Aviary is Haunted

Since Ahab’s no journalist (shaddup!), he didn’t expect a few questions tossed into the ether to draw any sort of official response. But Nick Kokonas “likes doing the unexpected in unexpected places.” He reached out via email this morning with some interesting, informative answers. Hold on to your hats, this is a long one…

Back of the envelope math and industry gossip suggest that financially Aviary is less of a runaway success than its sibling adjacent. Is that accurate? Are private events and the collaborations sufficient to make up for slower nights early in the week?

It’s pretty funny when people who don’t know us or our operation wildly speculate. And by funny I mean:  anyone can talk about anything, but why do journalists publish it?  

So here are real numbers off the top of my head:

Wed:  155
Thurs: 180
Friday:  285
Saturday:  310
Sunday:  105

Those are average cover counts for a typical week around this time of year. So 1,035 people per week is very strong in my mind. Unlike Alinea or Next who have strictly limited cover counts, Aviary is essentially an a la carte restaurant for drinks (and more and more food too). That means on a night we do 150 people it doesn’t seem overflowing… and even when we do 350 on a Saturday that flows throughout the night from 6 PM, unlike, say, a nightclub that gets a single rush late.  

You can pretty easily extrapolate an annual gross revenue from those numbers to find that for a 75 seat lounge we are doing well… exceeding our business plan by a healthy percentage.

Reportedly, Alinea had an 8-18% profit margin on gross receipts back in 2011. What has been the impact of tickets on Alinea’s business? And do you expect the introduction of tickets to boost Aviary’s profitability?

That’s a huge difference, 8 to 18%? Where do you get such numbers? Oh yeah, I may have said that. The truth is somewhere in the middle.

Tickets have greatly improved several aspects of running Alinea:  1)  no no-shows means that our average cover count has gone up by a little over 2 people per night. Doesn’t sound like much? Multiply that out by a year. 2)  planning is much simpler… we know how many are coming in every week and can order accordingly. 3) cash flows are more predictable.

We want to put Aviary on tickets for one reason only and it is a different reason:  I often hear that people want to go after work on a Wednesday night but think either that they need a reservation (they don’t) or that they will have to wait in line (they won’t). So it’s a bit like knowing a highway has construction, so everyone stays off the highway. People know Aviary is busy, so they stay away. Tickets will give them a quick way to check online and book a slot.

We’re going to do Aviary tickets a bit differently. You can either:

— pre-pay $20 per person that will be credited to your bill when you leave. This will guarantee you a table right as you walk in, no line, no waiting. This amount will vary by day of the week… for example, Saturdays will be higher.

—  pre-pay for the prix fixe drink and/or drink + food menus.

We will still have over half the seats reserved for walk-ins.

Whatever happened to cloning Aviary? Talk last year was South Beach. Maybe New York. Dubai even. And then nothing. Is that dead?

We are in negotiations with a high-end hotel group to open in several cities over the next few years. That said, I have no idea if it will come to fruition. We are very careful about opening up far from home while maintaining quality and innovation standards. We’ve turned down lucrative deals over content, not money. I think we’ve found the right situation and am hoping that we can iron out the details over the next month or two. These things do not move quickly with big international companies. As well, we’ve figured out that there really are only 1 or 2 groups that are truly committed to culinary excellence.  

Also:  we are planning another drinks only place here in Chicago… though it won’t be what you expect at all. Hoping to open by the end of next year.

What’s the average Aviary order? Aside from the kitchen table, do customers try the three- five- and seven-drink flights or mostly order a la carte? This data must exist, right? What else was the business analyst intern doing this summer?

About 80% of people stick to a la carte.  We’ve made the flights a more prominent part of the menus and experience, though, and more and more people are ordering them.

The interns spent much of their time redoing our CRM in a custom manner… we now have well over 100,000 customers and the accompanying notes in a single database across all three restaurants.  They also audited all of our suppliers billings. Redid our inventory control. It all proved so useful that we hired one of the interns full time (she came out of a hedge fund) to join our CFO Steven Bernacki in pushing us into the late 20th century and beyond. Yes, that means that despite our tech approach to many things some of our operations were stuck in 1985. That’s been changed completely as Steve and I have pushed the management style forward.

As much as the cocktails, the Aviary experience was defined by the menu of bites. Until recently anyway. What motivated the decision to offer a more substantial, plated menu? What are you expecting from Chef Andrew Brochu? And what has been the feedback so far? (Besides bring back chowder.)

Basically we now have a Michelin starred chef (who spent years at Alinea) creating the menus at Aviary. So why stick to the basics?  

The other reason is that many people would come in for a drink and want to stick around, but were leaving to go eat elsewhere. We have the capacity to make amazing food… we just need to offer it in a larger portion size. So now we are starting to do that… the response has been great. You really can come in and eat dinner now… it’s just that the drinks will always take center stage.

There’s been tremendous turnover of Aviary’s staff. Chef Micah Melton and Charlotte are the last two standing from the opening team. Has the turnover been more or less than expected?

We’ve been open more than 2 years so that’s pretty much expected. If you go around town you’ll see former employees running other restaurants and bars. Only so many management positions exist, so for their own personal growth they spend 18-24 months and then move on. We encourage that actually… and a few of our employees eventually find their way back to us as we open new places or have new positions.  That’s the case, for example, of Chris Gerber, our FOH GM at Aviary who worked with Grant at Trio and then spent years at Alinea.

Whatever happened to Next’s digital cookbooks? After Paris 1906, there was bupkis. Any plans to resume digital publishing? And if so, will there be an Aviary book? Incidentally, what does Christian Seel do all day?

Thai is done. Childhood is basically done. The rest we have all the content for but haven’t laid out. We are not satisfied with a single digital publishing model — iTunes is great but only part of the ecosystem. So we are trying to decide the best way to do it.

Aviary book? Would you rather see a $20 digital book or a $ 250 taschen-style art book printed in Japan? Both? Ok.

Finally, how does one get on the guest list for the after party the next time Jay Z is in town?

In fact, no one did get on the guest list except for people invited by the host (who will remain anon) or Jay. It was a very low-key affair. As you can imagine, after jumping around in 90 degree heat for a few hours the musicians are tired and hungry. Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s not all crazy time: he’s got 99 problems but a hang-over ain’t one.

Thanks very much to Nick Kokonas for overlooking Ahab’s snark and patiently answering his questions. This more than makes up for the blogroll on the website.

Unfitness to pursue our research in the unfathomable waters. Impenetrable veil covering our knowledge of the cetacea. A field strewn with thorns. All these incomplete indications but serve to torture us naturalists.

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