Hold the Bottle, Please

As the ultimate VIP treatment, bottle service was rampant in clubs before the recession hit. While many high-end clubs continue the practice, some are seeing guests trading down from utra-premium spirits to premiums or ordering fewer bottles. That trend, and a desire to differentiate, prompted one club to get creative with offering VIP-level service with a lower price tag because, let’s face it, we can’t all party like it’s 1999.

The Underground is a subterranean, bunker-themed nightclub situated in the burgeoning River North neighborhood of Chicago. Since its opening in 2007 by the same folks who own Rockit Bar & Grill restaurant, a 2009 Nightclub & Bar Top 100 venue, this boite has been a major asset to Chicago’s nightlife. The likes of Kanye West and Bloc Party have gigged here, and DJs such as DJ MomJeans, Mark Ronson and E-SIX & ROAN have all styled their beats at The Underground.

The bomb-shelter vibe echoes throughout the interior of The Underground with steel chrome details and large wall maps like the kind used in war games. The theme continues to the menu, where guests can order the type of staples one stashes in a state of emergency — think Pop-Tarts — and drink from a cocktail list that reads like a James Bond movie script, with names such as 007, Gentleman’s Spy and Red Flag. It is safe to say The Underground strives to immerse guests in the spy-and-bunker milieu. “When people come here it is very much about the experience,” confirms general manager Benjamin Newby.

Bottle service can be part of that experience, and it certainly is the essence of VIP service in club land, but management at The Underground has come to realize that offering an ice bucket and a bottle of Grey Goose isn’t the only way to make guests feel special. Newby, a native of the United Kingdom, set about concocting something different: “When I first arrived in the States I spent time learning about mixology and checking out other clubs. I came up with an idea that would be an alternative to bottle service.

“I started making tableside cocktails at The Underground using typical bottle service trays, but it looked sloppy and didn’t quite work, so we sat down and refigured it all,” he explains. “I eventually developed the cocktail kits and that is what we’re using now. What really makes it work is the team; all my servers are smart as well as attractive and they can make cocktails.”

The kits cost $12 - $15 per person, with the exception of the ST G Kit, which serves six people and involves a carafe of St-Germain elderflower liqueur and Champagne, served on the rocks with a silver spoon at a price of $75. Kits are available for the Cosmopolitan (Grey Goose, Cointreau, cranberry juice and freshly squeezed lime wheels are shaken and strained into Martini glasses and finished with an orange flame garnish), the Mojito (fresh mint and fresh lime wedges, Bacardi Superior rum, a healthy spoonful of sugar to facilitate the muddling, topped with sparkling water) and Absinthe (a traditional presentation of Pernod Absinthe involving sugar and fire), all of which are prepared tableside by the servers.

The result is VIP treatment and a little theater. “People, our staff included, love it when you can see the spark of the flamed orange in a dark club,” quips Newby.

Brand participation has enabled The Underground to make the kits a success. Bacardi approached management and asked that the Mojito kit involve Bacardi rum, and due to the support, training and POS Bacardi has given The Underground, the club obliged, Newby explains. “Also, the strong selection of rum flavors will allow me to stretch the concept over summer with flavored Mojitos featuring fresh fruit to match the Bacardi flavor,” he adds.
For the ST G Kit, St-Germain provides the carafes and silver spoons. “Our female clientele love the ST G Kit. We serve it in a carafe tableside,” explains Newby.

Another success on the kit roster is the Absinthe kit. “When absinthe came back I got really excited because it’s so naughty. We use Pernod Absinthe and they were amazing in providing us with spoons,” Newby says. “We have a rule: only one round of absinthe per table and only after midnight. It adds to the mystique. It looks really beautiful and when we light the sugar cube, it offers a great visual effect.”

It all sounds like a lot of work when Newby and his staff could simply plonk down a bottle and glasses at the table and be done with it. So why offer something else? “Bottle service alone can be limiting,” he explains. “For example, I don’t really like vodka; I’m more of a gin person. But there could be others in my group [who] do like vodka. With our cocktail kits people aren’t stuck with one thing, and it’s less expensive.”

According to Newby, the kits have not had a massive impact on sales, but the response has been positive. “It’s a real selling point for us. It has garnered a lot of local press; local drinks editors think it’s off the charts,” he enthuses. “It does help our early sales as well. The 9 - 11 p.m. crowds don’t necessarily want to be spending on bottle service.”

Of course not everyone is suffering in this economy, and sometimes only a single shining bottle of tequila or vodka will do. Because of that, The Underground continues to offer bottle service, and patrons can add a bottle to the kits for an additional $50. Nowadays, guests can have their cocktail … and their bottle too. NCB

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