Bobbing and Weaving

When Kaskaid Hospitality opened Union, we all knew it was an ambitious project.

stephanie march

When Kaskaid Hospitality opened Union, we all knew it was an ambitious project. Beyond the fact that it was steps away from Kaskaid’s freshly opened downtown Crave, it encompassed three levels with three distinct spaces, one of which had a retractable rooftop guaranteed to be buzzy. There was also the fact that it was the company’s first bona fide attempt to establish some serious food cred by handing the kitchen over to Tim McKee protégé Jim Christiansen and the drinks program to La Belle Vie barman Johnny Michaels.

It opened to general critical acclaim, we loved it, and the rooftop seemed jam-packed with a win. But then Johnny Michaels rather disappeared from the bar menu in the basement as Marquee became more about clubbing than cocktails. At some point the main dining room closed for the early part of the week, apparently to create more space opportunities for private parties. Then Christiansen announced his departure to go work on a smaller project in which he would be part owner.

Suddenly things appeared to be spinning in the wrong direction for the team, which had previously seemed to find gold in everything it touched. What was the deal? Some people thought the menu was too ambitious and technique-driven for good execution on such a large scale. Others thought the company’s fan base didn’t dig the fancier food at higher prices and bailed for neighboring Crave.

Whatever the case may be, the answer seemed to be “change.” The main room was recently rebranded as Union Fish Market, with a new menu emphasizing daily, fresh, sustainable seafood. What does that do to its food cred? Jamie Malone at Sea Change is certainly buffing her chops and getting national attention on that very idea. More importantly, does Kaskaid care any longer? I think it did something very smart. Instead of gambling on another big-name chef with a hot resume who might again exit for better opportunities, taking the cred along, Kaskaid went for a fix it knew it could execute. It’s a volatile time in the industry. I wonder about the economics of creating something for your own glory versus knowing what your market wants. It’s a tough lesson learned, and Kaskaid isn’t the first to learn it, nor will it be the last.

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