Lance Saunders, Chris Wright, Will Sartain; photo by Adam Finkle
Pizza or drive-thru Mexican? Once, that was the only choice Will Sartain and Lance Saunders could offer bands at the Urban Lounge, the downtown club they co-own with Chris Wright. As booking agents and promoters, Sartain and Saunders made it their business to ensure bands were happy, from Wright’s sound engineering to lining up post-show meals. After purchasing Urban in 2008, they found themselves wishing for a restaurant open past midnight.
The solution to their food problem came attached to a bigger problem: Salt Lake City passed a 2014 ordinance limiting the size of clubs in residential areas. The law passed just before Saunders, Sartain and Wright took over the space next to Urban Lounge, squashing their plan to expand the club. It forced them to creatively rethink their options and the late-night diner Rye was born. Unlike Urban’s former restaurant neighbors, who thought a live-music venue next door ruined the dining experience, Rye embraces the action by televising the club’s performances. And Rye offers hungry musicians a wide range of menu options no matter how late they step offstage.
Rye also forced Wright, Saunders and Sartain to step up their management game. “After six years as business partners we can 100 percent trust each other’s judgment,” Sartain says. “We can step back and say, ‘You’re really good at this—why don’t you run with that?’ It’s really liberating. I don’t have to be involved in every single decision because I have really good people on my team.”
Sartain jokes that Wright must have been crazy to partner with him when they started Urban. “I was 24 and Chris was 34–can you imagine this grown man taking a chance on someone as young as I was? A lot of things I did were pretty childish.”
But Wright disagrees. “Don’t undermine yourself. You were very mature for your age.”
Wright got to know Sartain and Saunders when he manned sound at Urban while they booked talent. Then, in 2008, the lounge faced closure. “When we heard Urban was going out of business–we knew we couldn’t let this amazing, energetic location that was so important to us and the community fail,” Wright says. So they bought it.
In addition to Urban and Rye, Saunders and Sartain co-own the all-ages venue Kilby Court as well as a booking company, S&S Productions. Each day, Saunders follows an ever-evolving to-do list while Sartain manages critical correspondence on his laptop. That leaves Wright as the de facto CFO. Rye is Wright’s priority, but he still checks the sound at Urban.
Wright, Saunders and Sartain recognize how lucky they are to make a living without abandoning their creative interests. As Saunders says, “It’s an exciting time to be developing Salt Lake City, having a small impact by building things that you’re passionate about.”