Hospitality, evolving: Aspen market seen as proving ground for new Gala, Madame Ushi concept | Arts & Entertainment

It’s 1 a.m., and Saturday night is now Sunday morning in Aspen. Walking through the pedestrian mall on Hyman Avenue, the streets are quiet, dusted by snow and strung in lights. The town seems asleep.

But local night owls and frequent partygoers all know the silence is only an illusion. Beneath the town’s streets is where the music pulses and the people dance. Nightlife likes to thrive below ground — in places like Escobar, Sterling and Caribou — it’s an ongoing trend in Aspen’s club scene.

Joining the trend is a new venue on — or rather, below — the block.

Named Gala, after artist Salvador Dalí’s muse, the nightclub and its counterpart Japanese restaurant, Madame Ushi (also named to evoke femininity), have together taken over and transformed the former 7908 Supper Club space at 415 E. Hyman Ave. Two paired establishments that fall under the same Miami-based ownership, Gala and Madame Ushi officially opened on Dec. 29.

Since opening, the dual concept has remained somewhat low key in terms of any above-ground chatter about what’s going on in the venue. But down below, the two women-inspired venues have been quite active over the past couple months.

The energy at 1 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Gala is often palpable. Enclosed in a flow of moving lights and unfiltered sound, dancing is natural in the intimate space and time is no longer of the essence.

“I mean, when it’s going on in here, Aspen’s never had this kind of vibe before — it really hasn’t,” said Director of Operations John Bukac. “And with the sound and the attention to detail in here, it kind of makes your skin tingle a little bit on those nights in here.”

When it was 7908, the restaurant and nightclub areas were more of a merged and open space. Bukac explained how they closed in the wall between the two entities, separating the Madame Ushi restaurant and bar area from the Gala nightclub portion. It makes for a completely different feel and experience, Bukac said.

“You bring something like this, this room, to a town that the bar has never even really been set in terms of an elevated nightclub experience and people have been blown away,” Bukac said. “We’ve seen a ton of people come back — I’ve seen so many people walk back into this door three nights in a row — which has been, I mean for me, in this business, that’s like one of the best barometers you can use.”

Right place, right time

An Aspenite, Bukac was formerly involved with spearheading the Nakazawa pop-up concept in Aspen in December 2020, alongside Executive Chef Wei Chen — who first came to Aspen to run Nakazawa. Chef Wei is now leading the kitchen at Madame Ushi.

Bukac and Chef Wei became connected through Aspen Nakazawa and then continued their collaboration when carrying on the Nakazawa pop-up to other places, including iterations in Miami and Los Angeles.

It was when Chef Wei was running the pop-up in Miami a little over a year ago that he became connected with a man by the name of Mo Garcia.

A known veteran of the Miami nightlife scene — having been involved with projects such as LIV Nightclub at the Fontainebleau Hotel — Garcia happened to have his sights set on an Aspen project and was on the search for a chef to help him steer the ship when he ate at Nakazawa in Miami.

“Mo came in and tried the food, and it was love at first sight,” Chef Wei said.

Prior to discovering his ideal chef who would run the first Madame Ushi, Garcia explained how he and his business partner, Jojo Lahoud, had been spending some time away from their fast-paced Miami lives throughout the pandemic and were frequent visitors to Aspen.

During one of the Aspen visits, Garcia said they happened to meet the owners of the former 7908 Supper Club. The company — owned by the Souki Family Trust — was looking to make transitions at the time.

7908 closed last April to “rebrand and remodel,” according to reporting by The Aspen Times.

“We met the owners of the previous space, and they were thinking about, you know, maybe changing a concept and everything else,” Garcia said. “And we started having this conversation about doing a project here, without really knowing exactly what the concept was going to be; we just had somewhat of an idea that we were going to run Madame Ushi’s lounge.”

In the midst of these conversations surrounding a potential Aspen concept, Garcia noted that he and Lahoud had also just opened their first Gala nightclub in Miami and were seeing “great success.” The Gala in Miami has since ­operated as an exclusive and high-end ultra lounge, in which many celebrities have performed and have been pictured hanging out.

With the former 7908 space already set up in a way that could be two separate venues, Garcia and Lahoud had found their match for a space in which they could evolve their hospitality concept and test it in the Aspen market.

“I think the evolution of hospitality is the longer stay in one venue,” Garcia said. “Not so much of going from one place to dinner and to another place after, but almost having dinner and a night out all in the same place, I think, is the future of hospitality — it’s just a one-stop shop, at least that’s what we’re trying to do.”

While 7908 may already have had that all-in-one feel spatially, the Miami proprietors’ idea was to make the dining and clubbing experiences feel like two separate entities, yet still connected and complementing one another from a structural standpoint.

