Identifying and filling a gap in the market is one of the wisest moves an operator can make when opening a bar. That’s exactly what motivated architect and bar owner David Manica to open the Monarch Cocktail Bar & Lounge in Kansas City, MO.
“I have designed sport and entertainment buildings around the world for about 25 years now. I have the good fortune to getting to go to some really cool cities, and I like to go to the nice places in those cities,” Manica told Nightclub & Bar. “In London, for example, I get to go The Connaught or The Artesian, or those kinds of cocktail bars... Then I'd come home, and we certainly didn't have that kind of a bar in Kansas City.”
Eventually, Manica decided he wanted to fill that gap in the city. Opened in 2017, the Monarch won the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Award for Cocktail Bar of the Year. If the Monarch was going to truly prove itself as Kansas City’s premier cocktail destination, the design, drinks and service would have to be high level. Manica certainly delivered on the design front, shopping for a location until he found the one that would allow him to fulfill his design vision.
The resulting design is comprised of three distinct, opulent yet refined spaces that define the Monarch: the stunning Monarch Bar, the reservation-required Parlour, and the year-round outdoor Monarch Terrace with dedicated bar. Each space is distinctive, high design, and complimentary of one another.
“I found the space and I liked it for three reasons. This is an important part of the story because it's really how the bar, the space itself, is born,” explains Manica. “I wanted to have an outdoor area because the patio culture in Kansas City's pretty strong. I definitely wanted to have a nice open area for the main bar, but I also wanted to have the private VIP area.”
Manica and his bar benefit greatly from his architecture and travel experience. He understands efficient design that starts the guest experience off on the best footing. The location he settled on has parking access and an area that allows for convenient valet service, a large outdoor terrace, and direct access to a dock. It also came with an internal space contained within four concrete walls a concrete ceiling, a space that Manica knew how to use immediately.
“That was an area that most people looking at the space didn't know what to do with. When I saw it, I thought, ‘Well that's the perfect parlor room. That's the perfect VIP room.’” The Parlour was born.
What any operator, manager and bartender will notice right away when looking at the Monarch Bar is what it lacks: a back bar. When he told bar manager Brock Schulte that he didn’t want to have a back bar, that he instead wanted an open central bar that would help to create a social environment, Manica was met with a bit of resistance.
“I said, ‘Well, [we] have to figure it out because we're not going to create a really traditional bar. We must have an open bar in the center with nothing between the bartenders and the people or the people on either side,’” says Manica. “[Schulte] said, ‘We'll be trying to create, basically, a world-class cocktail experience with half the real estate for the bartenders.’”
Manica and Schulte figured the design out eventually, creating stations that are as efficient as possible, utilizing mise en place. The Monarch bar team batches as much as they can, and Schulte came up with a feature that ensures speed of service.
“One other important point that Brock brought up was the whole idea of the remote bar. We have the main bar, but we also have what we call a ‘remote bar,’ which is like a back bar,” explains Manica. “Everyone sitting at the bar gets their drink made by the bartender, but people sitting in the booths around the bar, those drinks are brought by the servers from the remote bar. That was an operations concept that Brock came up with and thank God he did, because we basically can pour twice as many drinks now.”
It’s not just the bar and management teams that an owner needs to have on his or her side. Manica understood how important it was to the success of his bar that he have the support of his landlord. Before Manica had even signed an agreement, he put together a design for the bar. The landlord, upon seeing how Manica envisioned building out the space, got excited for what it would mean not just for his building but for Kansas City. Manica spent 9 months designing the Monarch. It took another 8-and-a-half months to build it out.
“Eventually, we got the whole thing built out. What I would say about that was, it's a curse being both the architect and the owner because every time I had a really great idea I would have to pay for it,” says Manica. “The thing about this concept, and the thing about the Monarch, is that I wanted it to be world class from the very beginning. What that meant was, basically, not being able to say no to anything because if I were to start cutting corners—and if I were to try to start going cheap on the fit-out—you would see it. It would not look like the world-class bar I wanted it to look like. It would look like any other bar in Kansas City.”
This speaks to the importance of having a realistic design and buildout budget, one that maximizes the available resources and matches up with the concept. The first thing to understand about budgets and buildout schedules is that contingencies must be in place because both are often exceeded. The second lesson is that the materials, fit and finish must be congruent with the type of venue being built. Manica explains it perfectly: “Once I had committed to that ultra-luxury, high-end look and feel for the bar, there was no turning back.”
