end of town was abandoned.” Tartaglia refers to the area near 21st St. and Pacific Ave., an area that has seen the most development in recent years.

“El Gaucho wasn’t here,” he adds. “The Melting Pot wasn’t here. The Harmon was the only sizable restaurant on Pacific Avenue. And Tacoma was kind of a tavern town. It was a little more blue-collar and laid back.”

Still, Tartaglia wasn’t discouraged. He made deals with local investors, hired a designer, and opened The Loft in December 2000 on what he calls a “shoestring budget.”

Today, the hip and upscale dance club, which is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday each week, draws an average 800-900 customers per night.

With success at The Loft, Tartaglia soon looked to expand his business. This time the vision called for a martini bar and restaurant that would complement The Loft. Tartaglia was already situated in a prime location — 21st and Pacific is one of the busiest intersections downtown, located near Interstates 5 and 705. He didn’t look far for commercial space to house his new restaurant. The space above The Loft was available, with an entrance on Commerce St.

“It was really the last space available in the building,” he explains. “Because it was above a nightclub, it wasn’t really an attractive space for a retail shop. We started looking at it in terms of a restaurant space.”

In summer 2003, Tartaglia opened the restaurant and martini bar 21 Commerce in that space. “The Loft and 21 Commerce work really well together,” he says. “A lot of people start out the night at 21 Commerce with dinner and drinks, then end up over at The Loft. It’s nice because someone who wouldn’t ordinarily go to The Loft, maybe the crowd is a little too young or they don’t feel like dancing, they can come up here and have a few drinks, go downstairs for a few minutes, then come back upstairs.”

That synergy is a hallmark of Tartaglia’s business strategy. He’s interested in businesses that compliment each other, rather than replicating what he knows will work.

When he bought the nightclub Taboo last spring, located in an historic building at the corner of 9th St. and A St., his real interest was in operating Comedy Underground (housed in the building’s basement, the comedy club is owned by a San Francisco-based company; Tartaglia markets and operates the venue locally) and providing entertainment that found at The Loft and 21 Commerce.

“One of the reasons we were interested in the comedy down at Taboo is because comedy is very cross-generational,” he explains. “You can have a 21-year-old sitting there laughing, and a 50-year-old couple laughing, and it’s sort of ageless. We bring in good comedians, the shows are great, and everybody has a good time.”

Tartaglia has plans for the recently shuttered Jillian’s Billiard Club downtown. When the pool hall closed Dec. 30, Tartaglia moved quickly to buy the club’s assets. He will open a new venue (most likely a sports bar, restaurant, and performance venue) at the Broadway location this summer. “We’re trying to come up with a plan of attack for that space,” Tartaglia says. When the venue opens, it will be bigger than The Loft and 21 Commerce combined, with a total of 24,000 square feet.

“When I opened The Loft, it wasn’t my intention to start opening multiple venues,” Tartaglia says. “But in some ways, it’s good to create your own competition. But the venues we are creating are very different. If you are going to have four venues in a very close proximity, you want them all to be different. Our strength is that we are putting 2,000 or more people a week between 21 Commerce and The Loft through the doors, and we are able to market to other venues. We can say, ‘If you were in 21 Commerce on Thursday, you should go see comedy at the Comedy Underground on Saturday.’ That’s how downtowns, entertainment districts, and restaurant rows are built.”

Indeed, Tartaglia is excited about working with other businesses to create a downtown “destination” for dining and entertainment.

“I’m starting to see more restaurants open up,” he says. “I think we’re going to see more growth in the next couple years — more than we’ve seen in the last 10 years. That’s a positive thing. We invest in the city not to be a monopoly. You don’t get into this business thinking you only want one place. It’s about getting people in here and making downtown a destination area. We do a lot of cross-business with El Gaucho. Indochine is opening near the University of Washington Tacoma. We’re excited about these new businesses.”