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What’s going on in the Des Moines hospitality industry that fits in this brave new prophecy?

By Jim Duncan

Experience is the new gold. Just as Boomers replaced the Industrial Age with the Information Age, Millennials are supplanting the material girl with the experiential metrosexual. A new segment of the stock market has emerged to take advantage. “Experiential stocks” are picked to profit as consumers seek experience instead of merchandise for their Benjamins.
A Kansas City company represents the vanguard of this movement. EPR Properties is a trust that invests in amusement parks, movie theaters, ski resorts and other entertainment properties. Cruise lines, vineyards, charter schools, museums and casinos are also regarded as key parts of this movement. Some of the more daring plays of the group are the belief that movie theaters will thrive despite the competition of streaming services and that tourism is indomitable despite pandemics, wars and political repression. Both plays are based on the existential human need to experience, which needs company.
So, what’s going on in the Des Moines hospitality industry that fits in this brave new prophecy? Obviously, we have some of the things that define the experiential sector —  amusement parks and vineyards that double as entertainment venues for weddings and corporate parties. The latter also have tasting rooms, because the experience seeker doesn’t drink alone. Some movie theaters now offer food and tavern experiences. We have theme parks and a casino with hotels and multiple dining options.
We also have more homegrown ventures that fit the category — steakhouses where the customer is also the chef, pick-your-own orchards and berry patches, and sports bars that include bowling, simulated golf and all manner of added amenities. Let’s explore some local takes of experiential hospitality.

Evolution of the sports bar
Sports bars were one of the original meeting places for dining and experience. Originally, they were created to simulate Las Vegas sportsbooks. Some even included bamboo newspaper racks with several daily papers, usually only sports pages. Some had ticker tapes, which evolved into electronic scoreboards.
Sports bars are ubiquitous in Des Moines now; only Mexican restaurants have added more new venues this century. Many specify teams they support and serve menus that appeal to their fans. Truman’s is a Kansas City sports bar. Half a dozen places show Chicago love. Rico’s is a Raider bar, which is as much a lifestyle as a team. Front Row is actively Hawkeye oriented. Sweet Caroline’s is named after the Cyclone game song. Most are more catholic. Others have niches with fans of other sports. Gerri’s is big on NASCAR. Both Keg Stand and Royal Mile are soccer bars. At Royal Mile, the popular upstairs area is reserved for fans of the team who spent the most money there on previous occasions.
Sports bars serve remarkably similar menus in general. Wings, nachos, burgers, pizza and chili are prerequisites. Some get more interesting. Club Grille at Copper Creek is attached to a golf course. Range Restaurant + Cocktail Bar offers a steakhouse menu that includes prime, wagyu and bison offerings. They also have simulated golf with access to the greatest golf courses in the world.
Prairie Meadows Racetrack & Casino runs horses, camels, zebras and ostriches on a track of its own. Their sportsbook is Las Vegas class. Their AJ’s Steakhouse is, too, with USDA Prime steaks, locally sourced foods and elegant trappings. One can get close enough to the horses in the paddock to smell them. When it completely reopens after pandemic controls, their Champions will again be the best buffet in Iowa. The casino now accommodates nonsmokers.
Pizza and buffets are experiential restaurant types because both are designed for sharing. Some sports bars specialize in pizza by style. Parlor in Beaverdale is all about Detroit style, with cheese burnt into crusts. They also engage customers with shuffleboard tables. Woody’s adds karaoke, a purely experiential invention, and live entertainment. Tullpa adds karaoke as well as a Peruvian dance club.
The Hall pushes experience in as many ways as any place. They have Hymns & Beer nights when people come to sing church music while drinking. Rock, Paper, Scissors tournaments have drawn the attention of Gov. Kim Reynolds, who showed up to play without her usual bodyguards. Bingo nights and trivia contests, both with large prizes, draw big crowds. All the indoor seating is at picnic tables to encourage people to share experiences. They have whole pig roasts for the same reason.
Hunting might be a lonesome endeavor, but wild game feasts are anything but that. Cyd Koehn of Cyd’s Catering specializes in preparing wild game for hunters who like to share. She has cooked beaver, elk, bear, elephant, kangaroo, Cape buffalo, springbok, alligator, crocodile, wild turkey, wild goose, wild javelina, birds of many feathers, and “more kinds of deer than I knew existed.”
One of the most difficult things she ever had to find?
“I was in Arkansas cooking for fishermen and hunters. I thought it would be easy to just go buy basics like butter at the local market. I had to drive 40 miles; apparently margarine is so much more popular in Arkansas that butter is a rare species.”
Like movie theaters and independent bookstores, bowling alleys are coming back. It’s not just nostalgia. The alleys have been reviving themselves by embracing the experiential zeitgeist. Before a tragic fire took them down, Plaza Lanes had added volleyball courts that simulated beach ball, arcades, expanded dining and full sports bar opportunities. Gameday Lanes in Merle Hay Mall is a “state-of-the-art” bowling facility with a full arcade, pool tables and table service dining. Families can buy packages that include everything offered, and late nights are lit up with “cosmic bowling” and a happy hour that runs till midnight.
Except for narcissistic types, romance is experiential, wherever you find it. That’s why restaurants have so many two-top tables. Other restaurants follow the belief that romance is that which transports the diner to another time or place. Hessen Haus is German to its Black Forest core, with the best German menu in all Iowa, including Manning where street signs are in German. Royal Mile has a menu of English pub fare. Mullets is Dixie hearted. High Life Lounge and Drake Diner are set in middle America, 60 years ago. Proudfoot & Bird has an underground speakeasy that revives the Roaring Twenties.

