‘I took over Manchester nightclub Tribeca just before Covid - and ended up homeless’
The boss of a city centre club has spoken out about the challenges facing the industry post-pandemic and how running a bar took its toll on her health.
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The last couple of years have been hard for everyone working in the hospitality sector, but Covid has really taken its toll on one club and its visionary manager.
Hazel O’Keefe, who has been running events at Sackville Street’s Tribeca for years, took over the club months before Covid – soon after she was homeless.
The award-winning organiser, whose background is in community youth work, wanted to make the Gay Village venue ‘a community centre as well as a club’.
She claims Tribeca is the only venue in Manchester that hosts loss-making alcohol-free events on a Saturday night – a hit among an Asian LGBT group.
Describing itself as ‘the only truly diverse venue in Manchester’, the club next to Sackville Gardens hosts Hungarian, Romanian and Portuguese nights too.
But the club now faces a month of closure as its licence is suspended for five weekends – from May 12 to June 11 – following reports of regular rule breaking.
Manchester city council’s licensing panel came ‘very, very, very close’ to revoking the club’s licence, but councillors agreed to give the venue another chance after promises from its former boss that new managers would be brought in.
Lee Montgomery, who ran the club from 2010 to 2019, is still the owner as Hazel’s plan to purchase the lease from him was paused due to the pandemic.
Taking over in November 2019, Hazel – now aged 45 – had a vision of the club nights subsidising community events which ‘make a significant difference’.
But months later, as Covid lockdowns came into force from the end of March 2020, the night-time economy across the country came to a sudden standstill.
Government grants worth £3,200 a month were given to Tribeca – but the lease cost £7,400, leaving the club in £60,000 of arrears two years later.
“We kept on thinking it’ll be okay next month,” she said, “and it was never okay.
“If I’d known it would be this long, I’d have never let it get to that level of arrears.”
With no income, Hazel could not even afford the rent on her own apartment.
In April, homeless, Hazel had to give up her city centre flat and started sofa surfing before moving in temporarily with her girlfriend who lives in Salford.
At times, Hazel slept at the venue itself – an experience she says was painful, cold, lonely and depressing and too embarrassing to tell anyone else about.
At her lowest point, she even contemplated suicide to illustrate the impact that the pandemic was having on the hospitality sector which had limited support.
“At times, I thought if I hang myself in Sackville Gardens and I put a banner on me saying, ‘this is the impact’, will that make a difference?” she said.
“And I decided, no, that wouldn’t make a difference, it would just hurt the people I love. But those were the kind of intrusive thoughts I was having.”
In October, she was advised by the authorities to stop sleeping at the club after reports of ‘alleged lock-ins where drug use and drug dealing’ were taking place – and she claims that within a week she moved out of the premises.
But she denies the allegations which she suspects came from a ‘disgruntled’ individual who claimed the CCTV was turned off during the alleged lock-ins.
Hazel offered to show police the CCTV, but was told this was not necessary.
There were times when she could not access the CCTV – for example, after she was hit over the head with a bottle and could not remember the password – and there were occasions where some of the cameras were not working.
Together with police, Manchester council officers also raised concerns about the number of security on the door – a problem which Hazel, who has used the services of three security firms now, says has not been helped by a shortage.
Hazel says the decision made by the licensing panel at the hearing on Tuesday (April 19) was ‘fair’, but believes many things were missed in those two hours.
“There wasn’t an incident with weapons or drugs,” she said.
“It wasn’t what normally leads to a licensing review.”
The month-long closure of the club is expected to cost at least £20,000.
Hazel also faces a Covid fine of more than £2,000 – something she says she was not aware of until the evidence for the licensing hearing was published.
Manchester city council received a complaint in October 2020 that there were 30 people in the premises after the 10pm curfew which was in force at the time.
But when officers arrived, there were only seven individuals with ‘what appeared to be alcoholic drinks’ – but Hazel now says they were all staff.
Hazel does not remember receiving a physical Fixed Penalty Notice and suspects it might have been delivered to Tribeca after Covid closed it again.
Magistrates fined her £1,760 – and this figure has risen as it was not paid.
She said: “I would have attended court and explained what the situation was.”
A fine for fly-tipping has also been issued for the wrong bin bags being left outside the premises – something Hazel says she is embarrassed about.
More recently, the venue has received noise complaints from residents in Regency House – the apartments block above the club where Hazel now lives.
The venue has spent ‘a fortune’ on sound proofing the building which has metal pillars and a lift shaft that carries some frequencies to the fifth floor.
And around the time that the noise complaints increased, tragedy struck –Aaron Jarvis, a bar manager at Tribeca, died in a car crash in Whitefield.
The 31-year-old, who was a back-seat passenger in one of the three vehicles which collided in Bury New Road, was taken to hospital but died later that day.
Hazel, who spent 60 hours a week with Aaron, said she did not leave her sofa for three weeks after her ‘fun loving, free-spirited’ friend was taken from her.
The tragic tale broke the hearts of Tribeca’s staff – including Hazel’s dog who waited for Aaron’s arrival at the door every day at 4pm long after he died.
The future of Tribeca is now out of Hazel’s hands – although she remains involved in the club – as the restructure of the management takes place.
And her own future is uncertain, with the threat of an eviction notice from her flat looming and the prospect of spending the rest of her life in debt probable.
She thinks back to a call she received during the pandemic from her insurance broker who said he found a loophole to get compensated for the Covid-related closure – before calling back 10 minutes later to tell her that it would not work.
“It was like I was alive again,” she said. “It was like I could breathe again.
“I haven’t had that feeling since.”