Here’s a story I wrote that proves the power of patiently assessing your in-house and local demographic, your surrounding comp set, and your property’s options for venue reinvention, resulting in sales success:
THE GIBSON LOUNGE’S SPIRITED RISE AT THE GRAND AMERICA HOTEL, SALT LAKE CITY
“We went from begging people to come in for a drink to having someone at the door monitoring how many guests can enter because we’re so busy,” says Kasey Dubler, director of restaurants at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City.
It’s a problem Dubler is happy to have. His property’s Gibson Lounge has more than doubled sales over the previous concept, the Gibson Girl Lounge–named after Charles Dana Gibson, who created the iconic “Gibson Girl” popular at the turn of the 20th century. “It was really a forgotten space,” Dubler says. “People would walk right by and not even realize it was a bar.”
After ownership gave the go-ahead to reconcept in 2013, it took “about a year to decide exactly what we wanted to do,” explains Dubler. “We considered making it a game room with darts, and using it as a juice bar during the day. But then we started thinking of all those classic hotels with legendary bars, like the Savoy in London or the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, and I said, “That’s what this hotel is missing.'”
BACK TO BESPOKE
The AAA Five-Diamond Grand America opened in 2001, but was built with timeless luxury in mind: oak paneling, chandeliers, and exceedingly comfortable furniture throughout the property. That aesthetic flows seamlessly into the lounge.
The bad news? They had no handcrafted cocktails on the menu–de rigueur for any classic bar–let alone anyone trained to actually make them.
“I think the nicest way to put it is our drinks were too sweet, and we used a lot of flavored liquors. Our hotel is known for five-star cuisine, and then you walk into the Gibson Girl Lounge and we’re using sweet-and-sour mix to make a margarita,” says Dubler.
The bar’s name was shortened to Gibson Lounge when it re-opened in mid-2014, and changes to the décor were almost as minimal–the oak walls were left intact, the tables were resurfaced with dark marble, and luxurious, oversized chairs were purchased to match. Seating was also removed from the bar, moving the focus to personal table service.
Gibson’s artwork, more than 40 prints, moved to more prominent locations on the walls, and the overall footprint was reshuffled for a cozier vibe. A Steinway piano also sits in the corner, reminding customers of the era being replicated.
“It used to look like a teahouse with a bar in the corner, but now it has modern appeal with classic charm,” Dubler says. “Guests tell us they love the throwback feel, and our customers are people who don’t wear a T-shirt and shorts when they go out at night.”
Seating remained at approximately 65, while standing customers add about 15 more people before the bar is officially full.
SALT LAKE SKILL SET
The most prominent overhaul at the Gibson, logging the most time invested in the revamp, was the cocktail program.
“We brought in bartending consultants from around the country but hired one from Utah,” says Dubler. “We wanted someone committed to bringing Utah forward in the cocktail scene.” Training is ongoing, with the consultant visiting Gibson every Friday.
Dubler says his bartenders “bought into the new program 100%” despite the extra hours of education and daily discipline needed to execute authentic bespoke cocktails. Under the previous concept, only three bartenders were needed. Now there are five, and management added more waitstaff as well.
Gibson’s top-selling cocktail is the Grand Old Fashioned, made with High West, a craft whiskey from Park City, Utah. Salt Lake City’s own Beehive Jack Rabbit gin also features prominently on the menu.
Keeping cocktail prices reasonable has been another key to building repeat business. “People think because we’re in Grand America that it’s going to be expensive, but I went to a bar the other night down the street, and their cheapest cocktail was more expensive than our most expensive one,” notes Dubler.
Before the Gibson Lounge opened, the bar rarely had local customers. “If somebody said, ‘Hey, lets go have a drink,’ nobody would ever think of coming to Grand America. Now we see way more locals. Even if the hotel isn’t busy, locals will fill this place up, especially on weekends,” says Director of F&B Regis Perret.
Perhaps the most fervent converts are hotel guests from bigger cities with established bar cultures. “They tell us they’re shocked to find such quality cocktails in Utah,” says Dubler. “That’s one of the misperceptions we’re trying to erase. You can get a drink in the state of Utah as good as anywhere else in the country.”