Owner's Corner: Barter & Shake’s Century Grand Creates Memorable Guest Experiences with Immersive Cocktail Bars


owner's corner

Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment is aspiring to set the standard in the delivery of memorable guest experiences in the local and international cocktail industry, and they’re certainly doing that in Phoenix, Ariz. with the alluring Century Grand.

Century Grand is Barter & Shake’s award-winning cocktail destination, where visitors will find three unique cocktail bar concepts – Platform 18, Grey Hen Rx, and Undertow – all of which serve specialty craft cocktails and offer immersive, highly imaginative hospitality experiences.

The team at Barter & Shake focuses on thoughtfully curated concepts in the Phoenix metropolitan area and beyond, while actively cultivating a community of beverage professionals through continuous education and their hands-on approach.

Century Grand Exterior - Phoenix Arizona
Exterior of Century Grand in Phoenix. (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

“Century Grand was originally inspired to emulate the ornate train stations of Europe and large metropolitan cities of the turn-of-the-century,” said Kailee Asher, the director of communications for Barter & Shake. “Now, it’s home to three individually unique cocktail bar concepts and is what we refer to as 'the building'. We wanted to create an environment that would transport guests to another time and place, encouraging them to be present.”

Asher said the idea for Century Grand was developed by Jason Asher and Rich Furnari, co-founders of Barter & Shake. “Both have an affinity for history, lore, and unique food and beverage experiences,” said Asher. “When the space [for Century Grand] became available and they were asked if they wanted to tour it, they immediately agreed that the space felt like a train station and had a similar feel to a bar they had once visited in London.”

Asher explained that Century Grand’s concept was originally inspired by the history of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad and how that infrastructure shaped the United States. “Whether it was the expansion of the West, or recognizing the numerous ethnic and cultural groups who built the railroad, Century Grand was intended to be an homage to American culture and history,” she said.

Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment - Kailee Asher
Kailee Asher, director of communications for Barter & Shake (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

Of course, the idea of a “cocktail bar complex,” or a smaller concept inside another larger concept is not new, noted Asher. “For instance, the speakeasy became popularized during Prohibition in the 1920s,” she said. “There’s another restaurant group out of San Diego [called Consortium Holdings] that also has three concepts within one building – Neighborhood, Noble Experiment, and Youngblood.”

Century Grand opened in October of 2019 in Phoenix, and the reaction to its three cocktail bars has been enthusiastic. “At first, it can be quite confusing for potential guests who haven’t visited before,” said Asher. “When describing it to people, they often have a difficult time imagining what the layout is like. Then, once someone visits and they’re able to see it in person, often the reaction is awe and excitement. We’re often referred to by writers and guests as the ‘adult Disneyland.’”

Indeed, Disneyland is an ideal comparison because the amusement park creates an experience for guests – just like Century Grand. “My business partner, Rich Furnari, probably says it best,” shared Asher. “Historically, many restaurant and bar businesses rely on their guests to create a memorable experience with each other versus creating an environment that is going to engage, entertain, and delight guests. Whereas, when you create an environment that is unique, memorable, fascinating, and imaginative, your guests are forced to live in the moment and encapsulate that moment, while sharing with their friends or family. This is what will create a core memorable experience. That’s why Disney has so many loyal fanatics; it’s not just the place, it’s the environment, it’s the escapism, and they’ve created a lifestyle brand from that.”

Barter & Shake Jason Asher
Jason Asher, one of the co-founders of Barter & Shake, at Grey Hen Rx in Phoenix. (Photo by: Tara Lund / Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

Inside Platform 18 at Century Grand

When guests arrive at Platform 18 – one of the three cocktail bar concepts at Century Grand – they’re immediately transported onto an ultra-glamorous, 36-seat Presidential Pullman Company-inspired train car from the 20th century. While aboard, each traveler embarks on an immersive and unforgettable 90-minute journey that follows the concept’s fictitious hero, Hollis Cottley Pennington, a railroad tycoon and bootlegger, as he conducts business in the bayous of Louisiana.

