Fire and Rain

Is outdoor the new lobby social scene?

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The Firefly’s cost-friendly weather cover is made of panels of Plexiglas over a large trellis, high enough to maintain the feeling of being 100% in the open.

Social space sometimes needs a breath of fresh air. And a sip of whiskey doesn’t hurt.

The outdoor F&B space of The Firefly at the Marble City Kitchen at the Hilton Knoxville plays to the idea that has driven lobby space F&B success: some people do not want to go into a traditional restaurant with traditional table seating. Just as lounge seating in lobbies makes for natural socializing, the outdoor seating is “just an extension of that,” says Katherine Kies, corporate F&B manager at the hotel’s management company, PM Hotel Group. The Firefly, the bar arm of the Marble City Kitchen restaurant, includes design elements such as wooden bleacher seating and a firepit. “The mix of seating  is super important,” Kies says.

Also paramount in bars in general, Kies posits, is to have a niche, which in The Firefly’s case is a key partnership with a distiller, in line with the concept’s single-spirit focus. They partnered with George Dickel, picking out their own barrel at the distillery, making them the only non-retail venue to have their own barrel. They do a specialty cocktail from it and had the distiller provide tastings at their launch event. The barrel itself is on the bar.

The Firefly’s features are also purpose-built, for function and viral potential. Guests snap and post photos of the firepit, bleachers, and the barrel—all things that are “Instagrammable,” Kies says.

Launched in October 2015, The Firefly at the Marble City Kitchen is a seasonal venue. It was open less than a month before closing for the winter, reopening for its first full month in March. Kies says the month of March was strong, with an 8% year-over-year increase in lounge revenue for the total combined venue of restaurant and The Firefly (previously there was no revenue from outdoor). This is more impressive considering the indoor bar was closed for renovation during March, so all that increase is from The Firefly. April through June were strong, Kies says, for The Firefly; outlet revenue for the rebranded Marble City Kitchen and The Firefly has been up 6% year-over-year, with June being up 16% year-over-year at press time.

“The indoor portion of the renovation, which will re-open as Marble City Kitchen, is slated to be completed at the end of September. “The indoor space will complement the outdoor Firefly space and allow for consistent business that is not weather-dependent,” says Kies. “With the indoor and outdoor spaces complete, we hope to see a 22% increase year over year.”

The big picture goal, says Kies, was to create something very differentiated rather than be all things to all people. They already had the Marble City Kitchen inside, so they could do whatever they wanted with The Firefly because it wasn’t a brand mandate. We talked with Kies about how it came together and where it’s going.

Hotel F&B: What was the outdoor space like before you transformed it?

Kies: It was just a smoking patio that needed to be patrolled by security and drove no incremental value.

FEEL THE BURN: Fire has become a ubiquitous outdoor feature at savvy hotels. The firepit at The Firefly is part of the draw for guests and locals—especially at night.
FEEL THE BURN: Fire has become a ubiquitous outdoor feature at savvy hotels. The firepit at The Firefly is part of the draw for guests and locals—especially at night.

Hotel F&B: What was the previous concept of the indoor venue, and why was it necessary to change to the current one?  

Kies: There was no identifiable concept. It was the Orange Martini and Market Café. They had a generic hotel menu; stark, dated décor on the Market Café side and lounge décor on the Orange Martini side; and there was no cohesion or flow between the connected spaces. The menus hadn’t been updated in five years, and there was no direction around what they were delivering and how they were delivering it. Their $8.99 lunch buffet was their most well-known feature. The rooms have a connecting glass door between them, there was no flow.

Hotel F&B: Of all the concepts you could have put in that indoor/outdoor space, why did you choose the current one?  

Kies: We considered a few things in developing the concept. We knew we needed to capitalize on the outdoor space to maximize revenue per square foot in the hotel, capture outside guests, and offer something not found anywhere else in Knoxville. We knew we wanted to highlight what Knoxville and Tennessee do best, through food and drink. We also knew we wanted to stay true to market needs, which are not high-end or formal, but still present a quality, thoughtful offering. Lastly, we had to keep in mind hotel guest needs, which peak during sports seasons, so we needed to cater to that guest.

Given all of these needs, that meant we knew the following would need to be incorporated: (1) Tennessee cuisine that is approachable in price point and description. (2) An offering that incorporates local product. (3) A beverage-centric concept, because the market has a strong drinking culture, there is high profit margin, and we have seen the trend towards this type of dining concept in hotels and free-standing restaurants. (4) High attention to quality, presentation, and service engagement.  A beer garden was the initial thought on the outdoor space, because of its size and existing layout, but we wanted to take it beyond just a local beer garden.  The rise in specialty cocktails and the trend toward dark spirits seemed like a logical connection to the Tennessee whiskey market. These pieces of Tennessee cuisine, a whiskey focus, and a beer garden-style venue came together into the concept.

