Thursday, June 20, 2024

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Lunch With...

Nick Tillinghast at Bubba


Nick Tillinghast owns and manages DM Does Things, which controls three Des Moines bars associated with the cooler, younger third millennium Des Moines. We asked him to lunch, and he chose Bubba. 

“I love this place. I eat here every Sunday.” So over whiskey pecan pie and chicken pimento wraps with sides of rice and hot sauce, we talked about the bar business in a changing city. 

Where did Tillinghast come from? 

“I grew up here on the southside, went to Lincoln High School and Iowa State. The day after I graduated from Iowa State, I moved to Las Vegas.”

Las Vegas is a great place to train for the hospitality industry. 

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“I worked for a public relations firm a few years and then went to work for Caesar’s Hospitality Marketing. They handled all Caesar’s properties.”

Caesar’s has hotels in 20 states now. That’s a huge company. 

“Yes, and diverse.”

So, what did Nick learn in Vegas that did not stay in Vegas? 

“I learned that people will pay more for cocktails if you market an experience as much as a drink. I know that you can’t totally translate that from Las Vegas to Des Moines because tourists are a huge part of the Vegas clientele. 

“Tourists save money all year for their trip. So, when they are on their vacation, they intend to splurge for experience as much as goods. Most drinkers in Des Moines are on a budget and have a much lower tolerable price point. People don’t save money for months for a night out in Des Moines.”

What bars are part of DM Does Things? 

“Hello, Marjorie, in the lobby of the former Des Moines Register and Tribune building, is our original bar. It’s an all-seated bar. We had some low tables when we opened, and people would mull around so that the seated customer felt uncomfortable. So, we raised the furniture and went to no standing. 

“Good News Darling is right behind Marjorie, in what was the building construction office. It was a pandemic inspiration. I was thinking of a small New York City bar, just 1,000 square feet and bartender centered. We have fun with drinks there. In August, we had a menu of Iowa State Fair food inspired cocktails.”

What? Tell us more. 

“One was called the ‘cookie bucket.’ It was made with Cognac and punch. The other was called ‘street corn’ and contained gin, butter, roast corn, cheese and blueberries.” 

And the third bar? 

“That’s Secret Admirer. It’s 1,200 square feet in a triangle-shaped building from 1900. Our theme there is ‘simple but nice.’ It’s more user friendly with high quality mixes.” Like Topo Chico for soda.

What are typical cocktail prices in Las Vegas now? 

“On the Strip, it’s about $20, downtown about $15 and in so-called dives maybe $12.”

What are his favorite bars in Las Vegas? 

“My favorite place in Las Vegas is Velveteen Rabbit. That’s not well known outside Vegas because it’s downtown in the Arts District.”

They go all in for Rat Pack glam. Is that something that translates to Iowa? 

“Everyone who loves nostalgia and glamour loves the Rat Pack. In Vegas, there are enough good imitators that they do live music shows.”

What events that come to Des Moines are best for his bar business? 

“The American Cheese Society Annual Conference that took place in the Iowa Events Center this summer was huge for Hello, Marjorie. We are not a family-type place, so the Wells Fargo Arena shows that do best for us are the adult shows. Civic Center shows usually help.” 

Hello, Marjorie features two pieces of art that stick out. One is a portrait of an older woman enjoying a cigarette and a cocktail. The other is a neon sign quoting Jack Kerouac. What about those? 

“The lady is my grandmother, Marjorie Anderson. She drank sloe gin fizzes. Our Marjorie cocktail is similar, but we make it with Skyy gin, elderberry, spiced pear and lemon.”

There’s no more smoking, though. And Kerouac? 

“That’s from ‘On the Road’ when he passes through Des Moines hitchhiking to Denver.  He sees school girls boarding a bus and thinks about hanging around but pushes on to Denver after saying, ‘The prettiest girls in the world are in Des Moines.’ ”

Good News Darling has more of a newspaper theme than Marjorie? 

“We have old front pages on the wall.” That’s nostalgia without as much glamour. 

In Las Vegas, the only regulars in many bars are workers. What is Nick’s breakdown of regulars to first timers in Des Moines? 

“At Marjorie, it’s about 60 regulars to 40 first-timers. Business travelers help the latter number. At Secret Admirer, it’s more like 50-50. Good News Darling is more regulars, 80-20.” 

Are the bars seasonal? 

“We have a large patio overlooking the Courthouse at Secret Admirer, so it does better in warm weather. Hello, Marjorie gets a good push during the holidays.”

How does one sell experience as much as cocktails? 

“We try to greet every customer at the door, like a bellhop used to be the first person you talked to in a hotel. At Marjorie, we have a host. In the smaller bars, it’s the bartenders who need to do that. Everyone likes being noticed. It’s also important what they are sitting on. That’s why we changed furniture at Marjorie.”

What are Nick’s favorite places in Des Moines for drinking and for dining? 

“My favorite bars are Ernie’s (East 5th and Grand), Bartender’s Handshake (Ingersoll and 37th) and 85 Bar (432 E. Locust). My favorite restaurants are Bubba (10th and Mulberry), Cosi Cucina (1975 N.W. 86th St., Clive) and Clyde’s Fine Diner (111 E. Locust). ♦

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