Weekend twists make Hotel Teatro pop in competitive Denver brunch market.
Bottomless Booberry Russians may not be everyone’s cup of cereal milk, but that’s exactly the point. It’s just one element within a dynamic brunch bar car concept with something for most everyone, which itself is but one reason brunch at the Nickel at Hotel Teatro is bringing Denver to its table.
Before the Nickel’s brunch overhaul, the Sunday spread was “hotel-focused, not brunch-focused,” says hotel GM David Coonan. Teatro did some targeted market research and saw need for engaging, interactive, change that would match the brand.
“Denver is a growing, younger town,” Coonan says. “People from bigger cities are moving here, and they’re used to going to brunch. It’s a weekend event. We’re able to capture that feeling with the changes we made; it’s a very social event.”
A Bigger Window
The Teatro-owned Nickel occupies a space that formerly housed a third-party restaurant. Before leaving Hotel Teatro around the turn of the year, F&B Operations Manager Joshua Ford drove the revolution in the Nickel brunch. At the outset of the revamp, their would-be captive brunch audience of hotel guests wasn’t quite the bird in the hand it should have been.
Previously, brunch service was from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a brunch cocktail list and food menu that Ford says was good but entree-heavy. It got a so-so response from hotel guests, which Ford attributes to the Nickel being cramped by a bevy of great restaurants nearby. “It was difficult to get retention, to keep guests from leaving to try one of these other restaurants,” Ford says. “Our inspiration was to be so good they can’t walk past us.”
The Teatro team visited other brunches in the market. “We found that you have to open the hours up a little bit, because sometimes people are looking to go a little earlier,” Ford says. The Nickel moved its brunch start to an hour earlier, a simple but significant tweak.
“Opening at 10 a.m., we’re able to catch some of the checkout crowd,” Coonan says. “Those folks are leaving, and before, the brunch wasn’t starting until 11. Most people are hitting the road earlier, and this now gives them one more thing to experience before they leave. It’s allowed us to build a first term with hotel guests and then later get the Denver local folks.”
Wide Open Weekends
Like many urban properties, Teatro aspired to more, going after people outside the hotel’s walls but in its immediate orbit. In mid-2016, the F&B team reinvented the brunch program in an effort to increase business.
The Nickel launched a $20 Bottomless Bar Car Brunch, offered Saturday and Sunday. For $20, the guest gets bottomless access to the “Big” White Russian Bar, featuring assorted alternative and infused milks, cold brew coffee, and shaved chocolates; an extensive charcuterie Bloody Mary bar; and bottomless Mimosas with choice of orange, cranberry, grapefruit, passion fruit, or blood orange juice. Additionally, a new a la carte menu includes Rosé Popsicles, Cinnamon Roll Dip, Caprese Tartlets, and Strawberry Cheesecake Brioche French Toast.
Ford and company were emboldened by the strong brunch scene in Denver but inspired and driven by their own property’s personality and resources.
“It’s a big social, communal activity, so we created more shared options that the table can enjoy together—and also took more of a whimsical look at it,” he explains. “We took a lot of inspiration from Saturday morning cartoons, putting some fun twists on our dishes.” These themes carried into the infused milks of the White Russian offering, part of the new, extensive bar car.
“Hotel Teatro used to be where the stagecoach came through,” says Ford. “The restaurant is named the Nickel, because that was the fare. So we took that train theme and started our Bottomless Bar Car. We’d seen a lot of bottomless Bloody Marys and Mimosas, so we wanted to open up the options.”
Capitalizing on the Nickel’s house-curated charcuterie program, “a light bulb went off that the charcuterie cooler is the best Bloody Mary bar in town,” Ford says. “Each week, our chef does a few different meat and cheese pairings for the Bloody Marys, and our bar staff makes a house Bloody Mary mix as well as a Verde Mary—a tomatillo and cucumber-based mix. We make pickles inhouse already for our charcuterie program, so we put those out there. Every couple of weeks we get as many local hot sauces as we can find.”
