As downtown Houston prepares to welcome three new food halls between now and the end of the year, each of them — Finn Hall, Lyric Market, and Bravery Chef Hall — are trying to develop a compelling mix of offerings that will entice patrons to visit.
At Bravery, partners Anh Mai, Lian Nguyen, and Shepard Ross are banking on the intimate experience of five, counter-service kitchens created by some of Houston’s most exciting chefs and restaurateurs: Nuna Nikkei Bar, a Peruvian concept from Andes Cafe owner David Guerrero; Blind Goat, a Vietnamese restaurant from Masterchef winner Christine Ha; Cherry Block Craft Butcher and Seasonal Kitchen, a steakhouse from Black Hill Meats owner Felix Florez; and BOH Pasta, an Italian concept from local chef Ben McPherson. The fifth concept has yet to be announced.
No surprise, then, that the partners are taking the same approach to the space’s cocktail bar, which they’re calling Indie Bar. Rather than simply hire bartenders and serve the inevitable “classics with a twist,” Bravery is inviting local bartenders to submit proposals for their vision of what the bar should be. According to Ross, Indie Bar will provide an opportunity for the next generation of bar owners to have the experience of running an establishment without the financial commitment of a lease or the challenges of obtaining a liquor license.
“We get to showcase genuine local talent, the guy [or woman] who could have, should have owned a bar,” Ross tells CultureMap. “If they’re successful, they get to learn all the skills of running a bar ... and understanding how to build a culture and operate a business. If that works for them, they can grow ... and open somewhere else. We also get to have a steady stream of great bar talent with a following of their own. We want to see what these people’s visions are if someone said you can have the keys.”
At this point in the process, Ross says there aren’t any rules for what the bar could or should be, other than that it be “spirit-forward” and hit certain price points and margins. For example, if a Houston bartender has a vision for something like a tiki bar or a martini-focused concept, the partners are ready to hear it. They’re encouraging interested candidates to submit their ideas via social media; ultimately, they want to hear pitches in person and pick a winner, Shark Tank style.
“We don’t want to have any preconceived notions,” Ross says. “We have a bar going in that fits a bit more mainstream criteria. Because of that, we have a lot of room to play creatively with this bar. The other bar is more mainstream. This is a showcase bar where we want the talent and creativity to have people say, ‘this is somewhere I’ve never gone before.’”
The winner will get to work with Bravery’s architect on the bar’s design. They’ll also benefit from the marketing push that the space will get when it opens in the fall. Once open, the person will be tasked with all the responsibilities of operating the establishment: setting schedules, maintaining inventory, developing a menu, etc. Ross envisions the concept changing annually to keep the space fresh and to provide more people with the opportunity to participate in the project.
“It’s something I’ve admired about Bobby [Heugel],” Ross says. “He’d help people who’ve never owned a bar before. They’re great behind the stick, but they’ve never run the business. Here’s a way to learn and showcase yourself.”
Meanwhile, Ross is also hard at work on the wine bar that will be a major component of Bravery’s operations. He just returned from the annual Sonoma County Barrel Auction, where he found a couple of vintages that will be sold at Bravery under his MadCat label. Overall, the wine bar will feature tap wines at affordable prices as well as more elevated bottles that are designed to pair with the different restaurants at Bravery; for example, California Cabernets for Florez’s steakhouse and Italian varietals for McPherson’s pastas.
Beyond that, the project’s NextSeed crowdfunding campaign closes in a few days. As of April 2, morning, it’s already raised almost $850,000. With the right push, it might even hit its $1 million funding limit. But right now, Ross just wants to find a bartender with some creative ideas.
“Come on down. Audition for your golden ticket,” Ross says. “I want people sending in videos. I want this to be fun. We want to get the right people in there.”