People of Prague
Glen Emery and Glenn Spicker: The Expat Pioneers
It’s not a far stretch to say expat business owners Glenn Spicker and Glen Emery have been here since the start. In fact, the two long-time friends and sometimes friendly business rivals arrived in Prague just after the Velvet Revolution and before the formation of the Czech Republic. Both in their 20’s, Spicker came from the US, and Emery from Canada (although he had lived in Slovakia as a child).
In the nearly thirty years since, between them, the two have built a seemingly endless and impressive list of involvement in many of the hottest Prague night spots, essentially making them the godfathers of the expat scene.
The two recall meeting in 1991, when Emery was setting up Jo’s Bar and Spicker had just arrived and decided to open his own place (which became the restaurant Red Hot and Blues). A contact at the U.S. Embassy directed Spicker to talk to “the Canadian dude opening a bar around the corner.”
“I was already in Europe traveling around… living in Germany going to school. That’s when the wall came down so I had an opportunity to come here just as a tourist,” says Spicker. “I realized there was a lot of opportunity and fell in love with Prague. And realized this is a lot more fun than Germany so, went back there and packed up.”
“When I opened my first bar that was the only bar in town basically, other than the Czech pubs,” says Emery. “When I was just setting up… everyone was visiting, coming in. I had a lot of these chancellor dudes who’d come in and say ‘well hypothetically, if a guy was trying to do the same thing, what exactly would that person have to do?’ and I said ‘well, hypothetically, if it was you,’ I would tell that person to go find a f****** lawyer, talk to you later,” laughs Emery. “And then Glenn came in one day and he goes, ‘I want to open a bar I want to do this, can you help me out?’ He was the first guy sorta shooting straight, so I said come on and we became friends.”
“It was a pretty small community at the time,” says Spicker. “He was the first guy who opened up something, so we were pretty early there. It was before Radost opened, before Italian guys were here opening pizza places, it was before everybody, really.”
Before the 90s expats opened bars and restaurants, there were only Czech pubs and places offering the classic Czech food of meat and potatoes, a result of the decades under the communist regime. The non-Czech places were so rare Emery and Spicker can remember their exact locations.
“There were a few non-Czech places… There was the Indian restaurant on Wenceslas Square. It was a bunch of fat Czech guys making Indian food, no spices – they made good naan bread though!” laughs Emery, with Spicker agreeing that he used to go there. “There were chinese restaurants also run by Czech guys, but then there was a Vietnamese cultural center that always had food right next to Kogo. We used to go in there and get bowls of soup.”
They remember how the Vietnamese population was already significant then, after Vietnamese had been invited to study or work in the country by the Czechoslovak government during the communist regime.
“So when the wall came down they all set up shop, Chinese restaurants,” says Emery. “I used to go to this Chinese wholesaler market and there was this little old lady selling Pho out of the backseat of a Škoda, she was this really small lady with a heater right there just cooking away!”
“I kept saying why don’t you open up one of these downtown cause all the foreigners everyone would go crazy for this pho ya know,” says Emery. “And then finally someone did it and then BANG it just went like overnight. And then every single Chinese restaurant turned into a Vietnamese restaurant.”
“Hundreds, hundreds,” Spicker adds.
The expat community was incredibly small then. Everyone knew each other, or knew someone who knew someone, and the night life was roaring with legendary places like the Bunker and Emery’s bars, Repre Club, in the basement of the Municipal House, and the Thirsty Dog pub, famously written about by Nick Cave and visited by poet Allen Ginsberg.
“I would be setting Red Hot and Blues up over here in New Town doing whatever on this side of the water, walk over the bridge, go to Jo’s bar and watch these guys finish up before they opened,” says Spicker. “Once they opened I’d go over and have a beer and then I’d jog home or something stupid. I was so young I could party and then run home to Prague 6.”
Spicker remembers how a friend couldn’t find him for a while and got fed up, calling the states from a payphone trying to find out where he was. The friend ended up asking another person at the phone booth if he knew where Spicker was, and he was like “oh yah!” – The community was so small you simply had to ask a random person at the phone booth and they’d know how to find someone.
On top of being a much smaller community, there were no study abroad programs or stag do parties bringing obnoxious groups of young drunk people to the city.
“So back in the day, there were a lot more interesting, more intrepid travelers, more sort of crazy people,” says Emery. “The fact that there was no American Express and no banks, etc… it was still more dangerous, kinda dodgy. It was on the FBI ‘maybe you shouldn’t go’ list, ya know, all those things cause it didn’t have all the amenities. So that was a good filter for filtering out all the jocks. It was just wild and crazy people here. Real assortment.”
The people weren’t the only thing different then.
“It was pre-mortgages, pre-payment programs, before GQ and Cosmopolitan and Elle came in,” says Emery. “So all these sort of societal changes hadn’t taken place yet so it was completely weird. For us to come in here, ya know. Women didn’t shave their legs or underarms, the trams smelled like low tide all the time, nobody wore deodorant… you should have seen it back in the day holy smokes it was rough as a dog’s breakfast on those trams like whooooa.”
“It was definitely really raw, and things weren’t open,” says Spicker. “There were no restaurants no bars… Restaurants where all the windows were blocked, ya know, colored off, colored glass, you couldn’t see in.”
“No McDonald’s, nowhere to get money, the crown was inconvertible you had to change money on the black market,” says Emery. “There were two rates for the currency, there was the bank rate and then the street rate. Couldn’t get stuff done, there were no washing machines, you had to actually get a girlfriend to get your laundry done.”
Now, it’s a little different. Greasy American chains are abundant and an ATM can be found on every block. Expats don’t know every other expat in the business and you don’t have to be massively adventurous to settle in here.
“There’s a lot of people we don’t know,” says Emery. “I always run into people who have been here for years and they’re doing restaurants and stuff and I’ve never heard of them or seen them before.”
“Now you meet people and have no idea who they are,” says Spicker. “But that’s good too though!”
The abundance of tourists Prague now attracts has made locals less welcoming than they were in the 90s. When the country first opened after the revolution, foreigners were an intriguing reprieve from the monotony of communism and brought exciting stories of the newly-reachable West.
“Most Czechs hadn’t traveled and hadn’t met people, and we were exotic, so we were invited into their homes, to meet their family and told about the past,” says Spicker. “Doesn’t happen now, tourists are everywhere, they’ve traveled, they have money now, so. It’s much more like traveling in the west now, than it was back then. Like [Emery] said we weeded out a lot of people that just never would have come here back then. [Czechs] were tolerant people, they mixed well with us. They loved having us around! Not so much anymore.”
Ways of running a business have also changed, especially since the police are much more diligent now compared to the years after the revolution.
“The cops kinda went underground, the cops who basically supported the regime, so right after the revolution happened they went missing, they sort of disappeared for a while,” says Emery. “So it was a bit anarchic on the streets and lots of weird stuff happening. You saw [cops] around a bit but they kept a low profile. Now they’re back up to full strength. Especially at my bar, [Bukowski’s] they busted me last week. They came into my bar seven times in six days after finding out people were smoking in the back room.”
“That’s true, I never thought of it like that but they were definitely keeping a low profile,” agrees Spicker. “But they were also celebrating. There was a revolution, people were having fun. They weren’t working and either didn’t take their jobs seriously or weren’t working that hard. You just didn’t have stuff like 20-year-old consultants for T-mobile. It was just more like regular businesses that were starting up, there was a lot of opportunity, just not so corporate.”
Besides more aggressive regulation, running a business has gotten more challenging since there’s much more competition than there used to be.
“There was this nice period there where we had the experience, we knew the ropes, and the competition wasn’t global and big money, so there were some good years – which wasn’t actually that long ago,” says Spicker. “But now, it’s definitely harder, or at least I find it that way. Even five years ago – Burrito Loco people would come from miles to go to the first Burrito Loco, now it’s like whatever, they’ve got everything everywhere, they don’t have to come to Burrito Loco. That’s just five years.”
Emery agrees, but adds that it’s gotten “easier administratively” since clearer processes have been put in place and somewhat normalized.
Although Prague’s popularity has exploded in the past decade, the small community feel from the early expats hasn’t faded away. Emery and Spicker often break off into tangent conversations about mutual friends, discussing where friends are living and what they’re up to, and how they randomly ran into so-and-so at this place the other night.
A couple of friends – “two more insane people” – coincidentally come into the restaurant and join the conversation for a while; Doug, one of the first early expats himself, and Kenny, who’s “only been here 10-12 years” – a newcomer by Spicker and Emery’s terms.
They also talk about everything happening in the bar and restaurant world, from changing ownership and ending leases, to the biggest successes and failures of the last couple decades.
Countless business ventures have popped up and faded away since Emery and Spicker moved here, but the two still refer to places as if they’re giving directions in a small town: “You know on the Petřín side of the hill? Just past the grow shop. There was a club there with an airplane thing…” or “I forget the name but you go in this one place and then out this other and then…”
Emery and Spicker’s businesses have come and gone as well, ranging from laundromats and bars to restaurants and museums. Currently Emery owns Bukowski’s, everyone’s favorite hipster hangout for cocktails in Žižkov, Elbow Room, a more luxurious version of Bukowski’s in Letná, and Frankie’s, the only place in town that features specialty beer from northern Bavaria on tap all year.
“I moved out of the center a long time ago and where I used to live, there was great little cocktail bar that I used to go to called Hapu,” says Emery. “It was on a little side street in a residential building and I realized, cause after a while you’re living in the center and I lived in the center for 20 years, and then you find the city getting tired with all the tourists and all the shit… I used to go to… Hapu bar and was like ‘oh shit, this is a perfect idea.’ And I always wanted to open a place on Bořivojova around Žižkov there cause it’s a cool neighborhood, so I finally did.
Spicker on the other hand has stuck mainly with food: Burrito Loco provides sustenance to the many, many apres-party crowd in the early morning hours, Bohemia Bagel brings the classic American food to Central Europe and the legendary U Malého Glena (literally, “At Little Glen’s”) has hosted the best local jazz musicians for the past 25 years and serves a mix of Tex-Mex and American foods. Spicker is set to open a new restaurant this month called Cali Brothers, featuring aged steak and fresh mussels.
Neither thought they were moving to Prague for good. Emery even packed it up and went back to Vancouver for a few months in 2002, but the city and its never-fading charm always brings him back. They don’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
“Friends complaining in their thirties, friends complaining in their forties, ‘ahhh yah i’m slowing down I can’t do it I’ll have a hangover for three days’,” laughs Spicker. “And I’m like, I’m fine!”
So how have the Glen(n)s accomplished all this in the past thirty years?
“I’ll give you advice,” laughs Emery. “From Bukowski – don’t try.”