Bars

How Shel Bourdon Oversees 93 Bars—and Counting

The bar maven for Thompson and Joie de Vivre Hotels shares her strategies and insights

Two Roads Hospitality is a lifestyle and hotel management company made up of marquee brands like Joie de Vivre Hotels and Thompson Hotels, along with Alila and Destination Hotels, among others. It includes 93 bars and restaurants—17 at Joie de Vivre and 12 at Thompson Hotels—with a host of new openings scheduled for 2019 and beyond, including Thompson Hotels in Los Angeles, Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston.  

In 2017, Shel Bourdon was hired as the national director of bars at Two Roads, responsible for developing bar programming and concepts, educating beverage teams, and overseeing the company’s roster of bars, lounges, and rooftop venues. She recently opened two Joie de Vivre properties: Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco, after a $30 million renovation, and Hotel Revival at Mount Vernon Place, a new hotel to the group in Baltimore.

Bourdon had previously worked at such premier cocktail bars as Playa in Los Angeles and The Dead Rabbit and Donna in New York City, and she’d opened bars and restaurants for both Thompson and Kimpton Hotels before becoming a brand ambassador for Beefeater and Plymouth Gins.

SevenFifty Daily spoke with Bourdon about the motivation, planning, and logistics involved in building and operating bars across many hotel properties.

SFD: Two Roads has many new properties opening. What’s on your radar?  

SB: My main scope right now is seeing the reconcepts through their new designs, and then pipeline properties—things that will be coming online in the next two years. I’ve got about 10 properties that I’m working on now; all are slotted for 2019 and early 2020 openings. We’re really expanding in California [in Los Angeles, Oceanside, and San Francisco], which is great because I grew up in California.

SFD: Do you create the cocktail lists at each property, or do you work with the local bar manager or lead bartender?

SB: From the design and concept phase, I’m making sure the functional design holds true to set the concept up for success. The operational design would be much different for a beer bar, a wine bar, or a cocktail space. This includes building out the bar so that it meets a cocktail bar’s requirements with respect to the underbar setup.

When it comes to the cocktails, one of my biggest goals is to empower people at the property level to do the fun things, like writing cocktail lists. I would never want to take away the fun piece, but there are some properties where I lend more assistance than others. For example, at Ventana in Big Sur, they have a great sommelier, and they reached out to utilize my help in developing the cocktail menu, while the somm was interested in owning the wine piece.

SFD: Joie de Vivre is heavily associated with the boutique hotel movement of the ’90s. Is there any emphasis on modernizing the bar and cocktail programs in this particular group?

SB: JDV is the most exciting brand for me right now. When we talk about lifestyle brands, JDV is the epitome. We’re breathing life into JDV through food and beverage, with concepts that are relevant and exciting. This year, we already opened up the Hotel Kabuki, and I’m on site in Baltimore right now at the Revival Hotel to put the JDV stamp on it. After this, we’ll be redoing the bar at the Laurel Inn in San Francisco.

I think that, in the past, we went through a phase of overly concepting bars, and they became theme bars. In some of our reconcepting now, we’re looking for things to become a little more timeless and mirror the hotel concepts more closely, so that they feel more integrated into the neighborhood.   

San Francisco is a great example of [a place] where hyperlocality is important for us acknowledge. At the Laurel Inn, the rooms and common areas were renovated earlier this year, and so the bar is going to be the last piece that ties it all together. We are thrilled to have the opportunity to modernize the bar to provide a casual upscale neighborhood experience for the Presidio.

SFD: Any Thompson Hotel refreshes? Or just the openings scheduled for 2019?

SB: Toronto is getting a little bit of a refresh—the rooftop bar specifically, but I can’t share details yet.

SFD: How are the hotel groups different within the Two Roads portfolio: What makes a JDV bar different from a Thompson bar?  

SB: Just by the style of hotel, they’re so different. With Thompson, you get this urban Manhattan feel. There’s this feel of New York nightlife. We’ve found our stride with rooftop bars in the Thompson group.

With JDV, there’s a stronger commitment to a sense of place, so there are a lot of partnerships with local ties when we open in a city. [We use] local products, local artists especially for the rooms, and in beverage, we partner with local breweries and distilleries to highlight local brands.

SFD: Do you have programs where people can get the same drinks at one property as at others, as some hotel groups do?

SB: We don’t have a national cocktail program per se. But we do have national account mandates to elevate the standards of the back bar, so you can get the same quality of spirits at all JDV properties. Beefeater is a great example—it’s delicious, timeless, and versatile. It holds up just as well in a G&T, a French 75, and a deliciously stirred martini.

I try my best to operate bars and restaurants for the neighborhood, and I want to empower on-site operators to make decisions and cultivate local partnerships. For example, we ran a fun campaign, the Sip of Summer, where we offered guests a welcome gift. We chose an Aperol Spritz, and we allowed every property to do their own twist on it. Kabuki used sake in theirs; a Monterey property did a Spanish Cava.

SFD: What’s the difference between planning for hotel bars versus stand-alone bars?

SB: One of the biggest advantages [of hotel bars] is you have a built-in clientele. You have people always ready for something good to drink, whether they just got off a flight or out of a meeting or are just on vacation. You meet people from all over the world who are excited to be there.

As for challenges, hotels never close. It’s a 24-hour operation. And for staff, it’s trying to maintain a life-work balance despite an around-the-clock schedule. I find myself checking what time zone I’m in before I send email, and asking, “Is today this person’s day off?” I’m pretty hard-core about promoting life-work balance to prevent burnout. It’s too easy to say yes and be accommodating because it’s hospitality.

SFD: When opening new properties, do you bring in bar managers from other properties, or do you try to use local people?

SB: At Kabuki, I had known [head bartender] Stephanie Wheeler for years. As we were concepting the Kabuki and meeting with the owners, it hit me that I was creating Stephanie’s dream bar. She spent two years in Japan, and worked at Three Dots and a Dash in Chicago, so she had that love of whimsy too. So I called her and said, “I think I’m designing your dream bar, and I want to send you this concept deck,” and she texted me an hour later and said, “I have to move to San Francisco, don’t I?”

But every project is different. Recruitment is a huge focus for a lot of projects, but being a mentor and an ally for people in our organization is also a big chunk of my job. For us, when we look at a résumé for someone in food and beverage, we’re not looking for the same things that most hotels groups probably look for. We don’t necessarily need to see a ton of hotel experience on the résumé. We promote entrepreneurialism, and we’ve had great success in more outside-of-the-box recruiting methods, such as recruiting from stand-alone bars.

The corporate structure of hotels can be a little bit scary, and I need people to never be afraid to voice their opinion and offer insights, as ultimately it’s better for our guests. It works in my favor that I’ve been there before. I was a director in F&B for two years for Thompson, and I understand what those pressures entail.

Camper English is an international cocktails and spirits writer, speaker, and consultant, with a focus on the science of booze and big clear ice. His work has appeared in Popular Science, Cook’s Science, Whisky Advocate, Saveur, Details, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many other publications.

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