By KJ Philp, September 2018 Issue.
It’s been nearly four months since Caravan Taproom showed up, or re-emerged, across social media platforms. Seemingly overnight, there were familiar names and faces checking into an otherwise unfamiliar bar on the southeast corner of Camelback Road and 15th Avenue.
June 1 marked the first day the gayborhood’s newest watering hole operated under the ownership of Keifer Rowlands.
Fast forward to a hot August night at Caravan Taproom: burly bartenders Christopher and Santos Gonzales are serving up drinks, DJ Illuminati is keeping things lit from his booth in one corner and the bar’s promotional partner Dean Coxx is engaging everyone with his flexed-out selfies and dance moves.
A newcomer would never know that a very small, but mighty team is responsible for bringing this space to life in just a matter of months.
“Caravan Taproom became what it is because our patrons made it what it is,” Rowlands said. “I’d love to say what we are and who our patrons are was some type of grandiose vision. It wasn’t. We opened the doors and … had certain principals we wanted to live by, but the clientele and the bar were created by the people and for the people. [We] have simply been stewards for what people wanted and we’ve been blessed enough that they love what they’ve created.”
The truth is, this was far from an overnight effort. It all started last year, when Rowlands, an Arizona native with “entrepreneurial spirit” running through his veins, discovered the bar was for sale via Craigslist.
“I saw the listing and I became fascinated right away. Nine months later I was the owner,” he said.
From there, he began building his team: David Gentile, Rowlands’ partner of nine years who “goes along with any wild ride” tends bar on the weeknights and stays on-call throughout the weekends. Gentile introduced Rowlands to Christopher Gonzales, who was candidate No.1 to become the bar’s general manager. And you’ll find his husband, Santos Gonzales, behind the bar with him on weekends.
"Christopher is an amazing GM and his passion for the bar and the LGBTQ community is unmatched. I've never seen anything like it and we wouldn't be here without him," Rowlands said. "This bar would have never have happened without my three amazing crew members. We make an amazing team and all of them make it worth it."
The team was in place and the plan was in motion when Christopher introduced Rowlands to Shawn Silberblatt, co-owner of For The People on Central Avenue.
“Shawn told me he had a passion for dive bars and would love to design the bar,” Rowlands recalled. “He did a mock-up of his vision and I was immediately enamored with it. Two months later and we are almost finished with a complete interior transformation. We plan to address the front and back exterior in the months to come.”
Inside Caravan Taproom, the lighting under the U-shaped bar accentuates the floor and wall patterns – think: a 21-and-over fun house with an emphasis on entertainment.
From karaoke and trivia to vintage arcade-style consoles and jumbo Jenga, Rowlands said these games contribute to the overall vibe he’s going for and are also a reflection of all the decades the bar’s history spans.
“Preserving history is important to me because the world around us is constantly changing, but human nature does not. I believe by preserving our history we preserve the nature of humanity and can look to the past to see how we’ve lived,” he said. “This element of Phoenix is important to me because I find it fascinating when I go to the archives and I see all the changes that the bar has undergone in the past 58 years.”
The Arizona Republic published an article on March 20, 1960, stating the construction of the building had been completed and that Caravan Taproom had signed a lease. Fast forward to June 16, 1960, and the archives date stamps a copy of the Phoenix City Directory and Caravan Taproom is listed.
This, Rowlands explained, helped narrow the bar's initial opening down to some time between the two documented dates.
According to Rowlands, there isn't much archival information from the '60s, and most of the information he was able to locate was from the '70s and early '80s.
"The bar has ... a long history in sports," he added. "During the 1970s it was a rough house bar that was frequented by the Phoenix Roadrunners. It became so rough that the team was banned from going to the bar by their GM. The lead team member loved the bar so much that he bought it."
At this point, Rowlands said, it became the Caravan Lounge.
"In 1990, the bar became Ivan's Caravan Bar," he added. "In 1995, based on a permit from City Hall, the bar became Happy Fun Timez Caravan bar. Sometime during the 2000s, or before, it became a prominent Native American bar ... Joerael Elliott did a famed mural on the bar called 'Remember Where You Dance' in 2010."
When Rowlands purchased the bar, it was operating as The Caravan and, since then, its original name has been restored.
While there weren’t many physical elements of the bar’s history that Rowlands was able to preserve, he has reached out to the neighborhood to see if anyone has anything that once was part of the bar.
“Instead, we are focusing on preserving other things,” he explained. “For example, we returned it to its original name, Caravan Taproom [est. 1960]. I also tried to return it to its original address – 4835 ½ N. 15th Ave. – but, based on a city official, the ½ is no longer part of the city system."
After spending the past 27 years in corporate America, Rowlands has drawn inspiration and support from many of his friends and colleagues, including Matthew Harty of Los Diablos.
"Matthew Harty is probably the best business man I have ever known personally and I always look to him tips and suggestions. He has been a great help and resource," Rowlands said. "[We] go back 10 years. We've travelled together, my kids know him as Uncle Matt, and he will always be a part of my life."
In terms of inspiration, Rowlands cited the business model adopted by David Cooley, owner of The Abbey in West Hollywood.
“The most important advice I’ve received [has been] reading interviews with David Cooley,” Rowlands shared. “He talks a lot about everyone having fun together. This is what I wanted my bar to be: A bar, exclusive of labels, where everyone is accepted, and everyone has fun together. That’s’ what he says the Abbey is and, considering his success, I’ll take his words as gold.”
And as far as crowd goes, Rowlands said it depends on the night.
“I’m learning from my patrons that Caravan is different to each patron in their own ways,” Rowlands said. “Some come here because it’s in the neighborhood. Some come here because we have fun games and a great vibe. We truly are a for-everyone establishment.”
The one thing Caravan Taproom's patrons have in common, is that they've all been advocates of the bar from day 1.
"It all began with opening the doors and ... asking everyone for one thing: advocacy ... and they've been advocates ever since," Rowlands said. "As the owner, I believe in servant leadership and I am truly a servant to my patrons. Whatever they want I will always try to provide."
Hop On …
4835 N. 15th Ave, Phoenix
4 p.m.-2 a.m. Mon-Fri
2 p.m.-2 a.m. Sat & Sun