For guests who want to go lighter than a Bloody Mary, the Nickel concocted a program of Mimosas to mix and match: traditional, blood orange, passion fruit, grapefruit, and cranberry.
From Russia, With Lucky Charms
“The part that we threw in there for whimsical fun is the White Russian bar,” Ford says. “That has become by far the most popular selection, three to one.” The Nickel “infuses” three or four milks with cereal flavors, alongside traditional milks, almond milks, soy milks, and coconut milks. “The response to having the children’s cereals has been through the roof—the chance to have a Lucky Charms White Russian. It’s something I did for a private party once, and the right opportunity came up.”
The “infused” milks are made as you would imagine.
“We use a lot of modern techniques in the restaurant, so we tried to ‘science’ it up, but sometimes the good old fashioned way works best,” Ford says. “We throw cereal in with milk and let it sit overnight and strain it off.”
The cereal brands/flavors change frequently, which has been a source of fun for the staff. Initially Ford picked out the cereals at the grocery store, but now staff members proactively bring in new kinds. Last Halloween, the staff went out and got Frankenberry, Booberry, and Count Chocula for infusing, and the hotel’s pastry chef also created treats out of those cereals. The staff excitement around all this, Ford says, is a sight to see.
“The bar car sits right in the front; it’s an amazing visual piece,” says Greg Monjure, who became GM of the Nickel in March 2017. “We’ll catch guests who stick their heads in there, and it stops them right in their tracks. Especially starting at 10 a.m., it’s a great device to capture them—engaging them and asking the right questions. From there, it’s really easy to draw them into the restaurant.”
For the first two months following the launch, the restaurant saw a 51% increase in brunch covers, and brunch business continues to thrive, Coonan attests. “In the last few months, we’ve seen a 31% growth in brunch revenue with this format, versus what we were doing in the past.”
Ford says the changes did not necessitate any real increase in labor. “The kitchen team moves from breakfast into brunch,” he says. “It’s the same line. So, the format and model for staffing in the back of the house has been the same.”
The cost increase was minimal, Ford says. Before, the Nickel did $5 brunch cocktails, which had reasonable success, but now, Ford points out, the $20 bottomless concept figures to about four drinks per person anyway—but it sounds like a much better deal to the guest, who might not even end up consuming four drinks worth.
The Nickel also works with a local winery for bubbly on tap at 14 cents an ounce, making the Mimosas “darn near free anyway,” Ford says. They keep track of other items on the bar and translate it into beverage cost each week. “It’s nominal,” says Ford, saying the restaurant might spend $100 a weekend on food items that get transferred into beverage items. “That’s minimal,” he notes, “when you consider how much growth it’s created.”
Coonan estimates 75% of the brunch crowd at the Nickel is from outside the hotel. “We’re a boutique hotel with 110 guest rooms, with high occupancy on the weekends,” he says. Saturday and Sunday are about even in profitability, with growth year over year. “Sunday might catch a little more, because we run a little more occupancy on Saturday night, so we might capture more inhouse guests.”
Staying the Course
Thus far, the new brunch at the Nickel at Hotel Teatro has proven so strong that no significant tweaks have been made. The restaurant’s GM Greg Monjure notes that cold-brew coffee wasn’t a big enough hit, so it’s no longer part of brunch service. Otherwise, he says, “If it’s working, it’s working. The room is so favorable, with light, and the brunch, it’s doing very well.”
And the menu does morph a little with the seasons. Creativity is important in attracting locals in Denver, so the brunch menu changes about every three months. For example, they may utilize persimmons in spring, break out rosé popsicles in the summer, and egg nog pancakes in the winter.
But Monjure does have his eyes—and ears—on one more twek.
“I’m a huge fan of music at brunch. I spent four years in New Orleans, and I know it brings such an energy to the room. It adds to the things that stop folks to ask what’s happening. The last one I loved was a blues musician. It worked really well.”—TW