Denver Bar the Monkey Barrel Named Legacy Business | Westword

Monkey Barrel Honored as Denver Legacy Business

"We have the city of Denver in our in our corner to help us keep this business going for generations."
Jimmy Nigg is the owner of the Monkey Barrel Bar in Sunnyside and was recently given the Denver Legacy Business designation.
Jimmy Nigg is the owner of the Monkey Barrel Bar in Sunnyside and was recently given the Denver Legacy Business designation. Jack Spiegel
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Eleven years ago, Jimmy Nigg opened the Monkey Barrel at 1611 Platte Street, after putting hundreds of thousands of dollars into renovating the space. He'd only been in business for two years when his landlord sold the building to a Seattle-based developer and bought out his lease for $250,000.

Nigg asked the city for help relocating, but didn't hear back. When he found a new spot at 4411 Tejon Street, he reached out to the city again...but officials stonewalled his initial request for a cabaret license.

Now that the Monkey Barrel has been named a Legacy Business, however, Nigg finally feels like the city is listening to him.

"We have the City of Denver in our corner to help us keep this business going for generations," he says. "What the City of Denver has told us through this designation is that they appreciate the contributions that we made to the community."

Denver Economic Development & Opportunity launched the Legacy Business program at the start of this year with a pilot project of ten businesses. On April 15, DEDO named the second round of recipients, including Little Man Ice Cream, Great Divide Brewing Company and the Monkey Barrel.

Following the lead of San Francisco and other cities, DEDO started the program as a way to recognize small businesses that make significant contributions to the community and help them with training programs and tool kits. It set up some specific criteria — a candidate must have been in business for at least ten years, have a brick-and-mortar location and be "compliant with all tax authorities," for example — and then opened up the application process.

According to Adeeb Khan, executive director of DEDO, over 100 businesses were considered for the second round of designations; some applied and others were nominated. (Nigg says he doesn't know who nominated the Monkey

"We tend to weigh those businesses that have been in their neighborhoods and been in business for a long time a little bit more," Khan says. "We really prioritize those businesses that go above and beyond."

Nigg and his partners went above and beyond when they moved the original Monkey Barrel. Nigg had planned to invest $150,000 in a restoration of the Sunnyside space, but that number nearly doubled.

"We wanted to make the new space feel like the old space, and we had hoped that a lot of our customers that were coming from Platte Street were going to follow us up to Sunnyside," he recalls.
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The Wreck-it-Ralph-themed liquor shelf was part of the original Monkey Barrel.
Jack Spiegel
Many of them did.

When the new Monkey Barrel opened in 2016, regulars spotted the Wreck-it-Ralph-themed shelf from the original location above the handmade bar. Nintendo 64 gaming consoles sat at each booth, and nearly a dozen pinball machines lined the wall of the Monkey Barrel's dining room...not that there was any dining in the beginning.

Prior to COVID, the Monkey Barrel only served drinks, no food, but pandemic-era regulations did not permit bars that only served drinks to open for in-person service until the spring of 2021. Since the Monkey Barrel already had a kitchen that had occasionally been leased out but was empty during the pandemic, Nigg began cooking in his mother-in-law's kitchen during Thanksgiving 2020 and developed a menu that allowed the bar to reopen.

Today, the signature dish is his cheeseburger with fries. "Where else in Denver can you get a burger and fries for under $10?" Nigg asks.

With food available, business boomed. "Every year since the pandemic, sales have exceeded $1 million," Nigg says.

He and his partners would like to keep the Monkey Barrel in its current home. (When they were looking at the property, the landlord was also looking at a deal to knock down the building and create apartments.) The Legacy Business designation could help with that.

"One of the intentions of a Legacy Business program is not only to recognize and honor them, but hopefully to prevent displacement of that business," says Joanne Greek, DEDO's small-business program manager. By keeping the business in place, the program can also help the community of employees it creates.

And how the business treats its employees is a primary consideration when considering Legacy Business candidates, she adds: "Are they considerate of employees that may have family members at home that they need to care for? Do they have flexible work hours? Do they pay a living wage? Do they offer opportunities to use transit?"

For Rob Leicht — bartender, barback, server, busser and everything in between — the Monkey Barrel is more than just a workplace. "Just looking around, you've got all the memorabilia, the pinball machines, the N64," Leicht says. "This would be the type of bar that I would hang out at, for sure."
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The Monkey Barrel is home to over a dozen pinball machines and gaming consoles.
Jack Spiegel
If Leicht wanted to sit behind a desk all day filing paperwork, he says, he would — but working as a bartender is all about the daily human interactions.

"I'd say 50 percent of our guests are all regulars, so you get to know people on a personal level," Leicht adds. "All those people are regulars that I know by name, and they know me by name, even though I've only been here four weeks."

They come for the community, and they also come for the comedy. The Monkey Barrel hosts an open-mic night every Thursday, as well as sporting event watch parties. Since the bar now has that cabaret license, Nigg also likes to elevate new artists in Denver by giving them a stage in his dining room and giving patrons a live show. The March Divide, Jen Howard and Beastie Brunch all have upcoming performances slated at the bar.

When Monkey Barrel regular Mitch McNamara moved to Denver knowing no one, he wanted a go-to spot to watch football on Sundays. "I used to live down the street in the neighborhood and met a lot of people here, and it just became a repetition every Sunday for football," he recalls.

While he appreciates the other regulars, McNamara says the staff is the main reason he keeps coming back. "The staff is so great. Every place is going to have its bumps in the road, but at the end of the day, they take care of you and make sure you have the best experience possible," he says.

That's what makes the Monkey Barrel a true Legacy Business, Nigg says, and he's hoping that the bar will be able to stay in the same space and serve the same community for years to come.

There's less than three years left on his lease, and Nigg is hoping to buy the property from his landlord. He's also planning to apply for a small-business loan from DEDO to make that possible.

"Ultimately, I hope that the Legacy program leads to me owning this property, which is something I've been trying to do since I first signed a lease," Nigg concludes.

And that would be a true legacy.
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