What’s the Password? A Peek Inside Hollywood’s Next Door Lounge
To say Ferris “Big Boss” Wehbe is proud of his neighborhood of Hollywood, California is an understatement. His family has lived in the area since 1945 and been involved with its rejuvenation for decades. While Hollywood conjures up images of glitz and glam for most, residents know its gritty history. Ferris and his family helped to clean up the neighborhood, at one point enlisting the help of New York’s famed non-profit safety patrol organization, the Guardian Angels. Now, Ferris is offering his beloved neighborhood something else.
The speakeasy (and its variants the blind tiger and blind pig) rose to prominence during the Prohibition era. Creeping up on 100 years later, the speakeasy has become a retro saloon concept with one of the highest cool factors any bar can achieve. Some original Prohibition era speakeasies still stand to this day and an emerging trend among their modern counterparts is making themselves more visible to the public. After all, any bar needs to maintain a loyal customer base and increase their unique visitor counts to survive.
Next Door Lounge, so called due to its location next door to Ferris' restaurant The Hollywood Corner (enjoying its seventh year of operation), opened its doors in June of 2011. Hollywood, he felt, needed an alternative, a go between for those seeking the warmth and familiarity of the dive bars and the exclusivity of the nightclubs scattered along both Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards.
"I think it's not intimidating and it goes against the whole Hollywood velvet rope,” says Carl Larsen of LARC PR + Marketing, PR rep for Next Door Lounge, “As soon as you walk in, you had no idea all this was going on behind these frosted windows."
As to why he settled on a speakeasy in a space formerly occupied by a machine shop, Ferris smiles and chuckles:
"I was reading a book about Prohibition at the time."
The venue is, in a word, stunning. When the machine shop drywall was torn down, brick walls and a vaulted ceiling with exposed beams were uncovered, lending to the sophisticated atmosphere. When told he should cover up the ceiling and exposed brick he refused emphatically. Ferris and Carl scoured LA for furniture and outfitted the space with custom chairs, couches and tables. Barrels used in films from Paramount Pictures during the 1920s have a home above the bar, as does a beautiful chandelier. Two massive iron doors, manned by possibly the most dapper doorman in all of Los Angeles, along with frosted windows and a simple sign bearing Next Door’s key symbol over the word, “Lounge,” are the only indications from the street that anything is going on inside this amazing venue.
"It stars at the door, the whole feeling" says Ferris, "We get their interest and desire to come back."
Admittedly, Next Door Lounge isn't as difficult to find as some other modern speakeasies. The details, though, transport guests back to a time when liquor was illegal, the music was live and the fear of a bottle shattering, barrel smashing police raid was very real. Attention to detail more than makes up for any perceived lack of difficulty in finding the bar. Guests who make a reservation are provided an exclusive password for their group which must be spoken to the doorman. Password mentioned, members of the party are ushered to their well-furnished table area.
"We want you to feel like you're at home,” says Carl when describing the seating area, “These are living room vignettes that you sit in for the evening."
While the bar is very well stocked with top shelf spirits and craft beers, small barrels are perched atop the back wall of the bar. That's right – Next Door Lounge ages their own bourbon and rye for 30 to 60 days and the venue is working on aging gin, rum and tequila. A bar with that type of dedication to browns and artisanal cocktails can be staffed, of course, by only the most talented mixologists, managed by whiskey expert Zac Henry. The lounge's own bourbon is featured in the Barrel Aged Madhattan while their rye is the star of The Good Stuff. The food menu, with such bites as devilled eggs prepared with vodka and vermouth and garnished with green olives, and a bourbon-infused burger, was designed by Food Network star Nikki Martin. And no speakeasy would be complete without flapper girls serving the tables.
Ferris attributes the success of Next Door Lounge – which is enjoying its third year of operation – to a commitment to the theme, identifying and keeping rock star staff members (he’s known the GM for 25 years, the doorman for 28, the reservation booker for over 30 and his chef for seven), offering guests value and a top notch experience, making themselves a destination for birthdays and other group events, and an educated clientele. The latter is achieved in part by Next Door’s Whiskey Wednesday, during which Zac Henry holds court with four whiskeys – one American, one Canadian, one Irish and one Scottish - and teaches bar patrons about each of these classic browns. Other promotions that keep the bar filled with both loyal loungers and curious new customers are the LA Follies, a precision kickline and performance ensemble that appears on Thursdays and the Tuesday night Hollywood Heist Dinner Show. The dinner show may just be the ultimate in Prohibition era immersion: Bonnie and Clyde, along with the rest of the infamous Barrow Gang, take Next Door Lounge hostage. Guests are tasked with completing challenges during this unique dinner show experience in order to raise the ransom which will gain them their freedom.
The ownership of the bar's online presence is another key to Next Door's success. Reviews for the lounge are answered by Ferris himself. These aren’t just simple thanks, either. Ferris responds well to criticism rather than lashing out, asking reviewers who didn’t have the best time possible for the opportunity to make it up to them. There’s also a clear commitment to analyzing the customer experience and improving upon it.
Another program that has struck oil is the implementation of the Hush Club. Next Door Lounge mails out approximately 2,500 invites to become a member of Hush, a club within the speakeasy that offers unique perks to those who choose to join. Ferris estimates that the program nets the bar 50 new guests per week and has increased walk-in traffic by thirty percent.
"People used to walk by and assume they couldn't come in," says Ferris.
Hush Club was his answer to the walk-in problem, serving to capture new customers, most of which are women. A fantastic happy hour that lasts three hours and offers the same artisanal bites and drinks as the regular menu for reduced prices also keep people coming in through the iron double doors early in the evening. As for the future of Next Door Lounge, Ferris and Carl have something in the works to continue the success of the venue and keep things fresh.
"With the success of Next Door Lounge we are opening our next concept by early 2015. The theme is inspired by the former tenant," says Carl.
In keeping with the secretive nature of a speakeasy, both the identity of the former tenant (no, not the machine shop…) and the new concept are both, well, hush hush.