Since opening in December of 2015, the Hotel Indigo Lower East Side (LES) has striven to become an integral part of its downtown Manhattan neighborhood. The 293-room property embraces the funky, culturally eclectic environment of the formerly gritty area known for its immigrant voices, global ethnic traditions, and exotic flavors. Its décor makes use of street art images and tries to capture the vital energy of the bustling surroundings. But more than just setting itself in the middle of that bustle, the boutique hotel invites the Lower East Side inside to mingle with guests in its 14th floor Sky Lobby where compelling artwork, dramatic views of the city and fresh, local F&B can inspire.
Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG) insists that its Hotel Indigo properties provide an “authentic, local experience” for guests. “We try to give [our guests] a sense of the tastes, smells, sights, and sounds of our neighborhood, inside and out,” says IHG VP of Lifestyle Brands Jason Moskal. That idea of community integration led to a plan to welcome guests in the Motor Lobby on street level and send them directly to check in at a lobby on the 14th floor, where the 360˚views are captivating, and to also lure Lower East Side inhabitants to that same panorama, where they can help provide local flavor. Guests and locals alike are known to spend hours working, relaxing, and generally rubbing elbows in the inviting lounge setting.
“Two things create the energy in the lobby that make it a destination,” says Moskal. “First, the design of the space energizes [guests] and inspires them to get in a productive state of mind.” Lobby seating areas are arranged to accommodate intimate groups while counters provide workspace. A flying staircase leads up to the restaurant, Mr. Purple (which is run by the Gerber Group), on the 15th floor. The view is unavoidable (preserved indefinitely by air rights), with floor-to-ceiling windows in every direction. Colorful graphics and artwork—including a ceiling mural by graffiti artist Lee Quiñones—add further interest to the crisp, contemporary décor. The space functions as a communal area for any purpose from social to business to solitary.
Secondly, says Moskal, guests who gather in the lobby area need sustenance. “Food and drink offerings need to stimulate the senses,” he says. The Market Café is an unobtrusive but busy presence that brings its own energy to the setting and fuels loungers, workers, socializers, and the grab-‘n’-goers. Offerings follow the tradition of fresh, flavorful creations alongside local favorites. The menu features Yonah Schimmel knishes, Russ & Daughters bagels, Irving Farm Coffee, Liquiteria juices, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, and favorites from Il Laboratorio del Gelato and a growing number of other downtown purveyors. Dinner also includes items from Chef Ashley Montero’s menu from upstairs at Mr.Purple.
Director of Rooms at Hotel Indigo LES, William Bornheimer, oversees F&B operations and regards the design of the café as streamlined and functional yet fitting perfectly with the atmosphere of the lobby.
“The design for the F&B area was inspired by the automats that were prevalent in New York City in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s,” he says. Two or three employees staff the café in each daypart, with a total of six full-time and part-time staffers to cover all shifts. The café occupies 1,300 square feet, and the lobby lounge area is in an adjacent 2,800 square feet. A six-stool marble bar and café tables allow guests to sit down in the immediate café area where they can hear the workings of the La Marzocco espresso machine churning out drinks, or they can wander unhindered into adjacent space to meet or to find a quiet place along the windows or banquettes.
Bornheimer keeps a close eye on what sells in the café. Breakfast is the busiest daypart. The café’s bacon, egg, and cheese wrap is the big seller and is often purchased to go. The kale Caesar salad with shrimp is the most popular lunch dish, and flatbread pizzas and mini-sliders rule the dinner period. But, of course, the local items are often the more important offerings for the regular Hotel Indigo patron.
“The target guest for the Hotel Indigo brand is the ‘savvy individualist,’” says Bornheimer, “who is looking for locally curated experiences, including experiencing locally inspired and delicious food from the hotel Market Café and restaurant. In the morning, they don’t want to sit down for a long meal; they love the ease of grab-and-go while still getting to experience something locally sourced.” Bornheimer is always on the lookout to add new standout local products and tries to revise the menu seasonally. Chef Montero at Mr. Purple also changes menus on a quarterly basis.
The combination of inviting design and interesting cuisine has produced an active lobby scene. Bornheimer estimates that the lobby loungers are 70% guests and 30% locals—an impressive draw of the latter in the City That Never Sleeps. And with no shortage of places to spend discretionary dollars, getting people to “stay all day” working at your café and purchasing your F&B goods is more than good. In addition, Bornheimer feels that drawing guests out into the communal space gives staff the opportunity to interact with them more, and face time is a proven path to higher satisfaction scores from guests.
So, maybe you don’t have a 14th floor view to persuade guests to hang around or to attract local clientele. Moskal and Bornheimer are confident that—through design and with enticing F&B offerings—others can create a space that invites gathering, working, collaborating, and solitary repose.
“We created an open space that is inspirational,” says Moskal, “and—working in tandem—design and culinary have to stimulate all of the senses.” While “authentic, local experience” may be the mantra, and high design and culinary artistry the means, Bornheimer’s assessment of the formula is a little more basic. “It’s all about creating an environment where you can invite the neighborhood inside,” he says, “and creating a warm, welcoming, coffee shop feel—a café that evokes a more European café vibe where you can sit and relax, take in the views outside, connect to the free Wi-Fi, and offer a communal environment with a large table and seating and plenty of plugs. You want to provide a space where guests want to bring their business to the hotel and want to spend longer periods of time with others.”
Denny Lewis is a Hotel F&B veteran based in Arlington, Massachusetts.