Early last year, just before the pandemic shutdowns, many event spaces and restaurants in Siouxland had just closed the books on a banner year and were expecting more of the same.
One relatively young live music venue on Historic 4th Street, The Marquee, had been humming along since their opening in May of 2017. “We were just cranking ‘em out, national shows, regional shows, local shows, I had everything booked up until about August 2020,” says The Marquee co-owner Mitch Martin. “Normally we book 3 months out. At that time I was booking out 6-8 months in advance and everything was looking great,” Martin said.
At the time there was really no way of knowing what was in store for this community, and certainly no idea of how it would affect the events industry.
“Come February 2020 we started hearing rumblings of a global pandemic. And then I remember hearing that New York (had) shut down, and then Illinois shut down, and then it was like, we’re on our way here,” he explained. It was clear that the shutdowns were moving inland.
“Then on March 17,” he continues, “which is historically our second busiest night of the year – St. Patty’s Day – we got the word that we had to shut down by 12pm. I shouldn’t have been in shock because I had been watching it happen to other states, but I was just in shock.”
As I write this it is officially just shy of one year later, February 2021, and Martin now stands behind his bar in a black hoodie with a matching buff around his neck. He asks me if I would like a glass of water and I accept with appreciation. I can see that it’s been a challenging year for him, but I can also tell that he’s proud to be where he is right now.
After what has now been a full year of unexpected twists and turns, it’s safe to say that major shifts are now just par for the course. Martin and his co-owners, Kelly and Nikki Quinn and Martin’s wife, Emily, have all had to act quickly, decisively and with intention in order to keep things afloat.
“You have to be able to diversify and pivot, to recognize that we have to do something different if we are going to survive,” he explained.
And pivot they did. Shortly after the shutdown it was announced that the state of Iowa would relax their liquor laws to allow drinking establishments to sell pre-batched and to-go cocktails. This presented a new revenue opportunity for The Marquee and others with similar business models in town.
“We’d been doing these Ultimate Bloody Mary’s with our house mix since we opened in 2017. Probably around fall of 2019 is when we did our first MitchSlap (Bloody Mary Mix), and then the shut-down happened and we were really looking for a source of revenue, we had nothing coming in,” says Martin.
Once things really got moving, The Marquee was scrambling to keep up with demand for their premade MitchSlap Bloody Mary kits. “It would usually range between 75-100 kits. Those were in addition to the other drinks going out as well as cocktails to-go,” he says.
“We were seeing people come in that had never been to the Marquee before, and saw our giant bloody mary with all this food on it on our Facebook page and just wanted to give it a shot. So it was really cool”, Martin says. His namesake bloody mary mix line now includes Regular, Spicy, Spicy Pickle, and Jalapeno Bacon flavors, all bottled and wax-sealed by hand at The Marquee.
Recently, with the success of to-go items including canned cocktails, he’s added MitchSlap Marinara and MitchSlap Chili Starter mixes. ”All you have to do is brown some hamburger and put some beans in it and you’ve got a pot of chili. And our Marinara sauce, which is a recipe that I already like to make for my family, now includes a touch of MitchSlap,” he says.
“My wife hates it because I’m experimenting all of the time. She’s like, can we please not have something tomato based today?” he says with a laugh.
At this point, I’m most interested in better understanding how I can get my “go-to” Bulleit Rye Old Fashioned “to-go”.
“We make them all doubles,” Martin says, “because it’s a larger can, so it’s essentially two drinks. We’ll make the drink in the shaker like normal, we pour it into a can, seal it with our crowler machine, slap a label on it, you take it home and pour it over ice, and you’ve got your old fashioned.” Sounds pretty slick to me. But what if cocktails to-go and gargantuan Bloody Mary’s are not your thing?
“We’re doing Sunday Fun-day and I was starting to get people ordering all of the food on the Bloody Mary with whatever brunch drink they really wanted. So [I thought] let’s do a Mimosa with a ton of breakfast food on it. Instead of a slider, a breakfast sandwich and a french toast stick. It’s a quick brunch and a drink in one. We call it Marquee Mark and the Funky Brunch,” Martin says with a laugh.
When asked about other innovations and collaborations that have been helping to drive revenue during the shutdown, Martin is quick to bring up his Coffee & Cocktails collab with Alex Paulsen, owner of Nightingale Coffee. “We do this the last Sunday of every month. Alex has been really open to ideas and he’s very innovative. Every month it gets better and better,” he says.
As a sample of what types of drinks to expect, Martin offers up the Cold Fashioned as a favorite: a coffee-based take on an Old Fashioned that includes Cold Brew Coffee, Bulleit Bourbon, Bitters, and Simple Syrup, and is available to go along with the rest of the specialty menu.
When asked to find a few positives to take away from this challenging time, Martin is quick to mention community support as first on his list.
“Community support has been the #1 positive. Sioux City, per capita, the support they have for local business is unmatched in my opinion. I think they’ve really shown that they can support and help small businesses survive during this time. We’re very fortunate,” he says.
And what is Martin most looking forward to in the coming year?
“We will continue to do cocktails to-go. As the vaccines start rolling out and people are feeling better about things we’ll bring back more live music,” he says.
“I’m just excited to hit the ground runnin and make it happen this year,” Martin says as I begin to pack up my things. “I’d rather be having shows with people hanging out, but we’ve proven that we will make it happen either way.”
Good to know!
IOWA TO-GO COCKTAIL RULES: The rules prohibit the sale of mixed drinks or cocktails to-go in paper or Styrofoam cups, or plastic cups that are intended for one-time use. Lids with straw holes or sipping holes are also prohibited.
Containers of mixed drinks or cocktails to-go also must bear a seal that makes it apparent when that seal has been tampered with. The types of sealing methods allowed under the rules are heat shrink wrap bands around the cap or lid, twist-top caps that break apart when the container is opened, or vacuum or heat-sealed pouches containing the mixed drink or cocktail.
Adrian Kolbo, Host of the web-series Sioux City Foodie and local F&B fanatic.