It’s also important to negotiate with landlords to stretch the buildout budget. While it wasn’t an amount that Manica would consider significant, he was able to negotiate a minor tenant improvement allowance with his landlord. Every bit does help, and it’s necessary to understand that such negotiations can be made.
“That's important,” says Manica of his relationship with the landlord. “You can't be fitting out a world-class bar in a building with an unhelpful landlord.”
But what of the concept’s goal of becoming Kansas City’s cocktail destination? And what about day-to-day operations? How does he attract and hold on to the top talent in Kansas City?
Part of that answer comes down to the ability of Manica to remov his ego from the equation, understanding that he wasn’t the best person to run the bar or program the menu. He went to work building a top-notch management team once he had committed to opening a bar. It was his barber who recommended he speak with Brock Schulte.
“I get my hair cut from a guy around the corner, and I've been getting my hair cut there for a while. I just told him, ‘Hey, I have this crazy-ass dream of opening a high-end, international-quality bar in Kansas City.’ He said, ‘You should talk to Brock,’” says Manica. “So basically, Brock and I met through the guy that cuts both of our hair. We went out for a few drinks and I just clicked with him right away. I trusted him. Quickly I could tell he was a super hard worker. I could tell we were aligned on our dreams and how we were willing to work hard to get there.”
The connection made, Schulte’s knowledge and experience imbued Manica with the confidence needed to proceed to realize his vision. Manica readily acknowledges that his expertise is in architecture and design, not bar operation. He relies on—and trusts—Schulte to program the menu and ensure that the cocktails are what they need to be Monday through Saturday.
For the Parlour, which serves as the Monarch’s VIP bar, Manica tapped Kenny Cohrs. It was important to Manica that the Parlour provide a separate experience from that of the Monarch Bar. While the latter gives guests a top-notch experience in its own right, the Parlour is more intimate and offers a seasonally rotating cocktail menu designed by Cohrs that features the space’s highly curated spirits collection.
Of course, the bar business is more than just drinks and guest experience—it’s a business. Not willing to jeopardize the concept by attempting to handle day-to-operations himself, Manica put a general manager in place to run the numbers and keep the Monarch on track. Operators with little to no experience managing a bar, nightclub or restaurant should look to Manica as an example of wise ownership. There’s no shame in admitting your inexperience and filling vital roles with smart choices.
What Manica found to be an interesting challenge was building the rest of the team. As an architect with his own successful firm, he’s surrounded by people who have essentially always wanted to be architects. He realized while opening his bar that not everyone who works in the hospitality industry had always wanted to do so or sought out a position within it as their long-term career. There are certainly people who have always wanted to be a bartender, but a large percentage of the labor pool are just looking for any job they can land.
“It’s been, I would say, a fun and interesting challenge. I would say, right now, our team is the best it's ever been and continuing to find ways to help them grow and learn is the challenge that I endeavor to make every day so that we keep them,” says Manica about recruiting and retention. “I would say that in Kansas City we're the best bar in the city, so we do have our pick of the crop locally. As we begin to win national awards, I would certainly hope and expect we'd get an even broader talent base.”
Spending time, effort and money on building a team of rock stars doesn’t mean much if an operator can’t hold on to it. Operators must show their employees that they’re interested in their careers and helping them improve their skills. Manica chooses to invest personally in education and skill-building experiences. As an example, he knows that it would be in the business’ best interest for his staff to attend the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival, an industry event with an educational element. So, Manica paid for tickets and gave attending staff paid time off. If a member of staff travels to another city to do a guest bartending spot or attend a cocktail week, Manica may pick up with airfare and lodging.
“I just know how important it is to think of the world [as] bigger than just your own city and your own bar, so I like to get people out there,” says Manica.
When he decided the Monarch needed a refresh as it moved into 2019, Manica encouraged his team to travel while the bar was closed. He wants his team to hone their talents, pick up new skills, and have experiences in other markets. Manica travels and thinks about what the public is experiencing throughout their lives to improve his architecture, and he approaches bar ownership and staff training the same way.
“People have experiences beyond your own business world, and you need to understand that. The same thing applies in the bar industry. Thinking about people's experiences at the grocery store, or at the market, or at the restaurant… All those things factor into how you can also be successful, says Manica. “I always say that most of our lessons come from just taking a step back and looking around a little bit.”
Manica and the Monarch bar team will be in Las Vegas to accept their well-earned award at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show. Attendees who attend the awards ceremony will have the opportunity to network with award-winning operators. Register now!