Long before it moved around the corner in the CWE, Kevin Brennan’s renowned three-level establishment was many things: part bar, speakeasy, lounge, cigar club, event venue, co-working space, bottle shop, and pingpong emporium. The new space, forced into pause mode by a catastrophic fire on reopening day, is now a doubly refined version of the original.
Do you even want to talk about the fire last December? I got a call at 6:30 a.m. saying there was movement on the second floor, so I sent the police. Shortly thereafter, I got a text that Brennan’s was on fire. By the time I arrived, the fire was under control. The movement in the rooms was caused by smoke. The cause was spontaneous combustion from a pile of rags used to stain the floor, even though it was cool outside and the windows were open. You never think stuff like that actually happens.
Are you a native St. Louisan?I was born here, grew up here, went to school in Arizona and moved to Chicago where I ran a few restaurant/bar-type places, which is what turned me on—and then off—to the business. The Field House, up on Clark Street, is still there. I was closing the bar six nights a week, getting home at like three-thirty, and then bowling on my free night off. It wasn’t much of an existence, so I came back to St. Louis.
How did Brennan’s start, years ago? First, I started an online wholesale cigar business while working at McGurk’s a few nights a week. I started collecting humidors and even started my own brand of cigars, which helped when my brother Mark and I decided to open Brennan’s.
How did you create your own line of cigars? Ours have a little bit of pipe tobacco mixed in with long filler cigar leaf, bound and wrapped. They look and smoke like regular cigars but smell a little like pipe tobacco. The brand is Durango Pipe Tobacco Cigars.
Are Durango cigars harsher or milder than a cigar made with 100 percent leaf tobacco? Tobacco is porous, so it takes on the dominant flavor from whatever it sits with. We age our leaf longer with more pipe tobacco, herbs, and spices, so our cigars are more labor-intensive, but they’re actually smoother. At Brennan’s, we also sell competitors’ cigars, but Durango outsells other tobacco products nearly three to one.
Do other companies use this formula to make cigars? There are a few but not many.
Did cigar sales increase or decrease during the pandemic? Both our online and wholesale business increased in 2020. The hard part for us was inventory management, trying to figure out which blends would sell the best going forward.
Talk about your Micro Tobacconist program. We designed that for casinos and liquor stores. Before COVID, the plan was to open several of these in 2020. It’s a compact, scalable version of a tobacconist. In my opinion, a tobacconist might not even be necessary anymore, not when you can do a really thorough job in 60 square feet, unless you add a lounge or some other interesting component.
So does your Micro Tobacconist require a temperature- and humidity-controlled room? About eight years ago or so, technology was created to control the humidity—up or down—in a small, individual humidor case, so that’s no longer necessary. The fresh-pack can ping a smartphone when it needs to be changed. We pay a lot to use them, but cigars stay fresher for far longer now. That technology was a game changer, because humidity can fluctuate in walk-in humidor rooms in general—it could be uneven within the room. The same thing is used to stabilize artwork and certain musical instruments.
How often do you smoke a cigar? I smoke maybe four a year, usually when I’m on vacation. I’d smoke on my deck if I had a deck, but I don’t like smoking around people. Smoke is an unusual thing. If it has a chance to bother people—which is often—I just don’t smoke. But when a lot of people smell the smoke from our pipe tobacco cigars, they say it reminds them of their father or grandfather. Takes them right back. Olfactory memories are especially strong.
How did the food and beverage components at Brennan’s grow over time? When we opened, we had more, wine, liquor, and beer than anybody in the neighborhood. Now we don’t but have a better selection of all of them. Having a hundred or so well-chosen liquors is way better than having 300. At the new place, we took time to properly display what we had, so it looks like 300.
Talk about the debates that Brennan’s hosts from time to time. We call it Arguments and Grievances: The Most Important Debates on the Most Unimportant Topics. We try to stay away from the biggies, religion and politics, because people have become so damn sensitive these days. A few of the guys who started that program with us, 15 years ago, took it to Chicago and Denver, where it won accolades. It won awards in Miami and New York, too. Before COVID, we held the events at Brennan’s, and now they’re at [Brennan’s] Work & Leisure, since we have a better setup there and a stage.
What is the BHIVE? I had designed a fictitious space to do in San Francisco that combined a cigar lounge with a bar next to it that operated as a workspace during the day. When Brennan’s upstairs tenants moved out, we finished out the space, renting it to corporate tenants. There was a joke that Brennan’s was the home of the fake business meeting, a loosely structured space that would occasionally turn into drinks at 4:30 p.m.
Your This Is Not a Restaurant series was first held in the BHIVE. The idea was to enlist a series of named chefs to do one-off no-holds-barred multicourse dinners at the BHIVE. The chefs were encouraged to get out of their comfort zones, the menu was not announced ahead of time, the food was always excellent, and guests got a look at the BHIVE, which they might not have otherwise seen.
Where did the name come from? It was inspired by Magritte’s famous surrealist painting “This Is Not A Pipe,” which wasn’t a pipe; it was a painting of a pipe. We did that with our Durango pipe tobacco cigar, marketing them as “This is Not a Cigar.” I liked the branding, but our audience was limited, so we carried it over to “This Is Not A Restaurant.”
