Stacy Sutherland got a call on the morning of Jan. 7 that Cinebar—the iconic downtown dive bar that she co-owns with Mike Matilainen and Josh Hanoka—was on fire.
Sutherland rushed to the scene, where her worst nightmare was being realized.
“I walked up to the building like I was in a terrible dream state,” she told San Jose Inside. “I’ve had this feeling twice in my life—the day my mom died and this day. It’s surreal. You don’t know which day is up, you don’t know what is happening and you have all these emotions. I couldn’t even breathe.”
The four alarm fire engulfed an empty two-story building on East San Fernando Street, home to Cinebar and several restaurants, including Mumbai Local and Social Lady. Sutherland doesn’t know the extent of the damages to Cinebar, but she’s determined to keep one of the oldest bars in the South Bay on tap.
Two notable crowdfunding campaigns—GoFundMe and Merch Fundraising—have launched while Jorge Gomez has started a petition in hopes of getting the city of San Jose to fund the preservation, rebuild the structure and grant it historical landmark status.
“Jorge is a 22-year-old kid who simply reached out to help,” Sutherland said in a recent interview. “I’ve never met him before. It shows we’ve got the support of our community, and it’s amazing. I feel the love already.”
Gomez spearheaded the merchandise fundraiser by designing a graphic to go on a T-shirt and hooded sweatshirt. Sutherland was in awe of Gomez’s gesture.
“Any profit he made from this was going straight to us,” she said. “They did a pre-sale and it went great. Then they reached out again on Friday asking if they could do another run to see if they could raise more money.”
Cinebar has been closed since March 16, 2020, hampered by the type of liquor license it holds. Sutherland knows it’s a distinct possibility that Cinebar has shuttered its doors for good, as there was no guarantee even before the fire that it was going to come out of the pandemic and open again. The fire simply might have accelerated the inevitable.
“Mike said [if this is the end] at least it was a Viking funeral,” she said.
Sutherland is currently in wait-and-see mode, eager to hear back from investigators on when she’ll be able to enter the building again. In the last 10 months, Sutherland has collected items from community members to be auctioned off for raffles that would help Cinebar get back in business.
That’s why the sight of Cinebar being in flames hit Sutherland so hard.
“When I think about all the ways the community is helping us to stay around, it breaks my heart that maybe all of those things inside the building are gone,” she said. “I want to tell them I’m sorry because this is all of their hard work, too.”
Indeed, the Cinebar regulars have made their presence felt with heartfelt messages and monetary donations, as a crowdfunding campaign in October netted approximately $12,000. Shawn Packer, a guitarist-banjo picker-vocalist for the highly popular local band the Shitkickers, has been a regular at Cinebar for over 20 years.
“Over the years there is something relatively sacred when patrons spend a lot of time with bartenders,” he told SJI in an earlier interview. “You create these bonds with them and the place. Over the last 20-plus years, Cinebar came to be a relatively sacred place for me and my friends. It was our Cheers.”
Despite the overwhelming odds Cinebar faces, Sutherland remains resolute that the unpretentious drinking establishment will pour drinks again.
“If you were to talk to me two days ago, I was not this optimistic,” she said. “Today, I can feel the fire. I’ve got it in me. Even if they tore down the whole building, I’m going to rebuild. Give us a blank canvas and we’ll recreate it. I don’t care if it takes two or three years, I’m here for the long haul.”