Gutsy call: Despite pandemic challenges, new bars opening in Des Moines

Special Reports

DES MOINES, Iowa — Just south of the Polk County Courthouse in downtown Des Moines, the jury is out. Has Nick Tillinghast finally overplayed his hand?

“Three projects in six months is a lot!” he laughs.

Secret Admirer, at 110 SW 5th Street, is actually his fourth bar in four years. But his first with an outdoor space.

“We don’t currently have a patio,” Tillinghast says of his three established bars, Hello Marjorie, Good News Darling, and Bellhop, “and we were seeing the current hospitality-scape that patios were all the rage.”

Sixteen blocks west at 2120 Ingersoll Avenue, there’s a patio at every angle. Zora has three of them — not to mention two rooftop decks, two big bars, a $15,000 overhead light, and one giddy general manager.

“I’m just excited,” says a smiling Jose Aquino. “I’m excited to bring this to everybody.”

And how can you blame him? When it’s finished, this $5 million project will turn one of the city’s dead corners into one that’s full of new life.

“DJs downstairs and a live band up here on the rooftop,” he adds.

But wait a minute. I thought we were in a pandemic! With a Delta variant! And winter approaching! Does this seem like a risky time to open a new bar?

“I know that we’re going through a hiccup right now,” says Tillinghast, “but it’s not going to stop the momentum that we have.”

Both places say they’ll heat their patios to extend the season and be prepared to fall back on carryout items should things get worse. But what about staff? Hasn’t that been an even bigger problem?

“I actually just had three interviews today,” Aquino claims. “I have five more. And yesterday was no different.” Aquino says Zora’s curb appeal is making his place stand out from the others looking to hire. It’s that simple.

“It’s a sexy building!” he says.

In hiring for Secret Admirer, Tillinghast has a simple solution of his own.

“We do pay our folks very well for the business that we’re in,” he says. “We’re actually able to offer our full-time employees health insurance, as of this week.”

Pay, patios, and sex appeal. These might be two new bars, but those are three old concepts in the bar industry. But will it be enough for uncertain times?

“I think the next 10 weeks are gonna be big,” Tillinghast admits.

Running an expensive new bar at a tough time certainly puts pressure on the likes of Aquino and his staff. “A lot of pressure!” he laughs.

Secret Admirer is already open and Zora is set to open soon.

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