Lazy Bird, the 2020 Nightclub & Bar Hotel Bar of the Year, is a sophisticated but approachable subterranean cocktail and live music venue.
The bar is located in the cellar of The Hoxton “anti-hotel” in Chicago. Like the boutique hotel in which it’s located, Lazy Bird is defined by high style and incredible experience.
We spoke with Lee Zaremba, beverage director for the highly respected, chef-driven BOKA Restaurant Group.
An Unexpected Trajectory
Zaremba has made his impact on BRG’s beverage programs known in short order. He started with the group just about three years ago to open the Viceroy Hotel in Chicago, which houses upscale eatery Somerset by Chef Lee Wolen and rooftop lounge Devereaux.
Next up for Zaremba was BRG’s Bellemore, the American brasserie helmed by Chef Jimmy Papadopoulos. “All of the openings went really well and everybody was really happy with the bar and cocktail programming,” says Zaremba. So, he was tasked with updating the bar programs at GT Prime and GT Fish & Oyster, both featuring the culinary talents of Chef Giuseppe Tentori, and Japanese concept Momotaro.
By the time BRG started work on Wrigleyville’s Dutch and Doc’s, an upscale neighborhood restaurant and bar with a food program from Chef Chris Pandel, Zaremba had been promoted to oversee beverage programming for the entire group. He currently has 21 properties to watch over.
“Prior to that I was always just kind of grew up in hospitality. So, you know, started in the kitchen, did prep and then did entremets, and then made salads and got on the grill,” explains Zaremba. “And then I realized that the busboys made a lot more money, so I started busing tables and hosting at the same time. And then eventually became a waiter and served tables all through college.”
Zaremba left school to spend 18 months in a career in Big Tobacco, which he ultimately ended up disliking. Before making his return to hospitality, he pursued his other major passion: break dancing. Zaremba toured with a modern dance company for a few years, spending time in Spain and Germany.
Unfortunately (and painfully), he cracked his collarbone and tore the ACL in one of his knees. That led him to coaching the breakdancing team at The Ohio State University, which brought him back to the path of hospitality. While coaching, he took a job in a restaurant in Columbus and began his career as a bartender.
“They're still similar, you know? Let's talk bartending specifically: there's an art to it, right? There's a science to it, you know—you're balancing,” explains Zaremba. “There's community to it, there's business to it, and all of those things are present in the dance community, right? Because basically all dancers are kind of their own entrepreneurs and you work for companies which are really kind of like an independent contractor in that relationship. And in dance it's an art with a tradition and a history. And it's also a science, because you're figuring out how the physics of it work with your body.”
It’s that realization that helped Zaremba develop the bartending and service skills that made him a star in the industry.
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“So, there were so many parallels moving back into hospitality and getting behind the bar that it still satisfied all of those things that I had,” says Zaremba. “And then it was a whole new kind of pathway of curiosity to wander down, which has been really and truly rewarding since.”
Do the Impossible
The concept for Lazy Bird started to take shape after BRG founders Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz asked Zaremba what he would do if he had bar of his own. That open-ended question led to the Nightclub & Bar Award-winning bar serving Chicago locals and hotel guests today.
Zaremba says that Boehm and Katz had long wanted to create a live music venue, which makes sense since Boehm once operated such a venue in Nashville. Katz, says Zaremba, is a passionate lover of the arts and envisioned providing the city of Chicago with an entertainment and music concept influenced by the Jazz Age.
“It sounds timeless, right? It seems classy and somewhat upscale. So, I started thinking about the menu,” says Zaremba. “We talked about it. When I went back to him, I was like, ‘You know, a timelessness requires classics to me.’”
He had no interest in seasonal, constantly changing menus. So, he proposed the (next to) impossible: A 50-cocktail menu. When asked why he was proposing 50 cocktails, his answer was deceptively simple.
"Because 50 is next to impossible,” Zaremba sys. “To do 50 menu cocktails out of a small cocktail bar, it's just extraordinarily difficult if everyone's got a little twist or an original recipe to them.”
Boehm and Katz then upped the ante, throwing down the gauntlet: If they were going to create a menu with 50 cocktails, increase it to 52. And why that number?
“Well, then we could feature one every week in a year,” says Zaremba, recalling the reason he was given.
Anyone who has visited Lazy Bird knows that the cocktail menu is really a cocktail book. It’s leather bound, includes the actual drink recipes, and is more a cocktail book than a menu. Basically, in writing Lazy Bird’s menu, Zaremba has published his first cocktail book.
