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Saying farewell to Seán Heather's ambitious ode to classic drinking.
We heard this week that Open Outcry, Seán Heather’s attempt to give us a downtown watering hole with a chaser of history is closing—maybe temporarily, maybe not. We were brought back to a few years back when we were lucky enough to spend some time with Seán and with Phoebe Glasfurd of Glasfurd & Walker as they were in the final planning stages of how the space would turn out. Ultimately it’s one of the cruel lessons of the restaurant business — is that you can do everything right and sometimes it still doesn’t work. And that goes doubly so when there’s a global pandemic that closes bars, limits capacity and made our downtown look like a ghost town. Here’s our story from 2019.
“If I have a reputation, it’s as the guy who can open restaurants without hood vents,” says Seán Heather, recalling the defining characteristic that brought him to be standing on the main floor of the former Vancouver Stock Exchange at the corner of Pender and Howe late last year.
Heather, owner of Salt Tasting Room, as well as the Irish Heather and Shebeen Whisk(e)y House (all ventless, btw), was only a few blocks from his Gastown base, but he may as well have been in a different city. Those three establishments—all lacking the venting that would allow a full kitchen to operate—had been opened by Heather on his own. He did the menus, the design and, to the extent that he ever thought about “branding” (and one gets the sense he did not), he was in charge of that, too. “I was an Irish guy opening an Irish pub,” he recalls. “All I had to do was hang a shingle.”
But the stock exchange would be a whole different beast. For starters, he had partner: the Swiss bankers Credit Suisse, who had purchased the building and were looking for a tenant who could bring some excitement to the main floor—and they were willing to help fund something special. That meant Heather could indulge in a little assistance this time, in the form of Phoebe Glasfurd and her team at Glasfurd and Walker, the branding juggernauts who have put their stamp on a large swath of the new rooms that have opened in Vancouver over the past decade.
But as excited as Heather was to be able to call in the big guns, he was still a restaurateur who has enjoyed an unparalleled run with his rooms by trusting his instincts as to what works and what doesn’t with the fickle crowd of patrons.
And so, standing in the unfinished space of the historic building, he felt the tingle of unlimited potential: “I love history, and sitting in the room that was once a vaudeville theatre and then the (infamous) Vancouver Stock Exchange, I could immediately feel the decades of stories roll by as I walked the room, the fortunes that had been made and lost here. I was hooked,” he says.
He immediately dove into finding out everything he could about the building: anecdotes, background and the local characters that populated it. It was during this research that he came across a diagram showing the unique hand signals that traders would use to execute orders; he was taken not only by the similarity to those of a patron ordering a drink at a crowded bar but also by the colourful name. So when he and Glasfurd first sat down to discuss the project, he began with: “It’s going to be called Open Outcry.”
When Glasfurd is choosing a colour palette, she’s cognizant of the material palette and colours the interior design will use, but she also pulls directly from the reference material collected for the project: “The muted tones and colours were from the old members’ club tickets for speakeasies, the creams from a stock exchange ticker tape; the burgundy was rich, like the leathers of old bars, and the terracotta is something unique and distant that worked with these palettes, and we felt it was a good distinct look for the brand.”
While doing research on the history of the building, Heather came across these hand signals, which were the hidden language of the trading floor back in the day. He was immediately fascinated by them and fell in love with the language’s name: Open Outcry. The team integrated the idea of the hand signal into much of the collateral, creating images of a hand holding a drink, bridging the two worlds. They even went as far as creating a black-and-white short film that highlights the connection.
The building’s stock exchange history was well known, but in his research Heather discovered that before that, it had been a well-known vaudeville theatre, and he wanted to celebrate both of the building’s former iterations. And this decision wasn’t just for branding—Heather’s goal is to have a room that not only caters to the business types who work in the financial district but also to the artistic types who will appreciate the building’s history.
The most obvious application is the theatricality of the bull and the bear in the logo, but even the font choice was done with an eye to how an old playbill might have looked all those years ago.
Everyone involved loved the idea that back when the stock exchange was rolling, Vancouver, far from being No-Fun City, was instead a bastion of Wild West excess. Fortunes were won and lost in the space, so it was important that the identity capture this.
Glasfurd plans to incorporate snippets of this rogueish past in all aspects of the branding, from the words on the coasters (currently “You’ve earnt it”) to the to-be-determined images on the matchbook covers and menus that will channel the aura of a gaggle of rakes.
After the initial meeting with Heather, the team gets to work. And while Glasfurd may run lead, there’s a whole crew involved: her partner, Aren Fieldwalker, of course, but also Katheryn Benedict-Perri (project manager), Spencer Pidgeon (designer), David Jackson (illustrator), Shanming Guo and Avi Bernet (animators) and Whitney Miller (production coordinator) all carving off an area to work on.
Part of the magic of creating an identity is this collection of all sorts of influences and ephemera that ultimately come together to express what Open Outcry will be. For example, the cards above come from the New York speakeasies of yesteryear. They not only visually inform the design, they also inform the idea of how the bar will operate, where, hopefully, the vibe will channel some of that bygone atmosphere. In fact everything on this page, from vintage ads to a 90-year-old patent application to a turn-of-the-century dude juggling heads, is a small ingredient of the feel and look of the finished project.
When lay people think of branding, the main image that pops into their minds is the logo. And while that’s like judging the iceberg by looking only at the tip, there’s no doubt that the logo is hugely important. Above is the process Heather and the team went through to reach Open Outcry’s most arresting image.
It was Heather who brought the broad idea of the bull and the bear to the table. It seemed a natural for the building, but he wanted it to appeal to non-financial types as well. Oddly, Glasfurd had received an inquiry a week before from a South African illustrator who specialized in ink drawings of animals.
The initial sketches were simply to get a feeling and broad concept flowing. There’s the bull and the bear; they’re drinking and having a grand old time. Someone says they need hats, and someone else says their drinks need to be more obvious. Both ideas are incorporated.
A more detailed drawing is completed and all looks generally good. There are a few minor changes, like the idea that a few splashes near the glass would add to the festivity and also bring an element of movement into the equation.
Everyone is happy with the final product. It will now move to inform almost all parts of the branding: the menu, the bill, the signage. For all intents and purposes, these two will represent Open Outcry to the world at large.
Signs are one of those things that the average person takes for granted, but actually they’re a pretty key part of the brand identity. You also have to get on it relatively early in the process because the city has to approve all the signage, and it takes a few weeks for them to give the thumbs-up. And the placement is likewise subject to numerous bylaws, like ensuring it’s hung at least nine feet high so passersby can’t jump up and swing on it.
In this case, Heather loved the initial design (pictured here) that features the logo in etched brass, and so did the building’s owner—so it’s a go. In addition to the permanent sign, the team set up temporary branded cladding to drum up excitement while construction was ongoing.
Branding can be a thankless job, because when it works, the average person attributes it to someone else: the owner, an artist or an interior designer, but rarely the person who brought all those disparate disciplines into a coherent package. Everything on this page is the result of a series of investigations, presentations and decisions by the parties involved.
That full-leather menu, handmade in Vancouver, costs $68, for example—is that a reasonable expenditure to commit to? How are the servers going to be dressed? What font best expresses the type of establishment Open Outcry will be? Ultimately, there’s no way to know which decisions are the right or the wrong ones. Why do some restaurants fail and some succeed? How does one spot draw you in where another leaves you cold?
For Sean Heather, the answer to these questions will come when, after years of preparation, he finally opens the doors to Open Outcry this summer and sees just how many people are clamouring to come in.