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A Cook Ventures into the Bar Business

November 30, 2010 | Frank Bonanno

(Adam doing battle with ice–photo courtesy of the talented Mike McGill)

A Journal on Opening Green Russell

September 10 Joe Voestrejs walks us through an ‘80’s sex dungeon below Larimer Square. Jacqueline and I love the space from the outset–hand carved brick walls, raw pipes, giant kitchen. It just needs to be stripped back down to it’s earthy elegance. A real cocktail joint. Adam Hodak specializes in crafted drinks, and so he–who is actually in the Osteria walk-in toying with purified water and a vibrator (long story)–runs across the street and he sees what we see. Within three days, Joe has come back with a lease and a proposal for a new entryway. Even the name seems to present itself—Green Russell, who, deserted by the rest of his mining group, found gold on the Confluence—a nod to the both the era and the spirit of taking risk.

Sep 20 David North, our contractor, can see the vision, and concedes to our small budget crazy two-month deadline. The food menu writes itself in the middle of a sleepless night. I want Green Russell to be a bar that runs like a high end restaurant—a place where every body has a seat, where the flavor profiles are strong and fresh and simple. Jacqueline wants three separate bars, and no servers—only bartenders. She sees an opportunity for a greenhouse behind the middle bar, so we can grow our own herbs. Adam comes on board as a partner and gets to thinking about giant blocks of ice and spherical cubes and twelve different flavors of house made bitters.

October 1 We take our first stab at accepting applications through the Bonanno Concepts web site. Three days after posting, nothing. Freaking out. This place is going to require six bartenders minimum, and we have no prospects? Keith Roberts, our web designer, corrects a glitch and when Christin gets to work in the morning, she has nearly 300 applications in her in-box.

October 11 The first interview is a failure. I just don’t hit the bars any more, and this applicant is apparently a Big Name, and he can’t believe I don’t know Who He Is. The next two interviews go better, and Matt Lanning and Joe Hines are hired on the spot. These interviews teach me that 1) Denver has loads of bartending talent and 2) They’re an extremely loyal bunch. I’m fielding requests to “guest bartend” from those reluctant to leave a full time, lucrative gig and take the plunge into this raw, dark space. I have to find a bar manager.

Great Divide is going to create a Green Russell brew that will stay at room temp but be served in ice cold pottery mugs. I’d like to go without drink menus so guests will be more adventurous with the bartenders.

October 15 The hundred year old flagstone on Larimer Square can’t take the weight of a Bobcat, so a construction crew begins hand digging the stairwell which will serve as our entryway. The Kettle Arcade (which leads to Bistro Vendome) is boarded up, jack-hammering underway. Interestingly, this mess will interfere with the wedding that’s scheduled at Bistro tomorrow morning. The noise stops, the boards come down, flagstone repaired. Construction resumes Monday.

October 22 Raining all morning and we have a water feature in the back room, cave-like with shiny damp walls and miniature falls carving courses in the brick.

October 23 Adam discovers the “house beer” is tricky—short life span, difficult storage–back to the drawing board on that one. Damn, Lynn Whittum, I don’t want to serve wine by the glass. Just bottles. Ok, Lynn knows what she’s doing. One red and one white and that’s it. And one sparkling. I lose the debate on the menus, too—we’ll go with several pages that list all of the spirits we have to offer because Adam’s right—it’s like putting together a wine list or a food menu, and we need to showcase the really cool product list he’s put together.

The three separate bars turn out to be complicated. Triple inventory. Giant ice block storage. The bartenders need to be amazing to pull this concept off.

October 24 , headed toward our November 1 deadline and we still have design issues. The greenhouse herbs should be a no brainer at Green Russell, but it turns out a lot of folks in Denver have “grow rooms” just now, so the growers we consulted wanted between 3 and 5 thousand dollars to put ours together. Tony Clement, the Mizuna exec, takes it on out of kindness. I am so lucky to have such talent around me and our greenhouse is very cool.

Bartenders all hired, but still no bar manager. Finding a talented bartender who can also manage is like finding a strong executive chef. This person needs to have a great palate, be creative and organized–a person with the ability to motivate and manage other creative people, who can work odd hours and carry crazy pressure. Matt Farrow is the perfect answer, and he agrees to come aboard—but pulling him from the Mizuna bar creates staffing issues—so we move the bartender from Luca to Mizuna and now Luca has the staffing issue, and it’s just part of opening I suppose.

I’m eating Advil and loving Ambien.

October 27 I get an in-home physical for a loan-connected life insurance policy for Lou’s (under construction in the Highlands) I’m declined for high blood pressure. Think about that: I run every day, play squash competitively, eat beautiful food and enjoy a typical Colorado lifestyle and am declined for health insurance. I love this energy, this momentum, the excitement in the people around me and satisfaction in putting Green Russell together. It’s hurting my body, though.

October 30 The entire management staff from Mizuna, Luca, Marco, and Bones come to Larimer Square to help paint Green Russell. David North tells me he really enjoys working around my team. So do I. I feel lucky to know them and David, who has turned this dungeon into a little gem.

November 8 Our Friends and Family is mostly smooth. Adam takes a chainsaw to the ice, and though it looks great on a pedestal at each of the bars, chunking it takes time. The food arrives before the cocktails, which is no good. The light from the grow room blinds the middle bar guests; two of the mirrored tables crack from the heat of the gryure fondue; several lanterns combust.

November 9 Night two, Friends and Family and we have dimmed the grow room and figured out the lanterns and the pie tins have arrived and the linen napkins are here and all of the glassware is finally in and we’ve worked out the coffee presses and the girls are rolling dough in the pie shop and the music is strong and pleasant and everyone’s working like clockwork and every single person that leaves thanks me for a wonderful evening—
But the food still arrives before the drinks.
The most critical of the guests is The Fray, and Joe’s concern that Denver isn’t ready for bespoke cocktails destroys my sleep.

November 12 The first Friday over 200 people walk through the door. It’s clear we’re going to need more staff, but the drinks are coming out smoothly and beautifully. Adam’s worked out the ice issues, clients seem to genuinely appreciate the beauty of the space and the simplicity of the food and the flavor of the spirits. I am hopeful.

Some of what I’ve learned so far in this journey:
1. Alcohol is expensive and our inventory costly.
2. Drains always suck, especially in basements.
3. We posted “rules” on the wall, but you know, they’re really just common sense manners and most people are remarkably well mannered—BUT–
4. Drunk people have no manners. Having never really opened a drinking establishment, I didn’t fully realize that groups of drunk people are, as you would imagine, assholes.
5. The people I come across by happenstance perfect this experience: Brian in the kitchen; Gabe on David’s team; Jade running food.
6. I have a litany of people I can trust when it comes to crunch time. How great is that? Chris Gregory, Christin Marvin, Lynn Whittum and Alejandro German worked 80 hour weeks, no day off, while juggling their “other jobs” in the Bonanno group. My success hinges on the professionals who surround me.
7. I love my wife and sons and can not forget that all of this is for them and for us and for those around us. The truth is, there are some mornings when I’d just like to be the cook Frank, standing on the line at Mizuna, making macaroni and cheese and searing foie gras. But there’s no turning back now. Through my family and my business, Bonanno becomes more than my name. I have a responsibility to maintain it.

I remain hopeful.