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“We are explicitly for members of the lesbian community”: Inside Los Angeles’ first lesbian bar in years

Kai Ryssdal and Andie Corban Mar 7, 2023
Heard on:
Mara Herbkersman, left, and Emily Bielagus at The Ruby Fruit. Andie Corban/Marketplace

“We are explicitly for members of the lesbian community”: Inside Los Angeles’ first lesbian bar in years

Kai Ryssdal and Andie Corban Mar 7, 2023
Heard on:
Mara Herbkersman, left, and Emily Bielagus at The Ruby Fruit. Andie Corban/Marketplace

In the 1980s, there were roughly 200 lesbian bars in the United States, according to the Lesbian Bar Project. Today, that number has dropped down to 27.

From 2017 up until just a few weeks ago, Los Angeles had zero lesbian bars. In February, Mara Herbkersman and Emily Bielagus opened The Ruby Fruit, a restaurant and wine bar in a strip mall on Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake. The two met at the same location in 2021, when Herbkersman worked as the general manager and Bielagus as a server/bartender at Eszett — the restaurant that used to be in the space that is now The Ruby Fruit.

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal sat down with Herbkersman and Bielagus at The Ruby Fruit and asked how the business came to be. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Mara Herbkersman: I have been, you know, over the last several years trying to figure out where my space in this industry is. I’ve been running restaurants for a long time, front of house and back of the house. And last summer I was sort of, you know, thinking about what LA was missing and brought this up to Emily, literally on a shift at Eszett, we were just kind of daydreaming. We started to kind of run with this idea of opening a sapphic space in LA because there wasn’t anything permanent. So this literally started as just daydreaming at work, and we were doing some pop-ups at the end of the year out of my Volkswagen Westfalia van.

Kai Ryssdal: I read about that. What was that like?

Herbkersman: Oh it was a blast.

Emily Bielagus: It was so fun.

Ryssdal: It was proof of concept, right? I mean, that’s what you were doing.

Herbkersman: That’s what it was designed to do. That was time for us to figure out if we liked working together too because we had worked together at the restaurant, which is one thing. But in terms of managing together, that’s an entirely different ballgame.

Ryssdal: This might have gone by people pretty quickly. This is a sapphic space, of which there aren’t any like permanent, established — or haven’t been for a very long time — in Los Angeles. Why was it important to you to be the pathbreakers in establishing a lesbian bar in Los Angeles?

Bielagus: I mean, I don’t necessarily think I knew a few months ago that it was going to be my destiny.

Ryssdal: And here you are sitting in it. It’s kinda wild.

Bielagus: It’s very wild. And a lot of what happened feels very right place right time.

Ryssdal: Tell me what happened.

Bielagus: Well, what happened was the owners of the restaurant wanted to sell. And so they offered it to Mara. And I don’t know, a few weeks later, you had been thinking very seriously about it, Mara, and you approached me and asked me if I wanted to do it with you.

Ryssdal: How long did it take you to say yes?

Bielagus: I said yes pretty immediately. But then I said, “Wait. Give me a week.”

Herbkersman: I think I said, “Wait.” I was like, “I hear you saying yes, but you need to really think about this.”

Bielagus: Mara was like, “I need you to really consider this is going to change everything in your life.” And I was like, “OK, fair enough.”

Ryssdal: Was she right?

Bielagus: Oh, 100% yes.

Ryssdal: How is it possible that this is the first lesbian bar to open in Los Angeles in a very long time?

Herbkersman: I think it unfortunately makes so much sense. Because I think there’s not as much visibility for sapphic women and people than there are for gay men at times. West Hollywood is this amazing, vibrant community, but there’s not as much representation I think for the sapphic community. It is pretty well known that women have a harder time getting capital in business.

Ryssdal: True for you?

Herbkersman: Yes and no. I mean, we are not fully funded yet. So I can definitely speak to being a new business owner that it’s difficult to get funding, at least from banks and things because you need to have assets and other capital — which doesn’t make any sense because we’re just getting started. So we’re still trying to kind of put some pieces together as far as that goes.

Ryssdal: Tell me who your customers are. Or I guess a better way to put that question is, tell me who the community you want in this place is.

Bielagus: We want people to feel comfortable here — and people of all kinds, for sure. That being said, we are explicitly for members of the lesbian community. And we’ve gotten a fair amount of questions regarding like, why a lesbian bar?

Ryssdal: Really? Because somebody opens a gay bar and they don’t get that question, right? What do you say?

Bielagus: Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about this because, to me as a lesbian, the answer is very obvious. An analogy I’ve been using recently is like, nobody asks why someone’s opening a sports bar, right? Let me share an anecdote actually, I feel like this will be easier: On Friday night, we’re playing “Come to My Window” radio. So “Come to My Window” by Melissa Etheridge — a lesbian anthem, if you will. So, a whole radio station on Spotify based on that song, and “32 Flavors” by Ani DiFranco came on. And all of a sudden, one of our bartenders, Shannon, was like, “Emily, Sarah wants you in the back.” So I go to the back. One of our line cooks, Sarah, who’s queer, she was like, “I just wanted to tell you that my first girlfriend in high school put this song on a mix for me. But my mom threw the mix CD away because it was a gay relationship.” And she was like coming to tears and getting a little teary-eyed when she was saying this. And she’s like, “It is so cool to hear this song and be at work serving food to other lesbians.” And we’ve all sort of had some varying degree of that. And it’s a healing thing to come together and just be able to be like, “And now let’s have a glass of wine.”

Ryssdal: The fact that you’re trying to establish and serve a community here, does that affect your business calculation? Probably not, right? I mean, you’re just running a business.

Herbkersman: Not really. We’re just running a business, yeah.

Bielagus: And I do think the one thing that whenever I get really twisted around in my head with the numbers and the margins and the profit and how are we going to pay our staff? And then I think, “OK, but our community is so huge.” That is what we always have on our side, because I do feel like we’re offering something that people have not had in a really long time.

Herbkersman: And something unique — because there are parties, but there’s not a permanent establishment. And also we really want to be offering more of like a neighborhood kind of experience, a little bit more intimate experience. So there’s a new bar also called Honey’s, which seems so amazing. We’ve met the owners and they are incredibly talented people. I think also there’s space for both of us too because they are really a nightlife spot.

Bielagus: And we close at 10 p.m.; they close at 2 a.m. I mean, this is stop No. 1. You come here, get your grilled prawns, have a nice sauvignon blanc and then you go.

Herbkersman: And we will be at home, in bed.

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