Then we thought about how to tie these elements into the name. There is a special species of fireflies located in the Great Smoky Mountains, visible from Knoxville, that flash in sequence, creating an amazing natural phenomenon that attracts visitors across the region. This local attraction, in conjunction with our outdoor space and firefly-like glow from the trellis string lighting inspired the name The Firefly. Then came the indoor space. We did not want to have two fully separate concepts, because the spaces flowed together, they share a menu and a staff, and we wanted the concept as a whole to be an all-season operation, so we looked at a way to weave them together. We learned of Knoxville’s heritage as a quarry town, which earned it the name of the “Marble City.” We have marble woven through the design, and, as mentioned, we have woven Knoxville products and cuisine throughout the menu. So we defined the spaces as the Marble City Kitchen and The Firefly at Marble City Kitchen. It gives both spaces a sense of place but weaves them together with the food, the beverage, and the design.

Hilton Knoxville Firefly Fire and Rain 4Hotel F&B:  How do the indoor and outdoor spaces work together and also separately, depending on the weather? Is the clientele different for each?

Kies: The two spaces very much work in tandem. Inside is open all year, and we try to have outside open as much as possible with heaters. The two spaces are connected by a small lobby so people freely flow between them. The clientele is similar, but we definitely see a more beverage-centric crowd outside because of the mixed seating options—fire pit lounge chairs, bleachers, and bar stools—and limited traditional table seating.

Hotel F&B:  Why is it important to partner with regional brands such as George Dickel in adding authenticity to the venue?

Kies: Whether traveling to a city or living in a city, diners are looking for authenticity, experiences, and the chance to discover. Forging of local partnerships allows for further discovery of the place they are visiting. It also provides a chance to do hands-on learning with the guest and create a memorable moment. It creates logical opportunities for events such as tastings, product releases, and bottle signings, which can create memorable moments through hands-on learning. It also gives some depth and further develops the story behind your concept. We are not just serving whiskey and Southern food; we are tying the offerings to the local community through Dickel whiskey, Benton’s Tennessee bacon, Knoxville’s Flour Head Bakery bread, and more.  People learn about the people, the food, and the place they are visiting when you weave those things into your concept experience.

Hotel F&B: How does the décor and menu reflect the chosen concept?

Kies: The décor includes some key items to support the concept without being kitschy. For example, the hostess stand is made from a whiskey barrel, and the beer pulls on the tap are also made from slats of a whiskey barrel. The fire pit, bleacher seating, and mixed seating types—all enclosed in a garden area with a large beer offering—definitely support the beer garden concept. The menu really drives home the concept as well. As I mentioned, we highlight a lot of local suppliers on the menus to be loyal to a Tennessee offering. Additionally, the style and names of the menu items, not just the ingredients, are rooted in Tennessee. The homemade biscuits are used in a bread basket and in the Bourbon and Blue Biscuit dessert, which is blueberry cobbler on a homemade biscuit and topped with bourbon vanilla cream, made with George Dickel. We also have collard greens, Cheerwine-braised pork with house BBQ sauce and pickled onions, and the Knox Hot Chicken Sandwich, which is Knoxville’s take on Nashville hot chicken. On the beverage menu, we have a dominant selection of regional beers, cocktails highlighting our Dickel, and cocktails such as the Knoxvillian, the Tennessee twist on the Presbyterian cocktail.

Hilton Knoxville Firefly Fire and Rain 3Hotel F&B:  How does this venue help bring locals to the hotel who otherwise wouldn’t have a reason to visit?

Kies: Before, we were just a hotel bar that was located in downtown Knoxville, and now we are a defined space that offers a unique outdoor experience that is available nowhere else in downtown Knoxville. We offer a venue that can be for drinks, a meal, or a snack, all in an outdoor setting with distinct features and with unique events such as bourbon tastings, moonshine nights, and live music. Also, our location on a street corner in downtown Knoxville is just a couple blocks off the prime Market Square of Knoxville, which makes it a logical extension of the main downtown dining area.

Hotel F&B:  What lessons did you learn as the project picked up steam?

Kies: One thing that was a quick lesson for us is having coverage outdoors, which can be costly, depending on how you do it. You’ll see rooftop bars that have mechanical roofs that go in and out, which is a big investment. We did something more simplistic. We have a large trellis that we covered with panels of Plexiglas. What’s nice is that the trellis is almost two stories high, so while there full is coverage from the elements, there is plenty of fresh air flow, and the Plexiglas lets in light for a complete outdoor experience.

Tad Wilkes is editor in chief at Hotel F&B.