Zack Pennington, co-owner of NoraeBar and Kelsey Westbrook, the beverage director & events coordinator, discuss the implications of COVID-19 on the launch of their karaoke-inspired business.
Words by: Zack Pennington, Co-Owner and Kelsey Westbrook, Beverage Director & Events Coordinator, NoraeBar
Kelsey - Most of us got into the hospitality industry, or stayed in, rather, because some part of us finds deep satisfaction in bringing people joy.
From the wave of nostalgia that comes over a guest's face when we make them a libation that conjures a memory, or when we get to play a small role in a milestone moment in someone's life, to the first time a patron gets a proper bourbon tasting and we get to walk them through that sensory feeling we bourbon country natives call the "Kentucky Hug," those are moments of hospitality bliss.
And, these instances, among others, are the reason I said yes astoundingly when a friend reached out in early summer of last year asking if I'd consider running the bar program at his new private room karaoke bar venture in Louisville, Kentucky. To be able to marry these moments with the products I love and to curate experiences in an innovative and inclusive space, and tie it all in with music - perhaps the greatest human connector of all? "I'm in," I said then with zeal, and almost a year later, when we haven't officially opened our doors yet, and finally received our liquor license amidst a global pandemic, I'm still in. While our impending opening date screeched to a blinding halt when Kentucky's governor announced the mandatory closure of all bars and restaurants on, no lie, the exact hour we could have opened, we're still finding ways to facilitate joy, and when we do finally get to fling our shuttered, brand new doors open, we'll be better than ever, for the very first time.
Zack - NoraeBar, the "little karaoke bar that could" (but hasn't yet), is a new entertainment venue I've spent the last 18 months building with my two friends and business partners, Joe Miller and Louis Adamson. I first found out about the private room karaoke concept years ago while visiting South Korea. As someone who loves the spotlight, I thought it was odd that people would want to sing in a small room with only a handful of friends to entertain. It wasn't until my extremely introverted and karaoke-averse fiancée told me how much she loved her private room experience with her co-workers in Los Angeles that I began to reconsider its appeal. After Louis, Joe and I decided to make this idea into a reality, we flew to New York City to perform the most fun market research I've ever done. 15 minutes into our first private karaoke room rental and I was convinced.
NoraeBar (a play on "noraebang," which is Korean for "song room") is meant to be a high-end experience that doesn't feel gaudy or inaccessible. As a lifelong musician, karaoke enthusiast, and audio visual nerd, I wanted people to enjoy karaoke in a space that was intentionally designed for it – a space that looks good, sounds good, and makes you feel good. Louis took on the enormous task of completely renovating a former office/warehouse in the NuLu district of Louisville into a state-of-the-art karaoke bar with a sprawling public stage and nine private rooms, practically with his bare hands. With Kelsey on board as our Beverage Director & Events Coordinator, and Matthew Farley as our General Manager, I knew that we would create a cohesive and high-quality guest experience that would not only stand out within our city, but even globally.
Kelsey - We're not depicting this concept for you to talk about the dream that we could hold in our hands but was ripped from our grasp by COVID-19. Of course, it's devastating to work so hard for something and see it within reach and have it placed on indefinite hold. For us, it's okay to feel sad and grieve over that and for all of us to take the time that we need to process this global trauma. It's absolutely unprecedented. Still, though, I feel fortunate through it all. Our team of a bar that hasn't ever opened to the public didn't see any option other than continuing to foster beautiful experiences for people. It's in our blood, at this point, and if you're reading this, it's likely in yours, too. Thus, our pivot was born.
As soon as the mandatory closure was announced, one of our bartenders, Jared Schubert (who is a batch recipe genius, by the way) and myself got to work on our carry-out Curbside Cocktail Kits. We launched a Shopify page where folks could purchase private room karaoke vouchers at a fraction of their regular price for future use. We offered to bring folks our mobile karaoke units to use at home while they're in isolation. None of these things were single-handedly going to keep the lights on, no, but they've kept us producing content and I believe we've been able to stay relevant despite the vast majority of our community never having set foot in our space. Still, though, we knew that there had to be a way to bring the intangible value of this community space into the homes of our people.
We launched our "Quarantine Karaoke Competition" the first weekend of the shutdown, where we asked members of our service industry community and their friends to come (three per night at staggered times and in between thoroughly sanitizing our equipment) and sing karaoke and we'd broadcast it on our social media platforms. We created a "Quarantine Karaoke" donation toggle where folks watching the remote broadcast could donate their support directly to the staff of that performer's choice, be it where they work or where they love to belly up. I "hosted" the competition from a separate area in our space, emcee style, and talked our community through all our cocktail and voucher offerings, and how to support their favorite bar staffs.
And just as the performers let the first few notes out of their mouths, the comments from home viewers and donations began pouring in. It was like the moment when someone wants to sing, and they've been working up the courage all evening, and they finally decide they're doing it. And it's their song - the one they've known every word to their entire life. The lights are on and the words are on the screen and every nerve just melts away. It's the swath of butter when it hits a fresh, still-warm baguette and slides down the edges into each and every golden crevasse. It's the perfectly shaken velvety egg white foam atop a whiskey sour. We'd somehow found a way to bring the magic of every moment we want to create at NoraeBar into people's homes, while so many of us are hurting, no less. And, I think, just maybe, if we apply that feeling to the moment we can finally open our doors to the public, we'll know we're doing right by our community. We know that this time in history will forever change us, and our industry. But it may also show us that we're strong enough to rise to the occasion.
Zack - We don't know how long this is going to last, but a question I think I can answer is, 'are we going to be okay after this?' I do think I can say that we are. In-person communal entertainment is only going to get bigger and better. But, you also can't expect the old way of doing things to be the best way going forward. Bars and restaurants can take this time to think about how we can do right by the customer base that exists now, and use that knowledge to create new experiences and unite people around the things they love to do. Shared moments of joy aren't going anywhere.
If you are a bar owner and would like to contribute to Bar Entrepreneur Frontline please email me at Simon@DiffordsGuide.com. Thanks to support from Havana Club all published contributions will be paid for, with a matching amount donated to The Drinks Trust charity (formerly The Benevolent), or a local hospitality charity of your choice.