By Aaron Kiel, Bar & Restaurant
Corner Bar Management in Las Vegas – which runs Commonwealth and Park on Fremont, among other popular establishments – is known for being innovative; but in 2020, the hospitality group put its talent to the test as it opened four new concepts amidst the pandemic.
To get through the COVID-19 crisis, Corner Bar’s Founder Ryan Doherty says he spread various forms of “pandemic ingenuity” throughout all of his venues, as he spearheaded “quiet” launches for his four new Vegas venues – including Lucky Day, Oddwood, Museum Fiasco and DISCOPUSSY.
Since 2012, Doherty has elevated the nightlife standard in Downtown Las Vegas with the opening of his first bar, Commonwealth, in 2012. He has since shaped much of what is now Downtown Las Vegas’ vibrant Fremont East Entertainment District.
Doherty’s work – which prioritizes communal experiences and social engagement – brings together compelling art, edgy entertainment, progressive design, imaginative cocktails and innovative cuisine. He’s also focused on lower populated areas of Las Vegas to breathe life into dilapidated buildings and upgrade neighborhoods along the way.
In this B&R Q&A, we chat with Doherty about adapting, being creative and lessons learned over a challenging 10 months.
Question: Can you tell us about the state of the restaurant and bar industry in Las Vegas from your perspective? What’s been your experience over the last 10 months or so?
Answer: It seems like the worst is behind us, but with that being said, we are certainly getting used to surprises around every corner. We are currently operating with 25 percent capacity and expect this to be the case for the next few months. The last 10 months have been a roller coaster of regulations and pivots that we’ve adapted to for survival, but I think we became more creative and resilient as a company because of it. The uncertainty of it all has hurt us the most. We rely solely on predictability for purchasing, inventory and staffing; and flying blind has been the most challenging.
Question: You opened up four new venues in Las Vegas during the COVID-19 pandemic. What was that like? What challenges did you face?
Answer: We opened one museum and three bars with music and dance focused atmospheres in a time where crowds and dance floors weren’t allowed. We quickly converted the nightclubs into “restaurants” after the openings to stay compliant, but the adaptation felt misplaced in our venues. It would be like Domino’s Pizza suddenly selling blankets. We do our best to service a seated and distanced crowd and so far, it has been a success. I think that ultimately, the Las Vegas scene was ready for these venues and they are happy to be able to visit them, even if it is a restaurant at the moment. We all look forward to customers using the venue for its intended purpose one day. We opened most of our nightclubs in July and, unfortunately, there isn’t one scratch on our dancefloor yet.
Question: Can you tell us a little about the new concepts you opened?
Answer: In September, we opened Lucky Day, a 3,000-square-foot tequila and mezcal bar. Lucky Day offers a wide selection of rare mezcals, small-batch tequilas and signature cocktails. Our drinks are paired with house-made tortilla chips, salsa fresca and guacamole flights.
DISCOPUSSY is a DJ-focused, after hours nightclub catering to the more gourmet side of electronic music fans. The centerpiece of DISCOPUSSY is the disco octopus, a custom built, eight tentacled, articulated light installation made of more than 10,000 laser cut components and 5,000 light emitting diodes.
Oddwood at AREA15 is our third cocktail lounge we opened this year. It is a colorful bar and dance environment that sits under a 25-foot-tall digital maple tree.
Museum Fiasco, also at AREA15, is a light and sound exhibit featuring a collective from Spain called Playmodes. The museum showcases futuristic exhibits, audio-visual experiences and art in a space that fosters a sense of connectivity for visitors.
Question: How did you handle the official launch of each of these venues during the pandemic? How did you promote the opening to customers during a time when many aren’t visiting establishments?
Answer: We did it all very quietly. We did not advertise a grand opening or host any ribbon cuttings for these venues like we typically would do, we simply opened. We let customers spread the word for us and worked through the opening kinks throughout summer. In some ways, the slower business gave us the opportunity to properly train the staff and create efficient protocols. We are used to opening with a bang and figuring things out as we go, and in this case, we had time to really drill down on hospitality and service.
Question: Tell us about keeping customers safe during the pandemic. Did you face any difficulties in that area?
Answer: We physically altered all our spaces to accommodate social distancing protocols, and in most cases removed tables and seating from the venues. The staff was diligent with hand washing and sanitizing, and we converted all of our paper menus to QR codes to implement contactless ordering. We never had a problem with patrons feeling crowded or compromised, and the staff adapted quickly to the new procedures. No major difficulties, we spent most of our time reminding customers to mask up on the way to the bathroom.
Question: Your Hospitality Group, Corner Bar Management, is known for being extremely innovative. What creative things did you and your team do during the pandemic to help your businesses?
Answer: Various forms of “pandemic ingenuity” were scattered throughout all the venues. Our restaurant, Park on Fremont, converted its entire menu to only food that would travel well in to-go containers, and our back patio became a low impact dinner theatre. Our tequila bar, Lucky Day, started hosting trivia nights in place of dancing, and our nightclub became a hookah lounge. We pivoted almost every month of last year to keep up with the new rules and somehow made it through to 2021. The team deserves all the credit for finding new ways to connect with customers – albeit from a distance – and we went back to basics on hospitality. We used the time in 2020 to build a stronger digital and social presence that will pay off for years to come.
Question: One of the things you produced in 2020 was Holly Jolly on Fremont, which was a two-venue holiday experience in Vegas. What was the goal of that? And was it a success?
Answer: Holly Jolly on Fremont was a major success, and I think everyone just needed some extra holiday spirit at the end of last year. We decorated every corner of our venues to bring a street-wide holiday experience, and it landed like a warm cup of cocoa by the fireplace. The staff really got behind the spirit of this promotion, which made it even more fun for guests. We had so many sold-out nights in December that we decided to extend the holiday event through January.
Question: How have you survived during the pandemic?
Answer: Let’s just say we survived it as best as we could, given the circumstances. Keeping everyone enthusiastic about the future is important. We know this will pass and the best thing you can do is help each other out and keep your chin up. People in this industry are survivors and won’t quit easily. Our staff never considers giving up, and we will be better at the end of this because of their positive attitudes during the worst of times.
Question: Overall, what have your learned as an industry leader as a result of COVID-19 and the restrictions the industry has faced?
Answer: Without sounding cliché, you have to adapt or die. We were forced to change our business model multiple times last year, and each time we found a way to win. It is inspiring to see other restaurants and bars do the same thing, and when the dust settles you can bet everyone left standing didn’t just get lucky.
Question: Thanks for your time. Last question: What advice do you have for others in the industry who are facing challenges during the pandemic?
Answer: Accept that life is going to throw things at you that aren’t fair but be grateful for what you do have and keep pushing though. You might get bloody going through that wall, but you’ll be on the other side.
To learn more about Corner Bar Management in Las Vegas, visit CornerBarMgmt.com.
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