In 2017, sommelier Kendra Anderson opened Bar Helix, a petite Negroni-centric lounge in Denver’s RiNo neighborhood. When COVID-19 shutdowns forced her to reinvent, the enterprising Anderson transformed a neighboring vacant patio into the escapist pop-up, Cabana X.
SevenFifty Daily: What was your mindset when restaurants and bars first closed in March?
Kendra Anderson: When the governor legalized sales of alcohol to-go, we knew we had a decent shot since Negronis are so straightforward and conducive to batching. For two months we did takeout cocktails, and then in May I began contemplating what we would do when we could reopen.
What led you to launch Cabana X in June?
The layout of Bar Helix is quite intimate and cozy, with a small lounge, 20-foot patio, and the bar as the main design feature. With the social-distancing restrictions, we wouldn’t have been able to fit many people. I began to think about the restaurant next door that had closed in December. Its patio, three times the size of Bar Helix’s, was sitting empty for months.
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Instead of just moving Bar Helix outdoors, you came up with a new temporary concept: serving food and drinks evocative of rotating getaways like Mykonos, Phuket, and Rio. Why?
I liked the idea of sending Bar Helix off on vacation to glamorous jet-setting destinations with pools and cabanas. It was a great way for us to do something different, but remain relevant and let people know that Bar Helix was still around. We were hopeful it would be well-received, but it went beyond our expectations. I am overwhelmed by all those guests who said they felt they got the respite we all needed from this year at Cabana X.
You successfully maintained brand momentum—and garnered sales—this summer, but Cabana X is about to wind down. What’s next for Bar Helix?
I’m not sure if reopening makes sense from a safety or revenue-generating perspective. Bar Helix is not a daytime spot; it’s not going to be busy at 4 p.m. We need business in those later hours and that’s not an option now because the alcohol curfew is at 11 p.m. I have also asked the question: Is my bar essential? I have had a bit of an existential crisis, struggling with staying open and encouraging people to gather.
More from Anderson:
- Why She Opened Bar Helix: “I have been in love with the Negroni for years, but there isn’t as much familiarity with it in Denver as in other cities. I’ve spent a good amount of time explaining the cocktail’s origins and ingredients.”
- Customer Favorites: A pared-down Negroni list and other cocktails with a tropical vibe, including the Negril-conjuring Banana Hammock (brown butter-washed bourbon, Mathilde banana liqueur, Scrappy’s chocolate bitters, cocoa-dusted plantain chip).
- Pandemic-Era Silver Lining: Cabana X’s footprint was significantly larger than Bar Helix’s, so Anderson was able to hire additional staff.
- Why She Thinks Virtual Events Like September’s Reimagined Negroni Week, Which Raised Funds Solely for the Decimated Restaurant and Bar Community, Are Essential: “There is a lack of understanding regarding how deeply this crisis is affecting the hospitality world, and we have to collaborate so these industries don’t collapse.”
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Alia Akkam is a writer who covers food, drink, travel, and design. She is the author of Behind the Bar: 50 Cocktails from the World’s Most Iconic Hotels (Hardie Grant) and her work has appeared in Architecturaldigest.com, Dwell.com, Penta, Vogue.com, BBC, Playboy, and Taste, among others, and she is a former editor at Edible Queens, Hospitality Design, and Beverage Media. A native New Yorker, Alia now calls Budapest home. Follow Alia @behdria.