The Underground Gets Revamped

If seven human years equals one dog year, then 20 human years equals one nightclub year; nightclubs often get old very fast as "new" opens nearby. With rare exceptions clubs with lifespans of over 5 years are unusual. Clubs faced with senior citizen status often reinvent themselves; everything from the décor to the employees.

The key to a comeback for a venerable, old joint is not to try and reinvent the wheel. Club management must recognize the things that got them those years and try not to lose that identity.

The Underground, Chicago's impressive River North club will re-open on August 1 after six months of renovations. The Underground had a superb six year run (you do the math). It will be a much larger club with a whole new room called the Lounge. An improved cocktail menu will embrace the worldwide trend of fancy drinks and international as well as local DJ's will be featured.

Photo Credit: Rockit Ranch Productions

The sound and lighting at The Underground have been upgraded; there are now nine moving head intelligent lights, three CO2 Cyro cannons and an X-Beam full color laser.  These sound-reactive, upgraded lights will allow “for customized lighting schemes with six fully rotational light heads.” A 40 foot high definition digital video wall will dominate the "Club" room; this room is larger than the entire club prior to renovation. . “New and improved” is an old advertising slogan, it's been around for at least 50 human years, but here's hoping the new and improved Underground goes for six more years. Maybe even more!

Nightclub & Bar checked in with Billy Dec, CEO/Founder of Rockit Ranch Productions to find out all about the new venue.

Nightclub & Bar (NCB): There is a Scott F. Fitzgerald quote that goes, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Hopefully he has it wrong. Why do think the time is right for "2"?

Billy Dec: For most, nightclubs have a short shelf life, and the fact that we’ve been the top nightclub for six years in Chicago without doing anything dramatically different physically with the space, speaks volumes about the passion, connections, creative and drive that our entire team at Rockit Ranch and The Underground have injected every single week since we have been open.  We had always planned on innovating, beautifying and expanding the space when things slowed down, but thankfully that just never happened.  Randomly, another rare 4am license in Chicago became available, at a venue that I actually was a bouncer and promoter at when I was 21, so we were immediately drawn to it, acquired it, and used it to not only re-concept into a killer little Tequila Taco Tavern called AY CHIWOWA, but as a venue to move all our Underground staff to so no one lost their jobs while we jumped on the chance to go into the massive Underground renovation we always wanted for our staff, customers and Chicago!

Photo Credit: Rockit Ranch Productions

NCB: The Underground has been recognized as the “Hottest Nightclub” by Entertainment Weekly and “Best in the U.S.” by our very own Nightclub & Bar and those are just some of the accolades of the first incarnation. What have you kept from old programming, staff and look? What is new?

Dec: Culture, passion, commitment. Everything in our Mission Statement for the entire company has stood the test of time, all in order to elevate the level of entertainment in Chicago to surpass every other city around the world. That all stayed, that is what drives us to be the best, and that is what will always be with us, only getting stronger and stronger.

What's new? Aside from a challenge for all of us to take all of the above even higher than before, I'd say everything physical! It's twice as big, twice as tech’d out, twice as beautiful… when we were building in 2005 for our 2007 opening, we loved the hidden Underground military, safe haven-bunker feel that the space already had. Now we are designing for 2015, with inspiration from the direction society has been moving in, for instance with the iPhone, and other technology; sleeker, smoother, modernized, comfortable yet capable of so much more. That idea is reflected in everything, furniture, uniforms, sound, lightin.. Except for the new lounge we created! We gave it a much more textured and storied feel, with antique like finishes & furnishings, integrated with modernized vibe. 

As far as programming goes, some of the major elements we kept in place include our successful 6 year running Sunday Industry Night Party called the "Chicago Industry Alliance" (CIA), our "Style Series" featuring the top fashion shows and entertainment in the city and more. We’ve just upped our game with more creative events, bigger DJ’s, national style brands and outreaching to a wide range of industry partners for unique collaborations.

NCB: Tell me specifically about your sound system upgrades and the new 40 foot video wall.

Dec: We made huge improvements to both the sound and lighting systems which will engulf guests and stun both regulars and first time patrons alike. We installed a cutting edge, high-definition LED video wall that will envelope those in its wake. Encased in sleek black glass and measuring 40-feet long, this video wall will serve as the ultimate party display.

We added a full Madrix controlled LED pixel lit ceiling “cloud” overhead will provide both ambient illumination, as well as show time lighting that will really engage guests while pulling them immediately into the party. We also fit the space with nine new moving head intelligent lights, three CO2 Cyro cannons and an X-Beam full color laser. The upgraded lights will allow for customized lighting schemes with six fully rotational light heads which will add to the atmosphere in the space.

We really wanted people to feel and hear the music and they will with our new custom five-way audio system powered by 40,000 watts of Crown Audio Amplifiers in The Club. This audio system has new 21" sub bass cabinets paired with custom tapped horn loaded 18" woofers for full subbass extension that was tailor made to handle all EDM genres. The Lounge features a Madrix controlled custom made 3D LED ceiling display with crystal tubes hanging in a matrix display above the space, which will react to music cues. Six Robe Moving Head intelligent light fixtures will also add to the space’s feel. We really wanted the lighting to react to the music and to be very responsive to everything happening in the club.

NCB: Tell me about the timing of the remodel and its relationship to your overall business plans.