Wine is just fermented grape juice until you share it, then it’s an experience. Iowa wineries are doing just fine, not because of the state’s terroir, climate or history, but because people need to experience wine with others. The more the merrier, whether you are counting people or glasses. Tasting rooms are essential to wineries. Cooper’s Hawk has taken that thinking to a new level. It makes its own Illinois wine and sells it exclusively in its restaurants, wine rooms and bars. They have more than 500,000 wine club members. They sell food to pair with wine, not the other way around. Their new place in Clive is a marvel of “build it and they will come” thinking.
Wineries also realize lots of their income by doubling as event centers. Lots of brides like the idea of getting married in a vineyard, and Iowa wineries accommodate them with beautiful lodges, cellars and even B&Bs to pair with the vineyards. Koehn, who has catered weddings at a dozen central Iowa wineries, praises them all. The best?
“I hate that question. There are so many that are superb, romantic, professional hosts. Jasper does stand out; they are right in Des Moines and they have everything a caterer needs, even tents.”

Do it yourself
One of central Iowa’s original experiential dining ideas was the “cook-it-yourself” steakhouse. Rube’s in Montour promoted this with their own herd of cattle. Today, they even sell their steaks to other steakhouses. The “cook-it-yourself” idea was so popular that people from Des Moines, and even Chicago, drove to Montour on weekends, so much that the restaurant expanded to the point where it now takes up an entire square block of downtown Montour. They also have a place in Waukee and another in the Meskwaki Hotel and Casino in Tama. Iowa Beef Steakhouse in Des Moines is of the same tradition. Few customers prefer to let an expert chef cook their steaks compared to the numbers who want to stand over a pit of coals and watch the searing while listening to the sizzle.
Vines to Wines in Sherman Hill helps winemakers make their own wine, without any mess.

What else can restaurants do to be more experiential? It would take more labor, but bringing back the tableside Caesar salad is a move in that direction. That marvelous creation from Mexico, not Italy, is still practiced far more often south of the border than north. It’s interactive theater with the diner watching raw eggs, olive oil, anchovies, mustard, garlic, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice dress their fresh lettuce and its very best friends. It’s been a lost art in Iowa since the 1960s. Dining in the dark could be revived. The Des Moines Social Club tried to promote that because blind dining is a heightened sensual experience.
Maybe, as Oscar Wilde said, “Experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes.” Or maybe we should trust our blind faith in dining experiences. After all, as Mark Twain said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail will learn something he can experience in no other way.”

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