Interview: Proprietors LLC business partners David Kaplan and Alex Day discuss Chapter & Verse, Hospitality, Los Angeles, New York, Mumbai + More
Not many office spaces can claim the backing of five different liquor brands. Then again, there aren’t many office spaces like Chapter & Verse, the new creative workspace from Proprietors LLC co-owners David Kaplan and Alex Day, who are working to redefine hospitality.
During their time together at Death & Co., a bar that Kaplan opened with Ravi DeRossi in New York’s East Village in 2006. Day and Kaplan realized they had a shared vision for hospitality, so they teamed on Proprietors. The duo first consulted on Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company in Philadelphia and relocated to Los Angeles in the summer of 2010, fine-tuning downtown’s Bar & Kitchen. They partnered with David Blatt and Chris Nagy on Demi Monde in Manhattan’s Financial District, which debuts in early 2012. Day and Kaplan also worked on a project in Mumbai for first time restaurateur Rohan Talwar, and consulted for Dom Gagliardi on a separate project in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. When we met at Chapter & Verse on November 9, they were putting the finishing touches on the third floor room they were leasing from Crazy Gideon (L.A.’s zany version of Crazy Eddie) in downtown L.A.’s Arts District, and discussed many facets of their vision for hospitality.
Why did you end up naming this space?
Day: Chapter & Verse was a name I came across, or a phrase, or an idiom I came across, and just loved the idea of it, which has Biblical, religious and spiritual connotations. The idea of fanaticism, knowing something forward and backward, chapter and verse, really speaks and informs a lot of what we do, or aim to do, anyway. You’re just such a fanatic about it, you believe in it, you have faith in it, it drives who you are.
Kaplan: It seems silly to name an office, but everything that we do in hospitality has a need to reference that entity, because it’s so much more than just a physical space. It’s made up of people defined by the work that sort of happens there. In that, there’s a high level of romanticism. We see this really as this dream we’re able to execute, and this space we’re able to create, and we felt that it was simply deserving of a name, because of what this place is, which is so many ideas. The idea of Chapter & Verse, like Alex said, that’s why that name in particular is applicable here. It speaks to the romanticism of what it is that we do.
And much like a restaurant, bar or a space that’s named, this place, we’ve only, in talking to you, gone into this first level stuff, which is the visual part, this thing that you can grab on to, this liquid in glass that we produce in the form of cocktails or beverage programs. That’s one thing that we do. The maybe less sexy side of it, over there, is the office, where we spend all of our time on our company, our business, working on design, planning out the logistics of a restaurant or bar. So all of those things exist under the umbrella, and maybe more things exist under the umbrella, too. So how do you sum it up? It is our office. It is our test bar. It is an educational experience. It is all of these things. It’s almost better that there is one phrase that sums all of that up.
Why did you first decide to start a business together?
Day: I think it’s pretty common record now that he and I worked together at Death & Co., and once he and I started working there together, he and I actually formed this company. The first time the company really did anything was the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company in Philadelphia, and that was the first time we worked on something that was ground-up, designed the whole thing, ran it, oversaw it. It was very much our vision we gave to the guys, and they’re amazing. We were talking to them last night. They were sending us pictures because they did a whole hour of Death & Co. drinks on a special menu, and they sent us a video of them doing shots in Death & Co.’s honor. Of course we reciprocated and had shots right where you’re sitting. That was the first time where we were like, “Wow, there’s a need out there for not just owning places and building them, but also helping people fulfill that vision for themselves, but maybe they don’t know exactly every little corner of it. They may know some. They may know some things, and I think that speaks to how our company has grown?
What do you think was missing from the market? What were people not doing that you’re able to contribute in terms of hospitality?
