Local Spotlight: Flatiron Room (Part II)

Conversation with Tommy Tardie (Part II)

Opened less than six months ago, the Flatiron Room is already making waves in New York’s nightlife scene. Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with owner Tommy Tardie about his new establishment. Since we had such a rich, in-depth conversation I decided to split the interview into two parts. Part I can be found here. In this section, you’ll learn about Flatiron Room’s bottle keep and whisky school programs as well as future plans for expansion. Hope you have as much fun reading this as I had conducting the interview.

What is Flatiron Room’s “bottle keep” program?
Tommy: Before I moved to New York I used to live in Hawaii. I was into surfing and all of my surfing friends were Japanese. I went to Japan quite a few times and saw “bottle keep” programs there. They didn’t call it “bottle keep” but you could lock up your liquor [at the bar]. I thought this was pretty neat and tucked this away in my mind.

When I started [Flatiron Room] I liked the idea of having something that could convert customers from potentially a one time user to a loyal repeat user. Being able to purchase a bottle and get this sense of entitlement in almost owning a piece of the space. Frankly, I had no idea if it was going to work. I have a lot of ideas, I always think they’re good but in some sense they’re not. The first day we were open we sold three bottles and I couldn’t believe it. A lot of times people don’t gravitate to new concepts, they tend to stay in the same paradigms. People got the concept though. We tried to present it as simple as possible: We sell whisky by the dram or by the bottle. If you purchase a bottle, you’re welcome into the “bottle keep family.” We give them these bottle keep entitlement cards and a wax sealed welcome letter signed by me. When you return to the venue, you present your card and we will fetch the bottle for you to enjoy at your leisure.

You can also grant entitlement cards for your friends to have access to your bottle. I humorously made note that we’re not responsible for your friends behavior. If your buddy finishes your bottle when you’re not there, that’s your issue with your friend, haha.

We have a lot of private events where brand managers will come to me and say they want to host an intimate gathering for 20 or so people. We use these opportunities to invite our bottle keep guests. Bottle keep guests also get 15% discounts on tasting classes. We have an email going out next week first to our bottle keep family for the new Bruichladdich Octomore 10 year. We’re going to introduce that to our bottle keep family first and tell them that they’re first in line for the limited availability.

How many people are currently part of the bottle keep family?
Tommy: We have over two hundred people in our bottle keep family. When you enter the venue you can see the bottle keep lockers are on the bottom left hand side. You will see that we are halfway through the area I designated for the bottle keep program.

With so many whiskies on hand, how do you handle staff education?

Tommy: I’d like to think staff education sets us apart. Staff education is the thing I take the most serious with the venue because I recognize that if we have so many whiskies, for us to not know our stuff would be disappointing to say the least. If someone comes in and says, “I want something from The Islands or Islay but I’ve only had Lagavulin, so what can you recommend?” The staff needs to be able to rattle off, “Well there’s Bruichladdich, Caol Ila, Ardbeg, Bowmore, etc.” I think they need to be able to rattle the information off otherwise, we’re just posers with this beautiful collection that we don’t know anything about.

We have an online training program that all the staff has to go through. It’s a continual thing. It’s pretty cool, They watch these video then take tests afterwards. It starts off with the basics: the history of whisky, malting, the importance of peat, cooperages, everything you can imagine. It’s something they have to do on their own time.

Before a staff member can be on the floor I require them to go through two levels so they have a basic comprehension of [whisky]. On the back end I can see when they logged in, how long they spent on each section and what grade they got. They have to score an 80% or better to advance to the next level.

In addition to the online training program, each week we also have something called Whisky Wednesdays. It’s just internal. We’ll have either a distributor, brand ambassador or distiller come in and bring in new expressions or their whole portfolio then walk the staff through with tasting notes.

What’s whisky school? Why should people attend?
Tommy: Our whisky school is led by Heather Greene, our in-house whisky sommelier. She has a quite a pedigree in whisky. For the last five years she was the Glenfiddich brand ambassador and is well known around the world as a leading whisky expert. She came on board at the beginning and instantly added a lot of value and credibility around our brand.
What we try to do with the whisky class is offer something for everybody. We have anything from a blind tasting to a cocktail making class. For example, we had a blind bourbon tasting with Pappy Van Winkle 23 yr not to see who could choose it, but to take out all marketing to see what people really thought of the whisky. We wanted to know what people’s real flavor profiles were without being guided by marketing. For instance if we had Pappy Van Winkle labels at the tasting 9/10 people would say they loved it. But tasting it blind allows us to see what people really like without being led.

There is a class for everybody whether you’re a novice or aficionado. The environment we create is a family, communal, group participation environment. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. Bottom line is we’re there to have fun, drink and be among friends. Hopefully people can walk away with some laughs and a little bit more information. People really seem to like it regardless of what level they are.

What kind of private party could you put on at Flatiron Room? Are events customizable?
Flatiron’s infamous 16 foot tasting table
Tommy: Led up by our director of special events, Evelina. We’re unique in that you could rent out the entire space, or just our upstairs room which is good for parties up to 50 people standing and 35 people seated. Funny story: We once had Mars chocolate company come to us and say they wanted to do a tasting. It was a little different. They wanted us to pair our whisky with their chocolate. They wanted to have something fun for their executives. We invited a whisky expert to come in and pair spirits with M&Ms, twix, etc. It was fun, we did the best with it even though it was completely new for us.

Some companies like the Financial Times or Yahoo will come in and close down the entire venue for a company function. It could be anything from a new product presentation to a corporate lunch. The space is completely utilitarian and can be used for a variety of functions.

Do you have a long-term plan for Flatiron Room?

Tommy: Yeah definitely, that’s one of the things that turned me on to this concept versus nightclubs. Nightclubs tend to be very cyclical and have such a short shelf life. I built this place with thoughts for expansion. Fortunately business has been very very good and the plan is to open up other locations in the near future.

Would future expansions have the same name?
Tommy: Yeah. I choose the name because I’ve been in the Flatiron district for many years I just loved the building and thought it was an iconic thing that really symbolized New York. So with plans for expansion regardless of where the location is – if it’s in Chicago, Greenwich or Taiwan – the name “Flatiron” is representative of where we got our roots. I think it could be cool, [if people would say,] “What is the flatiron?” Even if you’re outside of New York, you may not even know what it is, but knowing that there is a history or story behind it is cool.

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