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Randall Theatre eyes restaurant expansion

A Medford performing arts nonprofit wants to reopen a former Medford nightlife hotspot, and branch out into an entirely new industry.

Randall Theatre Company launched a fundraiser this week with plans to operate its own restaurant at the former Howiees on Front in downtown Medford.

Executive director John Wing believes a restaurant operated by the nonprofit could work as a “perpetual fundraiser.”

“A restaurant is just a really fancy concession stand, so that’s kind of what we’re doing,” Wing said.

Howiees on Front occupied the bar and restaurant at 16 N. Front St in downtown Medford for more than 25 years until its abrupt closure in January of last year. From 2013 to 2020 the business also occupied a 2,000-square-foot performance area in the 100 block of East Main Street.

Since July, the 501c3 nonprofit has occupied the East Main Street portion of the former Howiees. According to Wing, the nonprofit used the space for small audience theater productions before the “pause” in November and livestream-only performances of its production “I Do! I Do!” in December through its online streaming platform it calls The Ghostlight Playhouse, ghostlightplayhouse.com.

The nonprofit theater company best known for its pay-what-you-want play performances moved out of its former location on South Fir Street last spring after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Wing. Although their landlord at the time offered a generous rent cut, they couldn’t make the costs work with audience limits.

John Wing said the nonprofit has explored other nonprofits that operate restaurants, but haven’t come across a nonprofit with a mission similar to theirs focused on offering “accessible entertainment.”

“The reason you don’t see that very often is you have to have a mission that benefits the community,” Wing said. “We’re kind of coming at it the other way.”

Wing envisions the nonprofit could offer “regular bar things” such as serving beer from local breweries — they’ve consulted downtown Medford breweries that include Portal Brewing in the same block on Front Street and BricktownE Brewing Company down the street — while playing on the bar’s TVs livestreamed or archived performances such as theater, live music or comedy shows recorded on the Main Street stage.

Prior to the pandemic, the event space had a capacity of 99, according to Wing, and in the COVID-19 era they’ve limited capacity to 30.

Wing did not disclose the nonprofit’s exact fundraising goal needed to secure a lease for the restaurant building on Front Street, but said they’re trying to move quickly because the restaurant’s kitchen and equipment are still largely intact from the day Howiees closed its doors on Jan. 31, 2020.

“It looks like it’s just closed for the night,” Wing said. “We’re not starting a restaurant from scratch.”

Wing’s mother, managing artistic director Kathy Wing, described plans to maintain much of Howiees rock ‘n roll themed decor in the two buildings.

“We like ‘em,” Kathy Wing said pointing at the LP record album covers all along the ceiling. “I think we’ll keep ‘em.”

“The spirit of downtown Medford is still in there,” John Wing said.

The Wings fear that as time goes by space could be converted into retail space because the market for restaurant space is so depressed during the pandemic. Their idea has buy-in from the buildings’ landlord, Scott Henselman, but John Wing said the nonprofit needs to raise enough capital for several months of operations along with enough of a steady revenue stream from the nonprofit’s $10 monthly “Best Seat Club” donations before the restaurant’s lease is sustainable.

“It’s more like, how long can a storefront sit empty?” John Wing said. “Why not a nonprofit restaurant?”

Wing said that he believes Randall’s restaurant goal is feasible based on his experiences raising funds for charitable causes whether it’s St. Jude’s Research Hospital or supporting victims of the Almeda fire.

“One thing about this valley, we’re able to rally around good causes,” he said.

The Wings said that it’d be difficult for any other restaurant business to get off the ground without other revenue streams right now. For instance, John Wing said Randall applied for a liquor license in late July and finally got it from the OLCC on Jan. 8.

“We thought it was only going to take a couple of weeks,” he said.

When paired with coronavirus restrictions limiting restaurants to outdoor seating or takeout only, John Wing said, “I don’t know how anyone else could do it.”

Because Randall will have different revenue streams, John Wing envisions collaborating with different downtown Medford restaurants with ideas such as opportunities for other restaurants to sponsor a band’s live performance, or possible cooking competitions in the space.

Their goal is to promote downtown Medford as a whole and be “good downtown neighbors,” Wing said.

For information about its “Best Seat Club” program and livestreamed performances, see www.randalltheatre.com or follow @RandallTheatreCompany on Facebook.

John Wing said the nonprofit is also “open for proposals” from live musicians, live comedians and other performing artists who may be interested in performing on its Ghostlight streaming platform. John Wing can be reached at johnwing@ghostlightplayhouse.com.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.

Randall Theatre executive director John Wing and managing artistic director Kathy Wing discuss video streaming productions inside the nonprofit's Ghostlight Playhouse inside part of the former Howiees Friday in downtown Medford. The nonprofit is raising funds to lease the other portion of the former downtown Medford night spot and operate it as a restaurant. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune
Randall Theatre executive director John Wing opens the front door to Randall Theatre's Ghostlight Playhouse, formerly the Main Street portion of Howiees, Friday in downtown Medford. The performing arts nonprofit is raising funds to acquire the other portion of the former Howiees and operate it as a restaurant. Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune