The future of high-end cocktail bars may be in reimagining of their brands in new cities.
— Emily Zemler
Today marks the opening of Denver’s latest boutique hotel, The Ramble Hotel, as well as the first incarnation of cocktail bar Death & Co outside of New York City. In a massive expansion from its NYC property, Death & Co is responsible for a comprehensive food and beverage program in the 50-room hotel, as well as several onsite bars.
They’ve also had a hand in the in-room mini bar offerings. It’s a significant leap for the brand, one that follows in the footsteps of fellow NYC bars Employees Only and PDT, both of which have expanded globally in recent years.
The challenge, according to co-owner Alex Day, is to balance growth and expansion with maintaining a beloved brand. “We’ve waited 11 years to figure out what our vision for growth is,” he said. “Now we’re asking ourselves, ‘How can Death & Co be expressed in different places?’ Not just Denver, but where else may this idea of Death & Co go? It always runs the risk of losing authenticity.”
Day spoke to Skift Table, detailing the process and operational challenges of transforming a small cocktail bar into a larger concept.
Skift Table: Have you always imagined that Death & Co could translate into a hotel property?
Day: We always imagined that Death & Co could exist in many different ways. Yes, certainly in a hotel. But those four walls in New York City and that tiny little bar are of course what makes Death & Co what it is today in people’s minds, but we always thought those four walls were just how we contained the idea of Death & Co in one space.
There’s so many things about the bar that are special — the hospitality, the drinks — but it’s really a perspective on service and quality and the product in general. We’ve really been itching to express those same ideas in different spaces. The opportunity to do that as a daytime café and in the big lobby of a hotel and as an intimate, little, private bar and as an outdoor bar all within one property was really exciting.
Skift Table: Why was Denver the right location for the second incarnation of Death & Co?
Alex Day: Denver presented a lot of opportunities, not just because it’s a city where a lot of people are moving. It’s a particular type of city – people are moving here from other cities or people have settled here for a long time because of everything that’s on offer. We started coming here six or seven years ago looking at the city and seeing its growth. During that time we saw that the people coming here for lifestyle reasons brought with them preferences from other cities and their wisdom from living in other places. Denver started developing a really vibrant food and drink scene. The second part of that was the developer of the hotel, The Ramble Hotel, that we resides within, a guy named Ryan Diggins. He had a really clear vision for what he wanted to create and he’s incredibly committed to doing it correctly. Between the culture here and Ryan’s vision we realized Denver was the place we wanted to go.
Skift Table: Were there any specific challenges in translating the brand in new ways?
Day: As a tiny, little cocktail bar in the East Village we don’t have windows. It’s a dark, intimate space and our main space in the Ramble Hotel is flooded by natural light and lush with greenery. It’s a very different type of environment and from a service perspective that’s a lot to wrap our heads around. And we open very early in the morning – 7:30 a.m. we’re open. That’s a whole different type of service for us, so we had to define the path in front of us of where we wanted to be. We understand what our evening service is and how we want our guests to feel, but how we can get that same feeling of service and interaction through the lens of coffee and tea and a daytime, casual café setting.
Skift Table: Has the size of the space caused you to change any fundamentals of your operation?
Day: It’s a much larger operation than Death & Co is in New York and requires a lot more infrastructure. You can scale up staff, but we’ve also gotten much more ambitious with our culinary program. While New York has a small collection of food that is really meant to accent the drinking experience, here in Denver we have a robust food program where you can have a full sit-down meal. It’s a pretty expansive culinary offering.
Skift Table: Will Denver feature a different cocktail menu than NYC?
Day: Yes, completely different. We’ve been spending a lot of time in Denver over the last couple of year, not only getting acclimated to the city but also ensuring that anything we bring here isn’t just superimposing a New York offering onto Denver. Our beverage director Tyson Buhler, along with our bar manager here in Denver, has created a menu that takes inspiration from the local city and some of the distilleries that are here and the general drinking culture. There are a fair number of local distillers that are producing good stuff. One is Leopold Bros. [and] we use a couple of their products. We’ll continue to integrate more as we get acclimated to the distilleries that are seemingly around every corner here.
Skift Table: Is creating new outposts in other cities the future for cocktail bars?
Day: I think the growth of a number of brands expanding into new locations is a reflection of timing. Many of us, between ourselves, Employees Only, The Dead Rabbit and handful of others, are getting to a point in our business where there’s a level of confidence. We understand who we are. We have solid businesses. We also have a lot of employees who are seeking growth. To draw inspiration from Danny Meyer, we want to continue working with the people we’ve invested in and who have invested in us.
Finding those opportunities is really appealing. All the things that have made our bar so special, from an intimate and very personalized experience, what does that do in an expansion? We’re conscious of it and we’re working extremely hard to ensure that the things that are most important to us as a company can be expressed in more than one location.