Dec: We always are filling a niche with new innovative concepts and upgrades. After successfully creating and launching four new restaurant related projects since the first opening of Underground, it was nice to take a moment to get back to our nightclub roots and really show people why we always were, and still are, the kings of clubs out here. We have been doing it for 20 years, and it’s where we can really tap our creativity and outrageousness the most. From there we go back to creating more successful restaurant projects!

NCB: What is the legacy of the Underground and what are you hoping for with 2?

Dec: When we started renovating, there was an outcry from the public that went way beyond our imagination, and hasn't stopped, and won't stop until our official Opening Night Party on Aug 1, 2013. We took something away that was integral to their very being; it was part of tens of thousands of people's lives, in a very serious way. To me, that is the legacy we always wanted, and want to continue to build; that we created and supplied something that influenced people's lives, provided them with friendships, memories, happiness, and relationships We want to create something that is instrumental in building their life story, and adding all of those instances up; shows that we effected our community, our city, in a critically positive way, that's the goal, that's why we do this.

NCB: Over the years, table service has become a science. Tell me about table service at Underground 2.

Dec: Bottle service has really depleted the service and hospitality element in some cases, sometimes you are just sort of left there with product just thrown at you, or it gets cheesy with sparklers and whistles so that everyone stares at the parade.  We don't evolve in that way, we dial in to the service, hospitality and relationship building end of it. We innovate with new forms of vehicles and services we provide like a table side mixology kit where a bartender makes elevated cocktails to your liking with a shaker (for instance) and doing more work on you and your cocktail service, not less. Personal table service at its highest is much more at The Underground. We may retrieve your coats for you, charge your phone battery, take pictures for you… it’s about the total experience.

NCB: Mixology programs are a must for most. How does an operator prepare for the space and equipment a serious mixology program requires? Tell me about your program.

Dec: For the extensive beverage program that we had in mind, we knew we needed to expand our bar space. The beverage program was designed as a two part conceptual process to compliment the duality of the updated space. The Club has a progressive set of nightclub offerings, including an array of bottles in all spirit categories along with a complete selection of champagnes, served in a variety of ways. We also wanted to offer high-end wines by the glass along with a curated list of creative and fresh cocktails.

The Lounge moves beyond the usual nightclub fare, with an inventive and extensive mixology and champagne concept. We wanted to showcase our mixology chops with an extensive cocktail menu that offers a mix of original and classic cocktails as well as reinterpretations of traditional favorites. We are all about service and wanted it to take center stage with mixologists helming tableside cocktail kits.

We will also offer a broader selection of high-end tequilas, scotches, whiskeys, rums and cognacs will also be available at the back bar. Our wine program will feature expanded offerings with additional varietals by the glass and select higher-end red and white bottles. We brought in brands like Bryant Family, Opus One and Screaming Eagle ($5,000 per bottle), which puts us in the top tier of wine offerings by any nightclub in the country. Overall we wanted out beverage program to look more like a restaurant’s beverage concept than a nightclub. We wanted to take it to another level with high end bottles, inventive cocktails and unique bottle service options.

NCB: Have you guys (Billy Dec and Arturo Gomez) been able to take a breath between 1 and 2 or were you just too busy with other projects.

Dec: First, we also have our partner Brad Young who shares the load.  And I guess none of us really take a break!?  We love continually creating new concepts and opening successful venues. We have our next few projects plotted out and can’t wait to start working on what’s next. And even beyond that, we all have individual responsibilities, commitments & passions we each engage in in the best interest of the business and the city.. For instance, I do weekly on air segments on ABC TV, KISS FM, and now participating in a docu-series about Chicago for CNN.. We are all in!

NCB: Champagne for an operator is a winner. Bottles retail high but also sell high but there are only a half dozen glasses, tell me about the cost/benefits of a "champagne bar".

Dec: First of all, champagne also sends messages of celebration, higher end clientele and happiness so we put a lot of value on delivering the best in that category beyond cost/benefit numbers. It’s why we knew a Champagne Bar would fit well in our Lounge space; there is always a demand for premium champagne options for table service. We wanted to offer a complete selection of champagnes, served in a variety of ways. Select champagnes will be available by the glass.

NCB: There’s the food component as well. Talk to me about the program.

Dec: We are listening to the ladies this time- and doing all desserts only!  Our Executive Chef, Amanda Downing, created a select menu of late night bites with a focus on sweets. Offerings include:

·         Ice Cream Sandwich - Chocolate chunk cookies, vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce $9

·         Mini Cones - Two chocolate cones with vanilla mousse, two vanilla cones with chocolate mousse $12

·         Strawberry Pop-Tarts - Housemade frosted pop-tarts with chocolate fudge dipping sauce $8

NCB: Tell me how you operate multiple venues without competing with yourselves.

Dec: Our venues work together in a great way. The concepts are different enough that we don’t cannibalize ourselves and our staff across the board is very supportive of each venue. The staff  visit venues for industry nights, promote each other’s events with friends and over social media and direct patrons to other venues. Again, all of our mission is the same, we are here to elevate the level of entertainment in Chicago to be the best in the world, so all of us out here are on the same team..



Suggested Articles

More than ever, we need Congress to help our independent restaurants which are proven to be a foundation of the U.S. economy.

The list has extended to several states and even more counties as COVID-19 cases rise.

The latest data shows U.S. jobless claims at 1.5 million, a small decrease from the previous week.