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The making of a tiki bar – behind the scenes at Grass Skirt Tiki Room

Anne Evans Anne Evans The making of a tiki bar – behind the scenes at Grass Skirt Tiki RoomA tropical paradise with the hula girl in front of the waterfall feature. Photo by Jim Renauld.
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Grass Skirt Tiki Room has likely been one of the most highly anticipated bars to open in Columbus since the Kahiki. What is it that people just love about the Tiki culture? The tropical fantasies? The colorful drinks? The crazy tiki mugs? The romantic music?

Grass Skirt logo sketch by Bryan “Bam Bam” Grey.

“Opening a tiki bar has been a longtime dream of Carmen’s,” says co-owner Elizabeth Lessner. “It was in a Tiki bar in Las Vegas where she and Tim Lessner came up with this crazy place.”

Owens elaborates on her favorite parts about Tiki culture:

As a restaurateur with an Anthropology major with an art history minor, Tiki hits this gorgeous sweet spot for me that is intersection of the Venn diagram of so many things I love: absurdism, surrealism, escapism, cocktail culture, tropical flavor profiles, hospitality, primitive art and culture, tropical plants, the smell of suntan lotion on beautiful ladies, warm weather, sunshine.

Like many of the components and followers of Tiki, I’m happiest in a sunny, beachy climate. Preferably with a fresh rum drink in hand and my toes in the sand. So bringing something like this to my generally overcast hometown has been incredibly special.

“I can’t say enough about the fact that the best part about this has been making friends with a great group of people, who would ALSO like to live in a tropical fantasy-land and drink rum,” she continues. “Lots and lots of rum.”

Part of the Tiki Dream Team – Amy Brennick, Tim Lessner, and Carmen Owens. Photo by Walker Evans.

The co-owners of Grass Skirt are Carmen Owens, Amy Brennick, Tim Lessner, Elizabeth Lessner, and Harold LaRue. Owens serves as Managing Partner and she and Brennick (Co-Manager) have been the most heavily involved with the design and concept of the project. Tim Lessner worked on the development of the food menu and equipping the kitchen.

Amy Brennick has been a part of the restaurant group for ten years and serves as the co-founder of the Columbus Food League (CFL). Grass Skirt is her first venture into being a partner in one of the restaurants.

“I love that the Columbus Food League gives individual restaurants in the city the same tools as the franchises,” says Brennick. “All of our restaurants feel the same.”

Brennick’s excitement as she discussed and showed off the different aspects of Grass Skirt was contagious and Owens found her to be a wonderful partner with the development and opening.

“Amy was an invaluable asset and my rock solid right-hand woman for everything from hiring to paint colors,” says Owens.

The Concept

Final logo art.

As Elizabeth Lessner mentioned, the concept for this bar was hatched in Las Vegas. Owens shares more on how Grass Skirt came about:

We usually have at least a few concepts floating around among Columbus Food League co-owners, some of which have been talked about for over 10 years. Around 2007, I staked my claim in Tiki as the next concept I would open after Surly Girl got a little more established. We took all the owners and managers to a restaurant seminar in Vegas in 2010. On our last night in town, a few of us went to Double Down Saloon, which Marcy Mays had said was one of her inspirations for Surly Girl Saloon’s first back room incarnation as a sort of fun, dark, rough-around-the-edges performance space. After many Ass Juices (the house specialty shot) and pictures of us crammed in the photo booth there, the bartender recommended that we go visit his wife who was bartending at the owner’s other concept, Frankie’s Tiki Room.

We walked in and were immediately greeted by a giant Tiki that smokes when you rub his penis! We were like kids in a funhouse – playing the carnival game, touching all the pufferfish lamps, watching old surf movies on TV, (I think someone took a quick nap in a cabana area?) and generally being enamored with the whole place.

Tim and I eventually bellied up to the bar and I ordered us all a round of shots that tasted just like suntan lotion smells, with a 160 proof rum float on top. I was so in love with them that I immediately tried to order another round, but the very kind and smart bartender refused to serve us another round for at least 20 minutes. In that intervening 20 minutes, and for many hours afterward, Tim and I plotted about how to make a Tiki bar happen when we got back home. The ensuing hangover made for a very unpleasant day of air travel, but it was absolutely worth it. So when Liz started talking to the landlords about the space at 105 N. Grant Ave, she approached us all at CFL about making it the Tiki bar.

Grass Skirt at 105 N. Grant Avenue. Photo by Walker Evans.

This is the first space that the team has built a kitchen from the ground up. Lara Ranallo from Surly Girl Saloon was heavily involved in the kitchen design. Harold LaRue worked on the logistics and and tech support. Elizabeth Lessner did much of work behind the scenes and in the public realm.

Lara Ranallo, left and Amy Brennick in the kitchen of Grass Skirt. Photo by Carmen Owens.

“There are a few major tikiphiles who’ve been the main reason that Grass Skirt is going to be able to approach any level of kickassness as a tiki bar,” shares Owens. “Matt “Kuku Ahu” Thatcher and Jimmy “Chisel Slinger” Robinson, co-founders of the Fraternal Order of Moai (FOM), have been the our go-to guys for the ultimate in tiki cocktail and tiki carving artistry, respectively.”

“When we heard about the Grass Skirt, I asked our national secretary to please reach out to them and ask if they would like our help,” says Thatcher. “After a some phone conversations and emails, a few of us met Amy and Carmen for dinner and cocktails at The Top and it was instant tiki magic. They had such a terrific vision and a real passion for it. We all just knew right then and there that we wanted to do whatever we could to help them make this work.”

Here’s a look at the talented folks that make up, in Matt “Kuku Ahu” Thatcher’s words, “a serious tiki dream team.”

Continue to page 2: Cocktails & Food

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