Triniti’s Transformation: How A Restaurant And Bar Stayed In Business By Learning To Evolve
Triniti and now, its sister, Sanctuari — a bar and lounge situated inside the restaurant at 2815 S. Shepherd— has come into its own over the last four years. Evolving each step of the way, chef and managing partner Ryan Hildebrand says the restaurant is “totally different” from where it started and thinks “it is only just now what it will always be.”
Sitting down for an interview along with Sanctuari’s beverage and creative director, Laurie Sheddan Harvey, Hildebrand explains why all this upheaval was necessary to stay in business and the philosophies behind each change.
Explain how and why Sanctuari — the separately branded bar and lounge located within the restaurant — completed the Triniti puzzle.
Hildebrand: We had a lounge in existence, but it was more just an amenity for the restaurant rather than an entity all its own. Laurie’s cocktail program a warranted a separate attention: its own space, its own website. It’s challenging to get people to go into a restaurant just to go to the bar. Up until Laurie, it was just a place to get a cocktail, but it wasn’t about the cocktail. Her being here and having it finally at our disposal, it became an organic progression. Since Sanctuari, we see people coming into the bar before dinner and then ending up back in Sanctuari after dinner. We’re keeping them in the building now for that second part of their night.
Harvey: The most important thing for us was to make sure that the space was beautiful and had its own identity. It needed to be more comfortable for people to come and sit down and enjoy the lounge for a long time. It wasn’t really conducive to that before.
At what point did you realize that creating Sanctuari as its own bar and lounge was the right approach?
Hildebrand: For me, it’s the fact that we have people populating the bar — not just before and after dinner — but throughout the night. Where, previously, in the middle of service, around 8 p.m., the bar would be empty. It was just dead space. Now, it’s just a more consistent service from beginning to end. I love it when people come in here and don’t eat, come in here and just drink. I think that’s a success.
What are some other benefits of creating a bar that has a completely separate identity and space within the building?
Hildebrand: Expanding the lounge was two-fold. It made the lounge bigger, which we needed. It also made the dining room smaller, which we also needed. A slow night isn’t that bad in the restaurant, unless it’s 40-50 people sitting in a 220-seat restaurant (which is the way it used to be). It feels cavernous. This space is huge. The ceilings are high. It’s a big building. When it’s not full, it lacks an energy that you have to have. Sanctuari helps that.
How do you ease people into creative cocktails that may otherwise be intimidated?
Harvey: We do something at the bar we call “spiritual advisement,” which is a little sheet of paper that you can circle words on and our bartenders will customize a cocktail for you. It’s fun, because you can give the same descriptions to three bartenders and get three different drinks. It gets people talking at the bar. A lot of times, people get overwhelmed by the cocktail menu, because of all the ingredients they don’t recognize, and they don’t want to ask. This way allows someone to have fun and enjoy their cocktail experience.
A bar and lounge isn’t the only major change that Triniti has undergone over the years. What are some other adjustments you’ve made to keep customers coming back?
Hildebrand: We’ve changed a lot. Physically, we took part of the screen down off the front of the building, so people could see inside. We lowered the wall on the patio so people could see the building. From the outside in a lot of ways, it just said, “go away.” So we added signage, opened the windows up and it’s transformed the place into what I think it will be. In the beginning, our managers all dressed up, so it gave the perception that our guests needed to dress up. Even little changes like that — letting the staff relax a little bit — make a big difference. It’s coming up on four years now, and it’s a totally different restaurant. I think it is only just now, what it will always be. I think we’ve done it without abandoning our original intent.
The menu has also undergone a major change recently. What does that mean for the restaurant and for guests?
Hildebrand: The food is different, but the quality is still there. We still do the tasting menus, but the main menu is structured differently, so you can piece your meal together on your own. It’s less of us telling people how to eat and more of us reacting to how they want to eat. We opened with lunch, but it was very similar to what we were doing at dinner. It was highly manicured, coursed out and this area in particular, people don’t want to eat that way. They don’t want to take a two-hour lunch, except on Fridays. We had to adjust to the market and that meant restructuring the lunch menu as well.
What are some of the takeaways you’ve from this experience so far?
Hildebrand: This place has a lot of challenges. The traffic is a challenge now, the location has always been a challenge, because it’s kind of on the edge of everything. We’re not in Upper Kirby, we’re on the edge of Montrose, we’re off Westheimer. But that’s all changing. The density of three residential projects going up around us is exciting. The landscape around here has changed so much in the last three years.
Also, we’re not forcing our philosophies on anybody. It’s not that we were being forceful in the beginning, but things were structured differently. We have all the right players in all the right places now.
Triniti is open Tuesday through Sunday, varying hours, for brunch, lunch and dinner. Check the website for exact hours as well as reservations. Sanctuari is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturdays from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.