As these ideas were circulating over the last year, Bukac, in the meantime, was focused on another space in town, working to bring a multifaceted nightlife concept to the vacant building at 517 E. Hopkins Ave. Bukac was on the project for quite a while, and when it fell through, he said, the timing was “very serendipitous.”

Because it was around the same time that Chef Wei had signed on with Garcia to run his Madame Ushi restaurant in Aspen. Chef Wei called on his friend and former collaborator, Bukac, to join him and handle the operational side of things.

Garcia noted how Bukac’s involvement was crucial to the concept coming to fruition, especially with regard to staffing local employees — which the Miami establishment was able to do, Garcia said.

“The one thing I always got being an outsider coming into this small community was like, the heaviest lift is going to be employees because there’s a certain culture here, and there’s no way to force another culture into it,” Garcia said. “You know, so it has to be some form of familiarity with the people working here, and between Wei and John, their time here and John’s tenure here, we were able to really get a great staff.”

Collecting data

Garcia emphasized that in bringing Gala and Madame Ushi to Aspen, he’s fully invested in the local market. He said he and his partner signed a 10-year lease on the space, and with Aspen being their first go at the dual concept, Garcia sees this market almost as a model for how it could work in other places, he said.

In fact, the proprietors already have plans in the works to open a second Madame Ushi restaurant in Miami next to their existing Gala nightclub there. And they plan to expand their concept to more cities in the future, Garcia said.

“I think through the pandemic, just like Miami, Aspen had a rocket ship [of people] coming in, and there’s a lot of other big operators that have their eye on this city,” Garcia said. “And it’s just the natural progression of the elevation of hospitality in a market like this, because most of the market here is worldly and well-traveled, so it’s not like they don’t know what it is — it’s just a matter of offering it.”

Bukac chimed in on that point and said: “Aspen is such a proving ground to do this because you do have the top percent from every market in the country, every market in the world, that comes through here.”

On the Madame Ushi side of things, Chef Wei explained that through his and Bukac’s previous endeavors in Aspen’s culinary scene — both having worked at Nakazawa and Bukac also at Matsuhisa prior to that — they know how to offer a dining experience applicable to the Aspen crowd.

Chef Wei said he’s continually working to cultivate Madame Ushi’s menu as one that’s ­accessible to ­everybody and fine tune the items throughout this initial stage for the restaurant.

“A lot of it reads comfort food, but with a little bit of a twist on it that is ours,” Chef Wei said. “And as we grow the menu and get acclimated in town, I want to evolve it seasonally, obviously, but every single week that goes by, every single month, is more like a test in collecting data of what people like and just fine tuning.”

Bukac said he wants Madame Ushi’s name to be among the rotating list of elevated restaurants — noting Matsuhisa and Catch Steak as examples — that visitors tend to hit during their stay in Aspen.

“It’s this, you know, maybe a little different approach to fine dining,” Bukac said. “Take the white tablecloths off, make people feel comfortable, but still serve an excellent product with outstanding service and have everything A to Z be top-notch.”

Bukac isn’t ignorant, though, to the fact that an Aspen experience can come with a price. He expressed how prior to opening their doors, one of his biggest concerns was the potential of pricing out locals, he said, especially in Gala on big weekends.

“When I first moved to Aspen, the nightlife was … there were four to five places you could go by yourself on any given night and know you’re gonna know 20 or 30 people in there, you could sit down and have a drink and not worry about it — we’ve lost that,” Bukac said. “That was one of the first conversations I had with these guys: I want to take care of the locals; we want them to be part of it.”

Bukac then mentioned how he’s been happy to see local faces in the nightclub over the past two months, as Gala and Madame Ushi slowly integrate into the fabric of the Aspen community.

Femininity at its finest

Garcia also made a note about the importance of his concept embracing the local community, and of the Aspen community embracing it back. Since opening, having spent evenings down in the space himself, Garcia described how the vibe seems to be reciprocated between Madame Ushi and Gala — “both ladies seem to be complementing each other,” he said.

Garcia discussed in detail the names and auras of his two establishments, noting that Gala is named after Salvador Dalí’s muse, and in thinking about the essence of “a strong, powerful woman,” he said, he came up with Madame Ushi.

“At the end of the day, I am a firm believer in femininity when it comes to hospitality, especially branding — I feel that women dictate where men spend their money most of the time, especially in hospitality,” Garcia said. “I hope that’s not taken the wrong way, it’s just a constant, and I feel that if we market to women, men will follow. …

“So that’s the plan, to scale both of these women next to each other.”

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