As a quirky Japanese-style karaoke lounge, Cincinnati’s Tokyo Kitty employs plenty of bells and whistles, from a disorienting infinity-mirrored entryway to a cocktail robot that drops Tiki cocktails from the ceiling into elaborately designed karaoke rooms that run the gamut from demure “Cherry Blossom” to fiery “Godzilla.”
But don’t call it a theme bar.
“It’s not a theme bar,” says Jacob Trevino, who under the umbrella of Gorilla Cinema operates Tokyo Kitty and a number of other Cincy bars that immerse visitors in, say, the world of Quentin Tarantino via a faux video-store entrance with Video Archive, or the chilling vibes of “The Shining” with Overlook Lodge. “Although these places want to invoke a sense of time and place, they have to operate in the now as well,” he says.
The preferred term is “high-concept bar.” The growing number of “conceptual” bars, which can encompass elaborate decor, dramatic drinks and staff uniforms that suggest theatrical costumes, underscores that the role of the bar often is not just to provide drinks but to entertain.
Compared to the disposable world of pop-up bars, which can close down or switch themes when novelty wears thin, these are permanent locations with ongoing themes. In other words, Trevino says, “It’s not somewhere you want people to visit once a year.”
Yet, this evolution presents challenges, particularly for those operating multiple venues with multiple concepts. How do bar owners and managers continue to find whimsical ways to bring in guests and keep the experience fresh? How should they interpret ideas so they feel immersive, not cheesy or cheap? How do they avoid expensive missteps or burnout? Two operators at the top of their game share their secrets.
1. Don’t Create a “Theme Bar.” Create a Bar with a Theme.
It’s easy to get caught up in the creation aspect, Trevino says, but never forget: “First of all, it has to operate as a bar 365 days of the year.” Besides, every bar has a theme, he jokes, from the run on faux-speakeasies (“1920s cocktailing”) to dive bars (“the theme is we don’t care about our theme”).
2. Seek Inspiration from a Wide Range of Sources
Like Gorilla Cinema, Phoenix’s Barter & Shake views itself as an entertainment company, not a bar consultancy. So it makes sense that its newest venture, Century Grand, modeled after an art deco 1920s-era train station, takes inspiration from the theatrical world rather than the bar world.
“Imagineering or Disney might be the best places to compare with what we’re doing,” says owner and operator Jason Asher. “Most of the things that inspire us in the U.S. are immersive theater experiences: ‘Sleep No More’; ‘Then She Fell’; ‘Women in Black’; ‘Speakeasy Magick.’” He also cites immersive art installations like Meow Wolf.
3. Just Do It
“The best advice I ever got is: Just start doing it,” says Trevino. “It’s not going to be perfect the first time you try to build an immersive experience, but you’re going to learn from it.”
4. And Do It Right. Bring in Skilled Professionals to Execute the Vision.
Bringing in pros to do it right can make the difference between cheesy and transportive, notes Asher. Building a replica “train” where guests sip cocktails amid changes in scenery out the window, vibrations, even the sounds of faraway train whistles and flickering lights as the train appears to go through a tunnel took expertise and capital. “It requires a lot of skilled professionals who do a lot of specific things to make this work,” he says. “The train is hooked up to eight different systems. We do heavily lean on technology to make this place work.” At the end of the day, “it’s about taking our imaginations and making them come to life.”
5. Make the Drinks Part of the Storyline
Don’t let the menus break the illusion. For example, at Century Grand, Asher brings in his childhood memory of the circus, which every year would roll into Phoenix via the train. While the Gas the Trucks cocktail starts with a simple “peanuts and cotton candy at the circus” inspiration, it takes a baroque turn: Toasted-peanut-washed bourbon mixes with Concord grape, Don Ciccio’s Cinque red bitter, 20-year-old sherry vinegar and citrus, accompanied by a sidecar of Campari cotton candy.
6. Channel Your Team’s Energy, Too
The best way to avoid burnout, Trevino says, is to realize you don’t have to go it alone. “I’m not the only creative engine behind Gorilla Cinema; I have a team,” he says. Bonus: It can be a huge retention draw. “Making drinks can get very mundane; you’re making the same drinks day in and day out,” he says, but conceptualizing and building out a new space can be energizing.
7. Give Guests a Reason to Come Back
Reinvigorate the cocktail list. Reinvent the space. “It helps to say, ‘These are works in progress,’” says Trevino. “The audience wants to keep coming back to see the new things you’re doing and the changes you’ve made.”
8. Manage the Flow
Perhaps the greatest success metric of all for Barter & Shake was when they had to start practicing crowd control, finding (tactful, gentle) ways to eject guests from the illusion to keep lines outside from growing out of control.
“The biggest obstacle we face is that people don’t want to leave,” says Asher. It’s a problem both for Century Grand as well as the much smaller Undertow, a shipwreck-themed Tiki bar. The solution: implementing a reservation-only policy and a 90-minute time limit. “It’s the only way we could manage the space and maximize the profits.”