By Schuyler Putt | Staff Writer
Like a brand new transfer student – a little nervous, a little worried about what people will think, and a bit apprehensive about how others will act – 308 on State showed up at Purdue last semester. The shiny new 3 story bar and grill occupies the long-standing building between Brother’s and the colorful “Gumball Alley.” Plans for the brand new bar began after the departure of Orange Leaf from the western corner of the space (prompted by the sneezing-driver incident of March 2015).
Over the past several months, it has been obvious to observant Purdue bar-goers that 308’s attempt at market penetration has not been without its fair share of hiccups. No-wait entry to a sparsely-crowded 308 is a common Saturday night sight, even while close neighbors Brother’s and Harry’s boast lines dozens of people long.
According to Nick Keys, general manager of 308 on State, the challenges associated with starting from scratch were to be expected. He explained that his colleagues had to ask “How do you get someone who’s been going to Brother’s, Where Else, or Harry’s like clockwork for the past 2 to 3 years to check out something that’s brand new?” He cited the difficulties of name recognition, brand building, and finding a place for a new bar within a very niche scene. “College students are creatures of habit, creatures of tradition, there’s a certain something about all those [other] places, that is the reason they go there.”
Keys, who grew up in Lafayette, graduated from Ball State in 2005 with a degree in advertising. After rising through the ranks of the food and drink service industries for a decade, he met local construction moguls Shane and Margaret O’Malley. “Shane and Margaret are in the business of construction,” said Keys. “They took on this new endeavor, wanted to build a bar, then built a bar.”
But Nick wasn’t with them from the start. He was one of a few candidates for GM when the O’Malleys were preparing to open their new bar and grill, but his experience and passion made him the clear choice. “I talk like it’s a startup,” he explained. “You find something you’re passionate about, and then you start it.” Experienced from his stints in Indianapolis bars and restaurants, Keys was a wise choice, as no one in the group had ever actually started a bar before.
For people new to the watering hole business, the lack of constraints is both refreshing and overwhelming. “Think about the whole blank slate of a bar; we don’t even have an identity when we start,” Keys said. “It’s only called 308 because that was our address. We have to come up with a logo, with branding strategies, we have to figure out what our culture is here.”
308’s most apparent step in the direction of an identity is its three starkly different floors. The top floor, with its wooden tables and plush furniture, harkens back to a more civilized age. “It’s kind of like your old-school cigar bar, that you can’t smoke cigars in,” Keys explained with a chuckle. “You can go up there and get a Manhattan, you can get an Old Fashioned, you can have a conversation, you can watch the game.” He also cited the historical relevance of the top floor’s small stage, which is topped by the same planks that the Harlequin Club traversed during their performances a century ago, before the genesis of Purdue’s theater department.
Another focal point of the top-floor lounge is its strange restroom. “Based on the space that was available, and the way we had to put the elevator in,” Keys said, “the bathroom had to take on a unisex identity.” The unusual facility contains a standard toilet, three urinals, and a single sink, the idea being that groups of men would get in and out quicker than compared to a standard unisex restroom.
Perhaps most intriguing about the bathroom is the head-level window above the urinals that looks out into the bar area. “[The owners] thought it was funny, or it was a good idea, or it was a point of character to put in the one-way mirror,” Keys explained with a grin. “The problem is, if both sides are lit… you can see through both sides.” He noted that the staff have gotten plenty of positive and negative feedback about the window (which was temporarily covered in wrapping paper during the holidays), but are glad it has campus talking. “No PR is bad PR, right?”
Travel below-ground and you’ll feel like you’re in a completely different venue. “The night club in the basement, it’s pretty obvious what the intent is, that’s for parties,” Keys said of the bottom floor, which is complete with black lights, neon, and a dancing area. “We have VIP rooms down there, you can rent those out and get bottle service. We have DJs on the weekends down there; it’s basically your standard nightclub setting.”
The ground floor and kitchen are the heart of the bar. “The main floor is a restaurant setting, that’s our gathering spot,” Keys explained.
The culinary side of the business is of utmost importance to 308 on State. “It’s almost like rebranding [Chauncey] hill from a food perspective,” Keys said. “No one comes up here and says ‘Oh they have really great food up on the hill.’ We try to provide something that is a step above [the others].”
Beyond the normal fare of tacos, ribs, mozzarella sticks, and nachos, 308 has entered the business of higher quality burgers, flatbread pizzas, and special Friday prime rib. “If you have great prime rib, people will mark it on their calendar and be there every time you have it,” said Keys. “That’s something we’re trying to grow. Our goal is not just to satisfy the student body and be the bar where you come and party, our goal is to be the bar that everyone can come to from all around.”
Keys wants to dispel the fiction that 308’s three floors are intentional knock-offs of other campus bars. “Our business plan doesn’t involve being like any of [the other] bars. We happen to have three floors, and we happen to be able to do three different things, and it just so happens that three of our floors mimic bars that already exist on campus.” According to Keys, there is a specific niche as an event-hosting venue that sets 308 apart. “We have great food, and we’re able to provide space for rehearsal dinners, small weddings, holiday parties, and fraternity and sorority spontos.”
The most important thing for the brand new bar is that it’s flexible and that preformed ideas for what 308 should be don’t clash with the needs of the customers. “We can’t just press what we want onto the students, or West Lafayette, or across the bridge to Lafayette,” said Keys. “We have to go trial and error, see what the people like, match that with the way we want to represent ourselves, and find that happy medium.”
Despite all the passion and potential, the first few months of operation have not been without missteps. Rumors flew around campus on Halloween when 308 chose to charge a $5 cover in the evening. “That’s where [we] had to work out the kinks; it’s trial and error,” Keys said. “We felt that it was kind of standard for special events like that. We were throwing a haunted house, we put a lot of time and effort into it, and the cover was built in to help us pay for the help [required to] put on the event.”
Another challenge for a new bar is meeting the unique demands of the quirky and picky Purdue bar crowd, starting with the “breakfast club” tradition. “I think we missed the first one because we weren’t even open yet,” Keys explained, referring to the longstanding tradition of Purdue students hitting the bars in the early a.m. of home football game days. “The very next breakfast club we were open and [after that] we only missed Halloween.”
As 308 continues to find its footing, it will continue to evolve. Some of this evolution is physical, and the bar is about to take on an ambitious construction project. “We’re expanding into [former] Orange Leaf next door, [which will create] an updated bar on the main floor,” said Keys. The renovations, which should be finished by Grand Prix Week in late April of this year, will greatly expand the ground floor of the bar. The updated venue will have a first level similar to that of Harry’s Chocolate Shop across the street, and will include a long bar, booth seating, pool tables, and video games.
Keys denied rumors that further physical expansion beyond the former Orange Leaf space were imminent, joking “yeah, we plan to take over the whole campus, and make the whole campus a bar, and send 308 into McCutcheon Hall.”
“Our goal isn’t to just get big,” Keys said. “We’re not trying to put people out of business, we’re just here to play.”
There is a long and interesting road ahead for Purdue’s newest bar as its owners seek to forge an identity and economic success.
“It’s not an overnight thing. It’s something you have to continuously put hours and passion and work into.” Keys said of 308, which he considers a startup company. “You have to continue to struggle, you have to continue to fail so you can succeed and get positive results. Now we’re five months in, and we’re seeing a good positive incline from the beginning.”