Columbia bar owner and restaurateur Matt Shmanske caught the bug for his line of work while in school at the University of South Carolina, where he successfully completed a degree in chemical marine science.
But at night, he worked in Five Points tending bar.
Today, at 36 years old, Shmanske is the sole owner of five Columbia bars and restaurants — three bars in Five Points, a restaurant on Devine Street and his latest venture, City Bar, which is located in the city’s historic Vista district.
So much for science, huh?
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Shmanske, who already has taken on some pretty tough challenges in the bar business, says he couldn’t picture himself doing any other type of work.
His first bar, The Thirsty Parrot, required complete rehabilitation of a dilapidated building in Five Points that had no floor or ceiling, a leaky roof and no electrical infrastructure or plumbing.
Another of his bars, Latitude 22, formerly known as Sharky’s, needed a turnaround because of the location’s reputation, he said.
Shmanske apparently was unfazed.
“I think once you’re in the bar and restaurant business, most people embrace it,” he said. “I love it. I knew after my first couple shifts of bartending, it was what I wanted to do the rest of my life. Not bartending precisely, but it was a business I wanted to be in,” Shmanske said.
The Thirsty Parrot, in an old, two-story building on Harden Street directly across from the Five Points fountain, had been vacant for a long time when Shmanske began the structure’s upfit nine years ago.
“It needed a whole overhaul,” Shmanske said. But, he liked the location, and the fact it had been unused for several years gave Shmanske the opportunity to revamp the place. “I’m really good at turning an old building into something new, or something exciting.
“That’s one of the main parts I love about the business — being able to put my creative touches on something that, maybe, people turned their heads at, or nobody else wanted,” Shmanske said.
The landlord took a chance on Shmanske even though he had a small personal savings and no experience running a bar, he said.
Shmanske took it from there. He worked as the cook, the janitor, the bartender, the manager and the guy that checked ID’s at the door, he said. “There wasn’t a thing I didn’t want to do there, I loved it so much,” Shmanske said.
For the first five years after the bar opened, Shmanske lived in an apartment above the business, which kept him focused on it.
After opening The Thirsty Parrot, Shmanske decided he wanted to do more than offer drinks and dancing; he wanted to open a restaurant.
“I had a passion for the restaurant business,” Shmanske said. “I’d never owned one before, but I figured with energy and heart and putting your mind to it, you could open up a restaurant.”
Burger Tavern 77, opened four years ago, specializes in burgers and caters to families, but it also offers a varied menu.
Althought the business has been opened for several years, new customers are still coming in for the first time, he said. The most popular offering on the menu is the build-your-own-burger menu.
That menu offers 77 selections for patrons to build their own burgers, hence the restaurant’s name. “Every time you go there, you can have a different burger,” Shmanske said.
The Moosehead Saloon might seem the most unusual part of Shmanske’s business portfolio. Its rock ’n roll and country western themes are not typically associated with nightlife in Five Points, he noted.
But, “I thought it was a great idea and, again, I thought it was an untapped market,” Shmanske said. “So, I started scratching my head and I did some research, but ultimately, the pros outweighed the cons.”
And, the Moosehead Saloon is successful, he said. Somewhat surprisingly, perhaps, the bar features what might be the area’s only mechanical bull — a full-fledged, 16-foot beast that he noted offers both its riders and spectators a thrill.
Sharky’s was one of the bars Shmanske hung out in as a USC undergraduate. The landlord approached him about the Harden Street building.
Last Christmas, Shmanske received an award from The Five Points Association for beautifying the old Sharky’s building, and he said the effort has been well-received by the surrounding community. “I felt like I did my job, there,” Shmanske said.
Then came the opportunity to expand into Columbia’s other major dining and entertainment, the Vista. Columbia developer Ben Arnold approached him about opening a restaurant at 700 Gervais Street as part of the refurbishment of that area by the Arnold Companies.
“At the time in my life, I didn’t feel like it was a good time,” Shmanske said. He had opened Latitude 22 in Five Points a scant year-and-a-half before and he was engaged to Tasha, who he married less than three months ago.
His life was busy enough.
“Ben Arnold reached out to me. We have a great relationship, I like working with him, and they really have done a good job of trying to help me in every way they could as a landlord.”
He liked the location, “so I jumped on it,” said Shmanske, noting the crowds there so far have been older, 25 and up.
“Sophisticated; definitely very, very female friendly,” he said. “We’re a martini. It’s pretty, it’s crisp, it’s fresh. So, it should be a great place for working women to go to, happy hours, or even an intimate date night. That’s what it caters to.”
While there is a menu at the bar, entrees also are available, along with hot fondue burners that allow some cooking tableside. Cheeses can be kept warm at the table and a chocolate fondue is served for dessert — strawberries dipped in warm chocolate — tableside.
The entrees all have a southern flair to them, something of a French New Orleans twist. City Bar offers craft cocktails made with all-fresh ingredients and soon will offer an all-day Sunday brunch.
“He’s a good tenant and we’re glad to have him,” Arnold said of Shmanske.
“He does what he says he is going to do,” Arnold said of Shmanske’s business dealings.
Those dealings might soon expand again. Shmanske said he is negotiating with Arnold’s company on a sixth restaurant concept in the Vista.
So, it’s a great time for Columbia, said Shmanske, a Michigan native who went to high school in Myrtle Beach, and a great time to be in Columbia.
“I am very happy to say Five Points is the best I’ve ever seen it,” Shmanske said. Shmanske credits Five Points’ patrons for bringing the district back after a wave of crimes, shootings and gang-related activity swept the area.
Shmanske said he believes The Thirsty Parrot will be a long-term staple in Five Points. That would be an accomplishment, he said, because in the nine years The Thirsty Parrot has been open, Shmanske said he has seen buildings turn over four to five times for different uses.
“I don’t think the Vista has ever been this strong,” Shmanske said. “There’s a lot of new development and it’s growing at such a rapid rate that I think now is the best time.”
“There’s a lot of great growth here in Columbia, and I’m super-excited to be a part of it,” Shmanske said. “This is the best I’ve ever seen Columbia.”
Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398