“Although there are a few other restaurants or diners around the country housed inside a train car, Platform 18 was never a real train,” Asher said. “It was built as a replica inside the building, to create an immersive and captivating space that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

Barter & Shake - Century Grand - Platform 18
Platform 18 (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

Numerous high-definition TVs play a video that’s taken from actual footage in the bayou, just outside of Baton Rouge, La. This makes guests feel like they’re moving on a train. Other special effects were added in the space to enhance that feeling, such as vibrations, sound, and lighting effects.

Guests are essentially whisked away on an adventure back in time to the 1930s, while enjoying a selection of more than 45 cocktails – including original drinks and twists on tried-and-true classics from the 1930s and 1940s, to spirit-infused ice creams and sorbets.

Platform 18 was just named one of North America’s 50 Best Bars. As a new addition to the esteemed list, and as one out of the 28 U.S. bars total, Platform 18 ranked No. 48 and is joined by the likes of Double Chicken Please (No. 1) and Katana Kitten (No. 3) in New York, Jewel of the South (No. 5) in New Orleans, Pacific Cocktail Haven (No. 28) in San Francisco and Death & Co (No. 30) in Los Angeles.

Barter & Shake - Century Grand - Platform 18
Platform 18 (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

“What an honor,” said Asher. “50 Best Bars and its parent organization is like receiving a Michelin star or James Beard Award in the bar world. The voting is anonymous and includes over 260 food and beverage professionals – so you’re nominated by your fellow hospitality professionals and the like. It means the world to us that so many of our colleagues wanted to recognize us for all our hard work and believed we deserved a spot on North America’s 50 Best Bars list. There are nearly 70,000 bars in the United States alone, and only 28 for the U.S. made the list!”

As the fifth largest city in the U.S., the perspective on Phoenix’s food and beverage scene is “finally changing,” according to Asher. “We’re beyond grateful to be considered as thought leaders within our community and hope accolades like this will continue to drive new visitors to our city, so we can share what we do best!"

Barter & Shake - Century Grand - Platform 18
Cocktail at Platform 18 (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

A Look at Century Grand’s Grey Hen Rx

Home to a significant selection of bourbon and whiskey from all over the world, Grey Hen Rx at Century Grand takes guests to New Orleans in the mid-1800s.

And just like the early apothecaries that operated as a “first port-of-call” for medical advice and cure-alls, Grey Hen Rx, according to Barter & Shake, is fit to remedy every craving with its beverage menu, featuring original and classic cocktails, whiskey flights, and non-alcoholic drinks.

In addition, on the second Wednesday of every month, Grey Hen Rx and Spellbound Burlesque team up to present a special evening of the best burlesque in Arizona.

“Grey Hen Rx is an homage to New Orleans and the American spirit, bourbon,” said Asher. “With over 500 whiskies from around the world to choose from, a 30-cocktail menu, and great hospitality, any guest will fall in love with this space. The space is cozy, intimate, and warm and is one of the most comfortable and inviting spaces that will transport you to another time and place.”

Barter & Shake - Century Grand - Grey Hen Rx
Grey Hen Rx (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

Aboard UnderTow at Century Grand

At UnderTow at Century Grand, guests embark on a captivating, 90-minute worldly journey in the belly of a spice trader’s turn-of-the-century Clipper ship, following the adventures of revered Captain John Mallory and his crew. “Built to look like you’re in the hull of an Extreme Clipper Ship of the 1800s, this spice trader’s ship serves up a robust menu of 40 cocktails, including a mix of classics and modern originals,” said Asher.

The bar features signature design elements – such as a hand-carved bar top and a figurehead salvaged from the bow of a ship – as well as an experiential atmosphere with custom-made thunderstorm and lighting effects through enhanced audio.

The cocktail bar also features handcrafted carvings from famed nautical bar designer, Daniel “Tiki Diablo” Gallardo, and illustrations by Tom “Thor” Thordarson.

Barter & Shake - Century Grand - UnderTow
UnderTow (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

Paying homage to classic Polynesian culture, Barter & Shake’s UnderTow utilizes “theatrical décor” and pairs it perfectly with the bar’s innovative cocktail menu, which features a variety of on-theme libations with names like Missionary’s Downfall, Clear Skies & Tropical Winds, and the Shipless Sailor. The menu also features a selection of rare, sought-after rums from around the world.

