The usual karaoke experience in Denver involves stumbling into some dim dive bar just before last call and wailing a few tunes in front of cringing strangers. Maybe you dragged a few friends along, but it's hardly a social experience, but rather something akin to a round of Guitar Hero — fun for you, but not for anyone watching. Scott Simon wants to change that, though, by bringing his Portland, Oregon-based Voicebox to Denver.
Voicebox, which Simon expects to open in mid-June at 2601 Walnut Street (that's the same corner where Biju's Little Curry Shop, Osaka Ramen, Park Burger and Zephyr Brewing now reside), will be a full bar and restaurant with ten private karaoke suites of various sizes to accommodate a wide range of groups.
Simon first experienced private-suite karaoke while traveling in Korea and realized that the more intimate setup had vast potential in the U.S. Teaming with some tech-savvy partners from his Silicon Valley days, he launched Voicebox in Portland in 2008, adding a second there a few years later. What sets his establishments apart from other karaoke bars is that guests get to reserve private suites to have fun at their own pace without the awkwardness of performing in front of strangers.
"Overseas, there's this amazing form of group activity that's amazingly popular," Simon explains. "There are hotels where all 200 rooms have been converted into karaoke suites."
He says that the popularity is due to the communal, small-group aspect of private suites: "It's a fun, nostalgic, human experience — like singing around a campfire; it's not intimidating."
RiNo's Voicebox will be about more than just singing, though. The 4,500-square-foot space will include a full kitchen with a menu designed by Denver chef Jensen Cummings, who also runs his own Brewed Food culinary company. Cummings, who headed Row 14 Bistro downtown and also helped launch the Slotted Spoon Meatball Eatery and the BSide, is also consulting on the overall setup of Voicebox. "He's got a great mind for what it takes to run a hospitality organization," Simon says.
There will also be a full bar with specialty cocktails and sparkling wine at the center, but with beer, wine and other spirits also available. The common area and attached patio will serve as a draw on its own, even if customers aren't there for the karaoke. The menu will take the form of what Simon calls "a killer spread," the kind of food that can be ordered individually but that can also be set up party-style for groups.
The suites themselves will be powered by Voicebox's own technology. Simon and his partners designed proprietary software to not only manage a catalog of more than 20,000 songs (and that's just the English-language list), but to give an interactive experience for guests, who can use their smart phones to control playlists, sound and lighting from Voicebox's website. And because it's website-driven, customers don't need to download an app to run the show. Those with reservations can set up playlists ahead of time to customize their favorites.
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Simon also points out that his company sells just the software to other bars and restaurants; Punch Bowl Social is one customer who uses Voicebox to power its karaoke suites around the country. "The technology isn't just a glorified jukebox," he explains.
Prices for suite rental range depending on the time and group size, but Simon says guests can expect to pay about $8 or $9 an hour (or around $80 an hour for a suite, with ten to twelve people as a good group size) if they're singing.