By Lou Fancher
Thank goodness when Richard Fuentes and Sean Sullivan ran roughly seven years ago for election to Oakland city government positions, they lost. What was arguably bad for the world of politics and misfortune for the roughly 440,000 citizens of Oakland, was immeasurably beneficial to the city’s vibrant, eclectic and always astonishingly ambitious nightlife and entertainment scene.
Fuentes manages investment plans and special projects for BART and has expertise in community relations. He was recognized in 2016 by the San Francisco Business Times as one of their 40 under 40 entrepreneurial leaders to watch.
Sullivan is a heralded mixologist and entrepreneur whose devotion to Oakland and its people demonstrates itself in a resumé chock full of extensive civic participation: board chair of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in 2020-22, vice chair for nearly seven years of the Alameda County-Oakland Community Action Partnership, founder and co-chair of Pridefest Oakland and much more.
Together, the work and life partners and downtown Oakland residents are owners of The Port Bar, the LGBTQ+-friendly establishment they opened in 2016 on Broadway. In May 2023, the couple jetted just a few blocks down the street to expand their footprint and opened Fluid510.
The 5,000-square-foot venue offers a wide variety of public entertainment, community and private events, creative alcoholic beverages based on traditional cocktails recalibrated with new twists, an emphasis on local wines and artisanal craft beers, and an “elevated bar food” menu the team created with chef Alessandro Campitelli, formerly at Chiaroscuro in North Beach and Contrasto near Lake Merritt.
“The Port Bar is the outgrowth of our love of this community,” Sullivan says in an interview just three weeks after the opening of Fluid510. “We both have been involved in initiatives in the city, and we both ran for office, and when that didn’t work out, we asked, ‘What could we do that’s not political and is fun and celebrates our community?’ The Port Bar was the first outgrowth, and Fluid510 feels like the evolution of that. We’re here to celebrate the city.”
Mind you, Sullivan’s and Fuentes’ commitment to Oakland isn’t puppy love, the kind that peaks early, then fades with time and inevitable aging. Instead, their love is the deepest kind; open-eyed love that means all the flaws, failures and fault lines are known. That awareness does not stop them from pouring love into Oakland’s painful fissures, which only seems to increase their passion and enrich their commitment to long-term relationships with the city and its people. Overwhelmingly, they celebrate Oakland as being more diverse than almost anywhere they have lived or traveled.
Sullivan says, “As someone from the East Coast, from New York City and with most of my childhood in Queens, I can say that Queens County is one of the most diverse counties in the country, with over 100 languages spoken. What is different from where I grew up compared to what Oakland is, is that in Queens you have separate Greek, Italian, Polish and Vietnamese neighborhoods.
“We do have enclaves that historically are places where those immigrants gather, but right now in Oakland, you have those folks not only living next door to each other in greater proportions, but there are (racially) diverse people in friends groups, neighborhood associations, rotaries. That’s emblematic of Oakland for us. Diversity is intermingled. America talks about being a melting pot, but you see it in practice in Oakland. Fluid510 reflects that sense of community that we all have that transcends any one person,” Sullivan continues.
Fuentes grew up in a home on Compton Boulevard in south central Los Angeles and says in his neighborhood, diversity existed, but was different. “Everybody around me looked like people of color, and we had white neighbors,” Fuentes recalls. “When someone asks me a question like, ‘What does diversity look like?’ you could be challenged with the concept of diversity because you come from a different part of the country that doesn’t look and feel like Oakland.
“We probably see Oakland every day, so we forget how beautiful that diversity looks. When you come into Fluid and you see faces of people being happy, smiling, you see people hugging each other—old, young, some gay, some straight—and all are comfortable in the same space, that speaks well not only of Oakland but of Fluid. Those types of interactions are important because they define this moment, and particularly how the Gen Z generation looks at the world. Gen Zers are more supportive of being inclusive,” Fuentes points out.
Their beliefs and practices mean a huge (but too obvious) “All are Welcome” sign could be posted behind the bar at Fluid510. Fuentes says, “When I walked in 10 minutes ago and looked around, my first experience was that I saw Oakland’s diversity. There are more workers leaving the office, staying in or returning to downtown Oakland. They’re not just looking for a bar; they’re looking for a place where they can sit down, enjoy a cocktail and good food with friends.
“I see African Americans, Asians, Latinos. You see gay, you see straight. As an Oaklander, that excites me. I also see a purposefully diverse staff. That sends a strong message that everyone is welcome. You see people who live in the hills who are historically caucasian, and you see people from the flatlands who are usually Black, Asian or Latino. You hear conversations, background music that’s not overpowering. You can have an intimate conversation with a colleague, a friend or a loved one. Or you can be a person alone, having a beer, working on a laptop,” Fuentes continues.
People entering the space are greeted in a plant-filled lounge area with upscale furniture that Sullivan likens to fixtures and features that might be found in a boutique hotel. The first bar of two in the space is designed with metal and glass tiles and hardwood floors that have history and a certain symbolism.
“They’re fabricated from the wood pallets of the sides of the barracks at the former Oakland Army Base,” says Fuentes. “They’ve been refurbished to be our hardwood floors, and you learn the history of Oakland having an army base that was active and was eventually shut down. Oakland is the same; it’s going through that moment of renewal. You see (in the floors) the history, preserved for future generations. People see it when they’re dancing, drinking and eating. Preserving Oakland history is important to us.”