Kaplan: It’s not necessarily the things we’re missing altogether, but there certainly is a need for the detailed obsessive fanaticism that we bring to every element. There’s a lot of great intentions out there in terms of people that are operating X, Y, Z, but maybe they are just missing a component, they don’t have that knowledge or skill set, or they have incredible business and real estate acumen, but they don’t have the operations side. There’s always a need within hospitality. I think what we bring to it is a really elegant mix of acknowledgment of both high and low, in that there’s always a need for absolute excellence, but you don’t need to deliver that in a very carried or pretentious way.
If I bring you a glass of a cult, ridiculously amazing, fantastic Champagne, and I’m just so excited about, and has a rich history to it, but you’re in the middle of a moment and you just want a glass of Champagne, I don’t need to stop what you’re doing to make sure that you know how important this is. I simply need to set up the support for your experience, and I think Alex and I both share that and we both relish in those high and low, and see the need for not just ridiculously fantastic cocktails – but also the need for nightlife and hospitality as a whole, to be a support for individual experience. And I think that’s a much more broad look than a lot of people have.
Would you say that your priorities have changed at all in terms of what you see as the importance of a bar experience, from the moment that you opened Death & Co.?
Day: Yeah, and I think that will never stop changing. I hope it doesn’t stop changing. We as people are open to new experiences, open to new ideas, open to the idea that what we define the hospitality industry to be is not something that’s set in stone. Of course not, because it’s an experience, an experience you as a person have. Everyone has opinions and prejudices or likes and dislikes and they interpret an environment or experience in completely different ways. Just like if you’re having a glass of that wonderful Champagne Dave was talking about, how you taste it is probably different from how I taste it, and that’s great. In keeping ourselves open to that, we’re going to constantly change. Even since being here in L.A., for the last year-and-a-half, my ideas about what I want to do in hospitality are not a huge departure from – but they’re definitely an evolution of – where we were at a year-and-a-half ago. The same thing can be said from year-and-a-half ago to three years ago, when I joined the staff at Death & Co., to three years before that, when I had my first bar backing job, or six years before that, when I worked in my first kitchen. My ideas of it all, they’re always informed by a level of passion and excitement, but god I hope they never slow down.
Kaplan: Yeah, it’s a continuous growth, a continuous evolution, absolutely. People have this pre-conceived notion, because it has very much defined our work and career together – or at least most people’s knowledge of our work and career together – which is Death & Co. People bring that constantly to the table. Oh, you’re going to do X, Y, Z Death & Co. here. Just because you know how to play classical music on the piano doesn’t mean you only know how to play classical music on the piano.
Day: That’s a pretty snotty way of saying it, but I like it.
Day: That sums it up. That’s totally right. Death & Co. is known for what it is, and it’s fantastic at what it is. You can have excellence in many different ways. Excellence isn’t one thing.
Kaplan: …There’s excellence in that neighborhood dive bar, where everybody knows each other, and it’s just zero pretence, and it’s an embrace of what it is. There’s excellence in that…Whatever mark and whatever defining thing you’re working towards, that you’re creating, you ensure that is exactly what you do or where you end up, and you’re unyielding in that pursuit, not just that it has to be Michelin-starred, not just excellence in the classic sense.
Why did you decide on this space in particular?
Day: We were searching for not very long, actually. It’s interesting the story how all this came about, happened so quickly. We were working out of an office in the hotel where Bar & Kitchen is. Luckily it was on the fifth floor, so we had a little bit of separation. Using some of their ice when we had to work on cocktails there, having access to spirits, and being able to have that space, but it became very, very clear as things were beginning to ramp up with all these other projects as well as with all the consulting contracts, we just needed – “Man, wouldn’t it be great if we had a space. What if we just had a space dedicated to us, our office and all the development?” “That’s crazy. That’s absurd.”
Kaplan: Dedicated to creativity was really what we said. We need a creative space, and that was a huge acknowledgment. That was an a-ha moment for us. Why doesn’t anyone in hospitality acknowledge that this is a creative industry, and that you need a creative space to work? It’s rare that you’re afforded that luxury.
