Where on the Peninsula is there a live music venue that can accommodate more than 1,000 audiophiles, host national and local performers and provide spirited libations and craft beer, all while serving lunch and dinner? At City Center’s Boathouse Live.
“Growing up here, having regularly gone to the original Boathouse in Norfolk with friends and classmates, I wanted to create something on the Peninsula for the community that offers a positive experience. Sometimes, I don’t want to drive to the Southside to go to a good concert,” says Sean Pepe, a Newport News native and restaurateur. In addition to owning and operating Boathouse Live in City Center, he owns and operates other local restaurants—Kismet Bistro, both locations of The Barking Dog, El Diablo Loco and The Deadrise in Hampton. Describing his role, Pepe says “I have a good support staff. Randy Jones is Boathouse’s general manager, and I have both a front-of-the-house manager and kitchen manager. I basically just oversee everything. I’m just here to help them do their jobs, really. I don’t get caught up in titles.”
When this locally owned and operated business is busy and in full swing, it runs with approximately 30 to 40 employees. “I graduated from Hampden-Sydney, but really, I think it is just jumping in and getting your hands dirty and having the capacity to learn new things and think quickly on your feet,” Pepe says about being successful in the restaurant industry. “With a good mentor in Gary McIntyre, one of my partners in the other restaurants, I have been able to learn the business.” Before becoming the owner of several, local favorite restaurants, Pepe was a financial advisor with Morgan Stanley in Oyster Point. With collaboration from a booking agent, Pepe discerningly selects the acts that perform.
“There is a pent-up demand for a place to go to see live music in this area,” Pepe says. “The number one thing that separates Boathouse Live from similar businesses on the Southside is the [Hampton Roads] bridge tunnel. Most people don’t enjoy driving through the tunnel, especially when you leave a concert and encounter construction. A 30-minute drive can turn into two hours.”
Behind the stage that provides connectivity to state-of-the-art sound equipment is a 17-by-7-foot high-definition, LED video wall, the only technology of its kind in the area; adding to 35 large, flat screens, all juxtaposed around a uniquely designed, guitar-shaped bar.
There is an upgradeable ticket option that includes the VIP lounge and bar—a secluded, elevated seating area that boasts private restrooms, a personal bartender and its own cocktail waitress. There is even an option to buy a season pass that offers VIP access to every show during the year. “Quite frankly,” Pepe says, “the original Boathouse and this business are nothing alike. The original was not the nicest place, but that was part of its charm. Really, besides it being a music venue, the only similarity to the original is the name and that just pays respect to a place where I had a lot of good memories.” The future of Boathouse Live looks promising with a plan to continue showing good, live music and hosting other special events, including midget wrestling, drag brunches and catering services.
Although they work a great deal of the time, Pepe and his wife, Cara, still find the time to go to see shows, with plans to go to the 420 Music Festival in Atlanta in the near future. These music lovers have two Boston Terriers, Jamal and Jimbo, and enjoy skiing and doing crossfit. “It keeps me sane, being able to work out and relieve stress,” Pepe says, “but honestly, I work at a place where I can eat a great meal and enjoy a great show. Even when I’m working, it’s not a bad gig. Who wouldn’t want to own a live music venue where you get to meet and see people you hear on the radio and see on TV?”
Summer 2018 also brings with it the opening of another Pepe-owned restaurant, Fuller’s Raw Bar in the Phoebus area of Hampton, as well as the opening of a women-owned brewery by Pepe’s wife and her business partner. “Come by Boathouse Live and have a beer after work and see what you’re missing. Take time to support live music,” Pepe says.
TO THE POINT
Address: 11800 Merchants Walk, Ste. 100, Newport News, VA 23606
Contact: Sean Pepe, owner