Photograph by Chad Crawford
I co-own the Cobra Nashville, used to be the FooBar. The old owner got to where he was ready to make a change. I was working there, and so me and the other bartenders co-opted. There are four of us. We bought the place together, re-opened as The Cobra Nashville, and let the old owner move on with his life. Other than that, everything’s good, my brother and sister are doing great, parents doing great. Things are really good at the bar, we’ve been open a year under the new name, and we’re way in the black with money in the bank. Just trying to keep building up the name brand, which is why I added the “Nashville” to it. You remember like Bar Nashville? The Bar Charlotte, Bar Atlanta, so, crossing my fingers, maybe there’ll be a Cobra Chattanooga or a Cobra Louisville someday, I don’t know. But everything’s good. I’m working on motorcycles in my time off, trying to see more shows. I’m having a good time.” — Niko Gehrke
Niko Gehrke could scare the denizens of a biker bar just by walking in the front door. Long black hair cascades down past his shoulders, framing sinister blue eyes and a beard, while the tattoos start at his hands and run all the way up to his chin. He’s not the guy Buffy brings home to meet Dad. If this were a sitcom, he’d be the craven-looking marshmallow with a heart of gold; life is sometimes a sitcom. He could frighten the poop out of you if he wanted to, but he’d rather share jokes and pour you a beer from behind the bar, which is where he spends a good deal of his time.
Gehrke was instrumental in changing East Nashville into the place it is now. It’s a simple as that. Nearly 20 years ago, Five Points was not somewhere you walked after dark. Then Mike Grimes and David Gehrke (Niko’s brother) opened Slow Bar — the very existence of which changed the whole landscape of the neighborhood. “Brian [Bequette], this gal Liz, and I were the OG employees,” he recalls. Behind the bar, Gehrke watched it go from being a small watering hole for musicians and locals to become a place hosting some music, to a place hosting some great music, to the place you couldn’t get another person in the door — all the while pollenating the whole area as East Nashville took to blooming like the lilies in the field.
“I’ve kind of had my foot on this side of town since 2000,” Gehrke says. “I mean, I was one of the first customers at Bongo (East) when they started making coffee. I was one of the first customers of the Rosepepper. I took everybody there for lunch. So I feel like a lot of the staples here, I was there when they started, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch them grow. I’m hoping one day the Cobra Nashville can become a staple just like a lot of these other places. We are what the Slow Bar used to be.”
48 years old, Gehrke is a native of Greece, where he was born and raised until he moved to America with his family at the age of 15. “My mother’s Greek and my dad was in the army,” Gehrke says. “We moved to, of all places, Tennessee! I was so mad at my dad. There are lakes here, but I didn’t want to swim in a lake. I grew up on oceans.”
Gehrke gets back to Greece fairly often. “I go back there, and even if it’s cold, I want to go put my feet in the water every chance I get,” he says.
When he got out into the adult world — and looked quite a bit different than he does now — he actually moved up North and got a straight job as an Assistant District Manager for an entertainment company in the greater New York area. But after a while, that was a little too straight. He wound up back in Nashville and got into running restaurants and tending bar, until eventually Slow Bar happened, and the rest is history.
“I would love to be married and have children,” he muses, “but I’m very old fashioned. Unless I meet the right girl, I’m not going to have any children. Even though I may look a little gruff with the beard and tattoos, my mama raised me right, so ‘fun uncle’ works for me. Hopefully one of my nieces or nephews will remember me when I’m old, so they can take me in, and I can live over their garage someday.”
Not bloody likely. The Cobra Nashville is in the black, and everything is good.