Day: At the end of the day, what we’re interested in most is building places and creating experiences. That seems to be our focus. In looking for a space, whatever that would even be before we found the space, is figuring out how we could actually do that. Essentially we were able to work with some brands to help us offset.
How do you decide who does what, and does it vary depending on the project?
Kaplan: We like to say we both do a bit of everything, but that’s only mostly true, not completely true. Alex is an infinitely better educator than I am. So for staff trainings, there’s no question that Alex takes lead and I’m there to support in every way, and I chime in when it’s things I can speak to within my background and experience. Then if it’s something that Alex doesn’t necessarily like and I have much more experience with – what we call client servicing – in terms of crisis management and client servicing.
Day: Dave is very good at being able to communicate effectively, clearly, with people that are outside of our company in a way that is beneficial to them and us, in a way that moves the project forward. It’s not a skill set I have, and in working together and building a company together, that’s what makes a good partnership. Sure there are things in which you overlap, of course you share a vision and an ethos, but your skill sets are complementary, and you build something better. Dave, because of his fine art background, leads much more of the discussion on aesthetics or design. Say working with that sort of thing on Demi Monde, he’ll very much be at the forefront of that. I still have a say. I have sense of aesthetic. I have a sense of design. I’m very passionate about it and interested in it, but I don’t necessarily speak the language in the same way that he does. By converse, in training bar staff, I was a bartender for a long time.
Kaplan: I was not.
Day: Yeah, Dave has never been a bartender. That’s not necessarily in his skill set, but Dave has an insanely good palate. He’s one of the best people to taste with. Dave, participating in that conversation in this space right here, as we’re working on something, Dave is definitely going to be sitting with me, working with me on it. Dave’s is not necessarily an objective opinion, but an informed opinion, and that’s incredibly useful.
What was your initial impression of the Los Angeles bar scene before you arrived, and how has that impression changed since you’ve spent a year-and-a-half here?
Day: To sum it up in a simple way, I would have described it as excited and ready to jump in the game. Not to say there wasn’t plenty of stuff going on, because there was, clearly. Plenty of bars and amazing bartenders, and I think now I would say it still has that same attitude, and that would be an example of why I love being here so much. The energy, the enthusiasm, the sense of community, the passion that is here is not a thing that’s only in Los Angeles, but it exists here in a really special way. I love being around it, actually.
Kaplan: I also think L.A.’s very free, whereas New York has a very rigid idea right now that it seems to be locked into a very X, Y, Z idea of what an establishment is, and what a cocktail establishment is, or what this is. I think L.A. sort of knows it’s a blank canvas, and it’s approaching it from all sorts of different angles, which is very exciting. That’s one of the reasons why Alex and I love it here.
So the type of bar that you wanted to open when you moved out here, has that vision changed much?
Day: Somewhat. Yes, and no. The idea that we had moving out here, we will open one day, and we are excited to. The short explanation is that it is an idea. It isn’t a physical place yet. Everything that is surrounding that idea, is something we are passionate about and believe in, and cannot wait to share with the world. That doesn’t mean that it needs to be, maybe, the first thing that we do here. It’ll happen, and it needs to be done correctly in order for it to happen. We’re patient enough for that.
Kaplan: All of our ideas, and all of our conceptions, and sort of everything we brought from New York to L.A., those continue to evolve to evolve day to day. The way that those can be best explained, the more we know about L.A., the more fluent we are in the way we think about L.A. wants or needs or what reflection that is, or how we bounce our ideas from that. Change seems like somewhat of a negative reaction. We didn’t come in here with the idea of changing our understanding of L.A. The more we understand neighborhoods and the more we understand how we live here, the better we’re able to sort of cater an experience to that. That’s applicable to every market that you look at. We always try to be incredibly sensitive to that, especially with our company, Proprietors, because it works in a lot of different markets. When we go to India, we’ve got to be sensitive, because it’s literally the other side of the world.
You’re working on a project in India. What are the challenges of working on a project in a completely different culture?