Running a hotel bar is never easy, but running a bar that’s made almost entirely of ice brings a whole new range of challenges to the metaphorical table.
Just off the lobby of the Hilton Midtown in New York City, one of Manhattan’s largest hotels, the minus5° Ice Bar is focused on keeping things cool. Everything inside is made of ice, including the interior walls, the seats, the tables—even the glasses. The chandelier uses LEDs to illuminate the space because they don't generate heat. (The ice chairs, however, are covered in faux-fur throws to prevent chills.)
“At any one time, we have 100 tons of pure carved ice on site,” said Richard Marsiglia, GM at minus5° New York. The bar changes 90 percent of its ice every six months, so a full 200 tons of frozen water is brought down from Canada and used to construct the space from scratch each year.
Each renovation begins with starts with Marsiglia, M5 Management President Noel Bowman and the bar’s management team discussing what they want to see in the bar. When ideas are confirmed, the team consults with dedicated “ice artists” who create renderings and architectural images for review and approval. “The process can take months in itself to get the perfect design,” Marsiglia said, noting that while the team factors in trends and topics, they also try to keep the bar’s main design focus on New York City.
When the ice is changed, the bar has to close for 10 to 14 days for a full renovation. Ultimately, this means that minus5° has to close for up to a full month each year, cutting 1/12th of its potential revenue—a worthwhile sacrifice, Marsiglia said, for the sake of a clean and attractive design.
The logistical challenges of running an ice bar in New York City are “seemingly endless” for Marsiglia and his team. “The challenge of acquiring the amount of ice we need (400-500 blocks, depending on design) can be tough in itself, depending on if it is busy ice season (wedding season, holidays),” he said. Once the ice is procured, it has to be transported from Canada to New York City and remain in “its most pristine condition possible.” When the semi truck arrives in Manhattan, the bar team has to unload the blocks of ice without damaging the product—or letting any of it melt.
Once the team gets the ice indoors, they have limited time to get everything where it needs to be. “We have a strict schedule for handling ice renovations, and when carving, there are a million things that could hold you up,” Marsiglia said, noting overall conditions, on-site design issues and tool malfunctions as factors that can delay work and risk the overall quality of the project.
The ice glasses are a major selling point of the bar, and offer a unique element that few other bars can replicate. They also pose unique challenges that other bars don’t have to face. “These glasses are one-time-use per guest, and we use roughly about 3,000 cups a week,” Marsiglia said. Rather than creating new glasses every day in an on-location machine or freezer, the glasses are shipped in weekly from Las Vegas, where they are made and stored. “As with the ice used to build the bar, these cups must be tightly controlled and looked after the entire trip,” he said. “We track each shipment using specialized real-time temperature tracking technology, so if we have an issue we can review the log and see where the glasses were exposed to heat and how to correct the issue for next shipment.”
One of the other challenges is cleaning the bar. Due to the carefully maintained temperature (20 degrees Fahrenheit, -5 degrees Celcius), any spilled drinks freeze immediately to the floor or the table. As such, there is only one way to clean up spills: “Blow torches,” Marsiglia said. “We carefully burn off any spilled beverage and then polish the table or sculpture to its original state.” General maintenance is also different in such a cold ambiance: “The bar floors must be cleaned with an ‘antifreeze’ cleaning agent and must be completely hand-dried each night,” Marsiglia said.
Minus5° faces many unique expenses that traditional bars do not have to factor into their operating costs. Those one-time-use ice glasses, for example, cost $3 each (factoring in manufacturing and shipping cost), adding an extra $9,000 per week to the bar’s expenses.
The bar also has a unique HVAC system that controls temperatures inside the bar—one of only four in the world, Marsiglia said, adding that all four are in the minus5° ice bars around the world. “The cost associated with managing this is astronomical. We have a 24-hour emergency service always on standby just in case, and we do a twice-monthly overhaul of the system.”