Metal wall dividers feature triangle-shaped pieces designed by their architect, who lives in Oakland’s Laurel neighborhood. “We found a fabricator for these metal pieces who was also in Oakland. It was not only important that we hire somebody from Oakland to be our architect, but also a local fabricator. He and our architect knew what Oaklanders would want,” Fuentes explains.
Behind the bar is a full kitchen serving happy hour every day and a wide array of bar food during evening hours; they plan to expand as soon as a weekend brunch can be added.
As he speaks about the menu’s Seared Spanish Octopus and Baked Eggplant Moussaka, the scent of freshly baked focaccia bread fills Fuentes’ office. “Oh my God, the smell,” he exclaims. “What did you ask…? Oh yes, how do we elevate bar food and keep it local? With the moussaka, as a vegetarian for 30 years, it was important to me that we design a food program with a vegetarian dish that wasn’t just a pasta dish or fries.
“I’ve been vocal to our friends who run restaurants about this issue and how the one vegetarian thing can’t be a pasta primavera or pasta diabolo, or maybe it doesn’t even get thought of. That’s why the moussaka is big to me. It’s protein rich and can be done vegan. It’s important, again, for inclusion. You can’t talk about inclusion being only ‘We have people of every color here.’ We have diversity in responding to people’s palates and eating styles too,” says Fuentes.
Inclusion and diversity are ever-present words in the 60-minute conversation. And by the end of the hour, they remain as true in tone as they did at the start. Asked about changes they may make to the menu, they say customer response will determine additions or subtractions as much, if not more, than their personal preferences. “I don’t know all the answers yet,” says Fuentes. “I just know we want to excite people that when they get here, they can have not only a quality cocktail but rich and unique food.”
The beverage menu, Sullivan notes, underscores the team’s keen anticipation of people whose drinking habits or needs vary. Mocktails such as a Blueberry Mojito, Mint Berry Fizz and Shirley Ginger offer options for non-drinkers or people who want to go out at night, but don’t want to wake up with a hangover the next day. “That community of people has been neglected,” says Fuentes. “And maybe there are guests who will start with a mocktail, move onto champagne, then to hard liquor. We’re providing them with an array of options.”
Classic cocktails given a new twist were created with current trends in mind, but steer well clear of kitschy. Instead of a Slow Gin Fizz, there is a Coco Fizz (coconut rum, coconut water, lime juice, Coppola Prosecco).
A spike in consumer interest in coconut water and coconut milk, Fuentes says, “has exploded recently, but we haven’t seen it move into alcohol pairings so much, so we’re happy to do that.” Similarly, sparkling wine is regularly used in cocktails, but is not often paired with vodka. On the menu is the Mandarin 75, made with Grey Goose Orange Vodka, St Germain, lemon juice and Campo Viejo Cava.
Fluid510’s portfolio of wines is solid, while still open to possible expansion of wines from under-represented winemakers who are women, people of color or members of the LGBTQ+ community. Price points range from respectable wines at lower levels up to high-end options for people who choose bottle service.
Study of the beverage menu across the board shows that local suppliers and sources are given preference, as is an effort to escape reliance on mega corporation-owned alcohol brands, which they say is difficult to avoid. “That’s why I’m pleased to say our Bayab Gin is African made and African American owned and distributed by a regional distributor,” Fuentes says.
Fluid510 is, as Sullivan emphasizes, a full-service nightclub and “not a watering hole bar.” In addition to good food and drinks, special events and the general atmosphere play large roles in determining their success. Already, within the first few weeks, the numbers suggest they may have hit on the right formula.
“Our grand opening had a jazz band, then moved into a flamenco dancer, then Kev Choice, who’s considered Mr. Oakland, right? Then we had (singer/songwriter) Crystal Waters and after that, a DJ and dancing…oh, and aerialists hanging from the sky. Those things really wowed the crowd and planners, promoters, and people gathered could see themselves in the event and let their imaginations be stretched. That’s what you will get out of Fluid510,” says Fuentes.
Sullivan adds, “This Saturday, we had local artists, a group who do vogueing. They came out with over 200 people. We’re looking to partner with local artists who want to have a concert and absolutely, it’s everybody’s dream to partner with the big artists who have shows that sell out The Paramount and The Fox. We’re looking into doing afterparties for some of these concerts.”
Fluid510 occupies a former event space available for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, baby showers and birthday parties. “We recently hosted a 50th birthday party, so we’re open to celebrating events that are milestones for families too,” Fuentes says. “Because we have an operating kitchen, we’re able to have minors in the space. We can rent it out to families who want to create memories at Fluid510.”
Of course, beyond good food, innovative drinks, a welcoming vibe and exciting entertainment, there is staffing. Sullivan says their good reputation is based on their history as club owners and The Port Bar’s seven-year track record, which combine to mean rather than a shortage of job applicants, “people are knocking down our doors.”
They like to say they are not a mom-and-pop shop, but a pop-and-pop shop that operates like a family. Fuentes believes employees want to see an owner willing to clean bathrooms, scrub the sidewalk outside the front door, or pick up dishes and glasses from tables. Sullivan suggests having no hierarchy is key to attracting staff that once again, represents true diversity. Among the women, some are straight, others bisexual or lesbian, and all are people of color. The men currently working at Fluid510 are gay or gender-fluid.
As the conversation ends, the partners reiterate themes of diversity and inclusion and add a third point, as if completing one of those hand-crafted metal triangles embedded in the very structure of Fluid510. They say everything they do, say and offer slants in one direction: to make Fluid510 welcoming to all the people of and in Oakland.