SafeHouse, the spy-themed bar-restaurant-nightspot hybrid that’s been a Milwaukee mainstay for the last 50 years, opened its first new outpost this month. Though the new Chicago location is in a tourist-heavy neighborhood that’s already home to eatertainment giants like Hard Rock Cafe and Rainforest Cafe, it stands out for its commitment to the bit.
All guests, for example, must know the password to enter. If not, they must perform some sort of mildly embarrassing task that’s broadcast via CCTV on screens around the establishment.
“We don’t want to fall into the traps of the typical theme restaurant,” says Peggy Williams-Smith, who was promoted to SVP of Marcus Corp. last year to shepherd the SafeHouse Restaurant brand (her business card lists her as “Agent Blonde”). “We are a refuge for spies. We are part restaurant; we’re part history lesson,” she says.
Marcus Corp., a Milwaukee-based hotel and restaurant operator, took ownership of the original SafeHouse in 2015. The 6,500-square-foot Chicago location in the basement of the AC Hotel is the brand’s guinea pig for future expansion, Williams-Smith says. “We want to see if this concept works on its own, without the 50-year legacy,” she says. “Then, my job is to identify the next two locations.”
The operation, which hosts its official grand opening at the end of March, is already logging weekend waits and is seeing early check averages around $36, she says. Saturday nights at the Milwaukee unit regularly have two-hour wait lists.
SafeHouse treads the fine line between cool and kitsch. Agent RB infiltrated the operation to uncover some of its state secrets.
1. Commit to staff training
All front-of-house employees of Chicago’s SafeHouse attended "spy camp" before opening. Marcus contracted with an outside consultant to offer a month of partial-day trainings on every aspect of the operation, from the basic foodservice information every server should know to site-specific intel, including historical notes on all of the spy and military memorabilia throughout the restaurant. Employees at the Milwaukee location will go through spy camp as well. Some of the learnings: It’s not “dining,” it’s “a mission”; silverware is “weapons of mass consumption”; and all diners are “agents” who are addressed by their agent name.
2. Look for monetization opportunities everywhere
Building out a themed restaurant is expensive. (Marcus Corp., a publicly held company, declined to give the cost for the SafeHouse Chicago buildout.) So, ferreting out covert moneymaking opportunities is essential. Nearly every person who enters Chicago’s SafeHouse, for example, opts to pay an extra $1 to leave through the “secret” exit. Groups can pay $50 for the Hail to the Chief/Her Majesty’s Secret Service experience, in which one member of the party (typically a bachelor/bachelorette or birthday celebrant) is taken to a small room, strapped into a chair and asked embarrassing questions before being spun around onto the dance floor. The whole thing is broadcast on TVs for friends to watch. In the future, the operation will likely institute a per-table minimum to reserve the coveted Cone of Silence booth and the semi-private Seduction Lounge, Williams-Smith says.
3. Make retail central to the operation
Retail (mostly branded T-shirts) has not been a big profit center for SafeHouse Milwaukee, so Marcus is trying to beef up the retail experience in Chicago with trendier items, like on-point spy-themed shirts featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin. Each table is given a “mission,” a scavenger hunt that takes them around the concept and eventually leads them to the small retail area. Those who complete the mission get a coupon toward retail merchandise.
4. Maximize dayparts
Both SafeHouse locations are family-friendly during the day, actively encouraging kids to explore the interactive concept while parents enjoy a beer or a cocktail. After 8 p.m. in Chicago, though, kids are no longer admitted. And after 10 p.m., the host stand turns into a DJ booth, and seating near the bar is removed to reveal a lighted dancefloor. “At night, we want to become the shagadelic dance party,” Williams-Smith says. (They also charge a cover—aka “spy clearance fee.”)
5. Think beyond tourists
Locating in tourist-centric areas is a no-brainer, Williams-Smith says. But if that’s your only market, you’re missing out, she adds. SafeHouse Chicago is in an area populated by daytime office workers and a growing number of local residents. The team invited area business owners and condo associations to opening events and is working at adding a loyalty function to the SafeHouse mobile app.
6. Make waiting fun—and profitable
While waiting for a table, guests are invited to order drinks and go on a reconnaissance mission (basically, a scavenger hunt) for a self-guided tour around the operation. Marcus hired a designer who worked on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., to ensure that there are plenty of spy- and military-themed artifacts to hold customers’ attention from all six of the concept’s sections, including two bars, a dining room, a semi-private lounge, a dance floor and a “spybrary” seating area. For the particularly curious, there are a lot of surprising Easter eggs: Lift the strategically placed fig leaf on the Daniel Craig centerfold in the women’s restroom and see what happens, for example. A magician also performs at the bar and at tables Tuesdays through Sundays.
7. Don't forget the food
The original Milwaukee SafeHouse was beloved despite its reputation for subpar food. In Chicago, Marcus has a bigger kitchen that churns out large portions of classic American bar grub, and the company has opted to upgrade the menu with hand-breaded cheese curds, prime rib roasted in-house, and housemade dressings and sauces. They’re hoping higher-quality food will attract repeat business. “You need consistency to build a brand,” Williams-Smith says.