An impressive cocktail menu can at once be crucial to the guest experience and a logistical inventory nightmare. To avoid dead stock, a crowded back bar and other inventory issues, Zaremba cross-utilizes modifiers and other ingredients. For example, Lazy Bird doesn’t feature a different vermouth in every drink that calls for one.
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And yes—Lazy Bird has regular guests who have experienced all 52 drinks. Now that they’ve caught their stride, the bar team is welcome to riff on the menu or experiment a bit and offer guests something bespoke.
Best Team in the Business
“I joke all the time that I don't know if Lazy Bird is the best bar in America, but I do know that we have the best bartenders for sure,” says Zaremba. “That's an easy vote.”
That’s not lip service—he believes the Lazy Bird bar team is the best.
“From where we started, like the couple of weeks that we opened to where we are now, the level of service we're able to give, the level and consistency of product is so much higher than anywhere I've ever worked before,” he adds.
Zaremba admits that after first opening the doors, Lazy Bird lost four members of the bar team. Of course, that’s common in this business. What’s rare is counting even half of the original grand opening team among staff members six to 12 months later.
Lazy Bird faced a challenge putting their team together before opening their doors. The bar was a secret project, so they couldn’t openly recruit for the venue. BRG has built a healthy reputation as a great employer in this industry, so they’re constantly receiving applications. To fill Lazy Bird positions, applicants were contacted and told there was an opportunity in the basement of The Hoxton for which they may be well suited.
“So, the people that we do have that stayed have a true passion and love for it,” says Zaremba.
It’s not always a negative to lose staff. When passionate new people fill those roles and prove they’re invested in the success of the business, the change is positive. Of course, leadership plays an important role in retaining highly talented top performers.
Zaremba and BRG show an interest in their team members. They get to know what drives them and help them achieve their career goals alongside the goals of the business. If a team member is interested in wine, Zaremba is willing to help them earn their sommelier certification, for example.
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“My goal is to constantly be able to continue to build places for people to continue to grow,” says Zaremba. “And to look at their journey and their path as young hospitality professionals or as maybe lifetime bartenders, if that's what they want to do.”
Reverence for the Guest
When asked to describe the Lazy Bird guest experience, Zaremba has an enlightening answer.
“Ironically, it's fairly simple to talk about even though there's a lot to it,” he says.
In the simplest terms, Lazy Bird is about being respectful, nice and welcoming. Obviously, that’s not all there is to it, but it’s a crucial element. Lamenting that people aren’t kind to everyone everywhere they go, Zaremba says that’s where it starts. And it includes genuinely respecting the guest.
“When we talk about an idea of respect, one of the first things we talked about on one of the first days we were open was $15 for a cocktail is a lot of money. And you don't know if that's nothing to the people that are sitting down there or if that person that's on a date is on their anniversary and they don't go out much because money's tight, and they chose to spend that money with us,” says Zaremba. “That's special. I have a reverence for that, you know? Not everybody grew up with a lot.”
The Lazy Bird team also reads their guests well and can adapt to every situation. Does the guest want to sit and engage with the bartender, discussing cocktail books or drinks or other amazing cocktail bars? The Lazy Bird team is up for it. Is the guest on a date and just looking for the bartender to be a ghost? They’ll be an excellent ghost, says Zaremba.
“I just want other people to be happy. When people come in here, we want you to be happy. We want you to feel like, ‘Man, how cool was that? Oh, what a great time,’” Zaremba says. “Or just like, ‘Man, we were really happy to talk to Chris behind the bar. Can't wait to go back next week and see what Chris is stirring up.’”
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We can’t wait to see what Lazy Bird, Lee Zaremba and BOKA Restaurant Group will be stirring up in 2020 either. Zaremba says BRG always has new irons in the fire but wasn’t at liberty to discuss anything with us. Whatever it is, we know the team will be among the absolute best and happily put the guest first.
2020 Nightclub & Bar Award winners will be honored on the new NxT Stage at this year’s Nightclub & Bar Show. Several of our award winners are speaking at Nightclub & Bar Show 2020, including Creating Immersive Bar Experiences with Derek Brown; Best Practices When Working with Social Media Influencers with Vance Henderson, Jabin Troth and 2019 Nightclub & Bar Award winner Natalie Migliarini of Beautiful Booze; and Turning Every Guest Into Part of Your Marketing Team with Rebecca Monday of VASO. Register now!