Then there’s Mini Brennan’s, your mobile bar truck. We wanted something to do catering or mobile parties, basically a scaled-down version of what we are, and I fell in love with those goofy little Japanese micro-trucks used in lawn care. Ours has huge onboard speakers so you can DJ, inverted liquor bottles, a draft system, bottles of wine, even a mini-billboard for personalized messages. It’s been busy during the pandemic, because we can park it in a driveway or someone’s backyard, and guests or neighbors can serve themselves. The only drawback is that it has right-hand drive and a manual shift and only three of us know how to drive it. It is a pain in the ass when you have to go fetch it at 2 in the morning.
If you weren’t in the food-and-beverage industry, what would you do? [Laughs.] I thought a lot about that the last 10 months. Everybody does. You know, how long do you want to do what you do? Then I thought about my skill level and realized there’s not a lot else I could do. The entrepreneurial aspect of the business—which allowed us to open Brennan’s Work & Leisure—is what’s kept me involved for so long. We brought work and social time closer together, under one roof, and then COVID comes along and reinforced that relationship in a different way.
Can Brennan’s and Brennan’s Work & Leisure be summed up in a nutshell? Brennan’s was a bar that evolved, and we added a small work component upstairs. Work & Leisure was a small bar/café in front with a large work component in the back. It was more of the same but different.
How did Brennan’s Work & Leisure develop over time? We tried to quickly develop a nighttime dinner business, which didn’t happen, but we were booking events like crazy, so we went with that. Work & Leisure appealed because of the attached work space and café. It wasn’t just an event space. We also host comedy events that cross over. We send out Booze & Snack packages to people’s homes prior to a comic doing a standup show that’s both live at Work & Leisure and virtual. We like doing events that can overlap like that.
Talk about Brennan’s Booze & Snacks. This spring, all signs pointed to to-go cocktails’ becoming a thing. We thought we could keep some staff busy and turn some inventory, but the learning curve was steep. We went from serving a simple drink to creating packages that were attractively presented and then shipped to people’s doors. Corporate gift-giving became an unexpected boon at the holidays, and they liked the virtual mixology classes, where we send out the necessary ingredients to, say, 100 people prior to the class. We hope that we can maintain some of that momentum this year.
Will you change the Booze & Snacks program?
We’ll be opening up a retail store under the name of Booze & Snacks, where you can try anything before you buy it and order any cocktail packaged to go, one of ours or a custom cocktail of your own choosing.
How is the new Brennan’s the same, and how is it different? When you decide to move, you focus on the things you did right and wrong. Since it was on three floors, the old Brennan’s was a blessing and a curse. It felt right, but the flow and function aspects were a nightmare. We had 5,000 feet upstairs and only 1,000 on the ground floor, which was crazy, but people did like discovering the different rooms. We basically moved into two narrow rooms, which we decided to separate by double sets of glass French doors to preserve that same sense of discovery. The main room has a floor-to-ceiling bar and a long black leather banquette on the other side. The other room is more lounge-y, geared for a casual cocktail and a bite of food, before or after dinner. The kitchen is on the main floor, convenient but hidden behind smoked glass, so you see light and movement but not the mayhem.
Beverage-wise, what changed from place to place? We changed the wine program a little bit, and we tweaked the beer but really amped up the cocktail offerings and service. We now have the space to allow for proper glassware, an individual glass froster, ice blocks and spheres—all of which lead to better presentation. Upstairs, we can do things like smoked drinks, which go well with cigars.
How will you work a cigar club into the new location? The Cigar Club will be upstairs—along with more than 100 members’ humidors—so the smoke can be easily cleared. There is residential space on either side. If that changes, we have ideas for those areas, too, like a private lounge or maybe even micro hotel rooms, where we’d supply the food and drink.
How does cigar club membership work? We had to take off more than a year due to COVID, so we’re sending out cards to members—OG cards, meaning the original grandpas and grandmas—grandfathering in anyone who had credit. Those without credit, who hadn’t reupped in several years, are also free to try out the new space.
Can you smoke a cigar anywhere else at the new Brennan’s? There’s no smoking on the first floor inside. I believe we will sell more food and drink with the new layout.
Will there be sidewalk seating, as before? The neighborhood has the plans—and the money—to increase the size of the sidewalk by reclaiming some street parking, from our building all the way around the corner to the chess club. The whole thing will get repoured, plus matching flowerboxes, which would increase our seating out front. People really enjoyed the temporary seating out there this summer, so I hope that happens sooner than later.
What’s going on downstairs? There was talk of another Sneaker Room. The back room of the old cigar club was called the Sneaker Room, because there were sneakers on the walls. We talked about doing a loungy idea like that downstairs, but the ceiling height was 2 inches short to do it right. We would have to dig out the basement, which was ridiculously expensive. We might do something down there in the future, but it would be more private than public.
How many of the personal tchotchkes came from the old Brennan’s, and how many came from your basement? All of that stuff was there, but now there’s more order to it. We can rotate the three large pieces in the alcoves along the main wall, but we also bought an art printer, so we can also sell-through some of the more popular ones, which is kind of a different angle for a bar.
What is the story behind the bar’s black message board? We wanted to have an interesting back bar, something large and unusual. It was plywood coated with metallic paint, which evolved over time and developed its own voice that became a little caustic and irreverent. The new space has a board, too, but this one is steel. In the bathroom are 60 framed photos of messages we did in the past—like,“There’s no better karate instructor than a spiderweb in your face”— and there’s another hundred that we haven’t even framed. We’ll rotate them out, so there will always be new ones to see.
When Brennan’s originally reopened, the message board read: “Isn’t fun the best thing to have?” When the bar reopens again, what might it say? How about, “FIRED UP AND READY TO GO”?