The Bar That Wasn’t There

by Paul Clarke

Photo courtesy of StarChefs

What do you do when your bar isn’t a bar?

In case that’s too cryptic a question, let me be more specific: what do you do when you’ve owned and managed one of the world’s more notable cocktail bars, and then—for reasons related to the lease, the location, and other variables—you decide to close up shop and, over the course of a year, rebuild that bar from scratch in an entirely new location?

This, or a question very much like it, was what Vessel co-owner and bar manager Jim Romdall had to answer starting in December of 2010. That was when Vessel—which opened four years earlier to national acclaim, and which quickly appeared on many “best of” lists including Esquire’s “Best Bars in America”—served its final round of craft cocktails to a thirsty public and moved out of its original location in downtown Seattle.

Now, a year later, Romdall and co-owner Clark Neimeyer are preparing to open what some are calling “Vessel 2.0” in a larger, livelier space in a busier part of the city’s downtown core. Unlike the former bar, which uncomfortably split its 2,000 square feet across two levels, the new Vessel is 50 percent larger (occupying one level, the room feels much more expansive), with a bigger kitchen, a dedicated area for an ice program and cocktail-ingredient experiments, and a 24-foot-long, 12-seat bar where a rotating cast of bartenders will work to make sure the new Vessel recaptures those “best of” accolades.

But back to the question: how do you keep such an iconic bar alive for a whole year, when there’s no actual bar for guests to visit? I took this, and other questions, to Jim Romdall for answers.

How hard was it to keep Vessel’s name and idea alive during the year it was closed?

We’ve been really lucky to have so many loyal friends and followers, both industry colleagues and local guests. Seattle loves new places, and I could have opened a new spot with a new name, and probably still have that crowd, but our whole community is so connected that it hasn’t been hard to keep the hype alive. When the first Vessel closed, we said we’d reform the place, and it took us a while to find the ideal space, but that idea of a “new” Vessel was always out there—plus, I stay active in the industry, both locally and nationally, and I do whatever I can to have my name associated with Vessel. We’ve actually averaged more than a person a day signing up for our email list since we’ve been closed.

How do you keep your regulars interested in the bar and keep them in the loop when there’s no actual bar to visit?

I don’t know! I hope they come back when we’re open. When you create fierce followers who love what you do, I think naturally they’ll come back. We lucked out in that the people who like us, love us. We are a niche place; we’re not a hotel bar or a corporate restaurant, we really fill a niche, and for our kind of business to succeed, you need loyal followers.

A lot of that relies on keeping the community talking about it, and a lot stems directly from the industry. We have our email list, and we keep sending out updates and press releases about things I’ve been doing, but more of it stems from the industry talking about it. Throughout the year, whenever I see another bartender, he asks me what’s going on with the bar and tells me how much his guests are asking him what’s going on with Vessel. I think that drives it more than anything else. Seattle’s a community where we don’t have a lot of competition when it comes to cocktail bars—if you drink at Vessel, then you also drink at Tavern Law, and at Rob Roy, and so on. Our clientele is everybody’s clientele, and they keep asking those other bartenders.

At the time Vessel closed, you had a staff that was really engaged with the bar, and they obviously had to go find other jobs and get on with their lives. How have you kept the former staff interested in coming back to Vessel once it reopens?

A lot of our bartending staff is ready to come back. Michael [Bertrand] is ready to come back from Mistral, and Kevin [Langmack] from Knee High Stocking Company, and they’ll be able to work it out so if they want, they can handle shifts at both bars. But with the new place, I’m going to employ a larger bar program with more bartenders working less often—I’ll have a lot of new faces behind the bar. Seattle is not short on the talent pool as well, and it’ll be great to give other bartenders and visiting bartenders some time behind the bar. But there are some key people from before who it’d be hard to do all this without.

You learned a lot of lessons from the first Vessel; what kinds of opportunities does creating the new space provide you?

This lets us do everything we wanted to do with the first bar. It allows me to design a bar from scratch; it allows us to have a much bigger food program than what we had before—food was a very small part of business at the old place, because we never had space for it. Here, it’ll be a big part. My old kitchen was about 30 square feet; now, it’s a lot larger. I have Cameo [McRoberts], a nationally acclaimed chef, so we’ll be doing lunch, and provide a level of food we weren’t able to before. I think that’s an important aspect of both service and bartending; I love working with a chef, and having food ingredients in the bar. This way, I can pair with a chef and work with a different set of ingredients; that’s great for the creative process, and the level of service. And we think this is a much better location for what we’re doing.

Things change in a city’s bar culture, and a year is a long time to be off the scene. How will the new Vessel reclaim its relevance among the city’s bartenders, and its cocktail enthusiasts?

We have the chance to reinvent ourselves. We don’t plan on being just the very same bar, but in a different spot. As much as we’re maintaining the standards of quality we had before, we’re employing a different style behind the bar. For one thing, we’ll have a community bar program—I intend to have bartenders from around Seattle, and visiting bartenders from out of town, working behind the bar, and the menu will change every night based on who’s behind the bar. I don’t think anybody is doing this kind of program on a large, organized level—it’ll always be a rotating cocktail menu, and I think that puts us on the map for a different kind of program, and that helps keep some of that national recognition.

It’s been five years since Vessel first opened, and Seattle’s changed a lot since then, so we get to re-create ourselves based on where Seattle is now. Early on, it was a struggle working with people who weren’t familiar with what a cocktail bar was; these days in Seattle, cocktails are everywhere. We think we’ll push the standards even higher from what we did before.

We’re really excited to be a bar again.

Vessel plans to open in late December or early January, at its new location at 624 Olive Way in downtown Seattle.

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