The menu tends to offer a more progressive drink selection than most ‘classic style’ Tiki bars,” said Asher, “with 50 percent of the menu being originals and over 25 percent of the menu being stirred.”

Barter & Shake - Century Grand - UnderTow
Cocktail at UnderTow (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

Innovating in the Bar Industry, Immersive Experiences, and Advice for Operators

Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment is innovating beyond its three concepts at Century Grand – Platform 18, Grey Hen Rx, and UnderTow.

“First and foremost, I know this might not sound innovative, but we have always done our best to be a good employer,” revealed Asher. “We want to look out for our people and find opportunities for them to learn and grow.”

Asher said that before it was required in the Arizona hospitality businesses, they offered health insurance to their team. Before the minimum wage increase requirements, they increased their team’s hourly wages.

“Our staff members spend more time with us than at home,” Asher explained. “The hospitality industry has a notoriously high turnover rate with staff. Our goal is to create a happy, healthy, and safe work environment, where we see more longevity with our team members, and over the past couple of years, we’ve really invested in that as a company. We now even offer pet insurance!”

Barter & Shake - Century Grand - UnderTow
UnderTow (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

Asher pointed out that Barter & Shake began work on its first concept in early 2015, and the level of innovation they strive for is rare in Arizona. “We came up with menus inspired by history, named fun drinks after the story, and didn’t even want to use traditional forms of marketing to get the word out,” she said. “I think Rich and Jason’s goal was to create something so unique and intriguing to guests.”

Asher said when they first opened UnderTow, the goal was to re-imagine the core pillar of Tiki escapism and make it come to life through today’s technology, and Century Grand continues to follow that pillar of escapism and innovation.

“Additionally, our team loves to travel and does their best to travel as much as possible,” Asher explained. “Experiencing new places, new flavors, immersing yourself in cultures, and seeing what other top bars and restaurants are doing around the world are key to staying relevant and pushing boundaries. A lot of Jason’s inspiration comes from the culinary world – as he himself graduated from culinary school.” 

Overall, Asher believes most people who walk into the three cocktail bars – Platform 18, Grey Hen Rx and UnderTow – are totally blown away but, periodically, they get guests that don’t think it’s very immersive at all, as they don’t have actors playing roles, and it’s not an immersive theater show.

“The hardest part is navigating the guests’ expectations and doing our best to meet them based on what their interpretation of ‘immersive’ is and what it means to them,” shared Asher. “The reality is, if someone has spent a lot of time on trains, maybe visiting Platform 18 isn’t immersive to them. Whereas someone who has never been on a moving train feels like we’re pulling out of the station and leaving Phoenix as soon as they sit down. It’s subjective to the person and their own experiences they’ve had.”

Barter & Shake - Century Grand - Grey Hen Rx
Cocktail at Grey Hen Rx (Photo: Courtesy of Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment)

Thoughts on Creating an Innovative Cocktail Bar Concept... or Even Complex

What advice does Asher have for other bar industry entrepreneurs and operators who want to create something similar to Century Grand or one of its three cocktail bar concepts?

“We always joke that three bars in one building has caused us all a little bit of brain damage,” said Asher. “You’re exactly right by using the word ‘complex.’ Starting your own business from scratch is already complex. Our advice would be to start small and then scale up once you’ve become proficient. Don’t overcomplicate things by trying to incorporate too many ideas into one box. Also, don’t skip the process; set up systems to run a profitable and efficient business. If you’re already proficient, I’m sure you don’t need us to answer this question for you.”

To learn more about Century Grand, as well as Platform 18, Grey Hen Rx and UnderTow, visit CenturyGrandPHX.com. To learn about Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment, visit BarterShake.com.

Aaron Kiel, based in Raleigh, N.C., has worked in the beverage, tea and coffee industries for nearly two decades. He’s a journalist and writer at heart, but he also wears a PR hat through his consultancy, ak PR Group. He works as the editor of World Tea News with Questex’s Bar & Restaurant Group, as well as a contributing writer for Bar & Restaurant.


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