And so the bar at 1526 Blake Street will pour its last drink on October 10.
Brass Tacks opened in February 2019 in the former home of the Blake Street Vault and quickly became a favorite for its fun spins on craft cocktails served up in a hip yet casual atmosphere. Katsumi Yuso Ruiz and Stephen Julia of Denver Central Market's Curio Bar were behind the project, along with Mercantile alum Jensen and chef Zach Spott. "We were on a really positive trajectory before COVID," Jensen recalls.
Yuso Ruiz, Julia and Jensen had also opened Roger's Liquid Oasis at Edgewater Public Market in November 2019. That outpost and Curio are anchored by food halls and located away from central downtown, which gave the bars a fighting chance. Business has been "very consistent and resilient" at those locations, Jensen explains. But not so at Brass Tacks.
Prior to the pandemic, Brass Tacks attracted a varied clientele. "Definitely a lot of people who worked in office buildings, and a lot of them haven't returned," Jensen says. "We had a lot of hospitality-industry regulars, and a lot of those people moved away from the industry...concert-goers, sports, things like that."
Suburbanites who once frequented downtown bars and restaurants and tourists exploring the area have not returned, either. "There's a lot of great neighborhoods in Denver that have a lot going on right now," he adds, "and unfortunately, I don't feel like downtown is really one of those areas."
While Brass Tacks has always had food on the menu, the cocktails remained the main draw. So when bars were forced to close for indoor service in March 2020 and again in November of that year, it was all but impossible for the establishment to generate any revenue. While booze to go was allowed with the intent of helping to ease the impact on businesses like Brass Tacks, "it's just really no substitute for being in a bar with people," Jensen notes. "It was honestly a big waste of time and money and resources."
Another challenge: the increase in violence downtown combined with an uptick in general bad behavior from crowds seemingly trying to make up for lost time by going "buck wild" this summer. "We actually ended up closing an hour earlier," Jensen says. "We were concerned about the safety of our staff. ... Over the summer, it really felt like every other week we were having just hordes of very poorly behaved drunk people that maybe forgot how to be out in a public space."
Hospitality workers have always been on the front line of dealing with difficult guests, but the pandemic seems to have exacerbated that challenge. "I think, unfortunately, a lot of people's frustration with shutdowns, COVID, the economic situation, employment status — all of those sorts of things boiled over, and bars and restaurants kind of caught themselves in the crossfire of all of that cultural tension," Jensen explains.
He thinks the bad guest behavior he's witnessed at Brass Tacks is indicative of a larger trend in hospitality, and a major factor in why so many industry employees have left. "I think we all had this hope that people would realize how important restaurants are to our communities and our society and our culture and come out of it with more respect and appreciation for people that work in hospitality," Jensen says. "I think that we found that the vast majority of patrons really continue to take those people for granted and don't appreciate the work that they do or the time and effort that they put into showing people a great experience."
Lunchboxx at Denver Central Market, chef JV Hernandez took over the kitchen, debuting a menu that included some higher-priced entrees. The intent was to make the bar a destination for dinner, too, with people staying for a multi-course experience instead of just grabbing a cocktail before heading elsewhere for the main event. "We feel good about the changes we made on the food front," Jensen notes. "But again, we just ran into inconsistent volume downtown. [The pandemic] really just changed the landscape of downtown."
With colder weather approaching, the Brass Tacks owners finally made the call to close. "Winter is a bit of an unknown variable at this point with COVID," Jensen explains. With so many restaurants hiring at the moment, the team felt that shutting down now would also give the bar's current staff plenty of opportunity to find new positions elsewhere.
But in the meantime, the team wants to give Brass Tacks a proper sendoff. The last day of service, October 10, will be an evening of welcoming former staff and old friends for one more drink before Jensen, Yuso Ruiz and Julia turn their attention to Roger's and Curio and take a well-deserved mental break to regroup. "Hopefully we can go out on a positive note," Jensen says.