Cory and Blake Preston never intended to run a restaurant.
The husband-and-wife team behind Pullman’s premier nightclub and lounge always “figured we’d do what we do best, and,” according to Cory, the husband, “that’s throw parties.”
For four and a half years after opening in 2015, Etsi Bravo operated as planned: slinging craft cocktails and hosting dance parties, live music, comedy nights, and disco and other themed nights like Tiki Tuesday.
When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit and Washington state went into its initial lockdown, the Prestons quickly pivoted, setting up an online store featuring house-made, non-alcoholic mixers and 20-percent off gift cards to Etsi Bravo.
“We went into survival mode,” Cory says.
Things worsened when restrictions loosened and restaurants were able to start re-opening. Etsi Bravo’s online sales began dropping. For the second time during the pandemic, the Prestons were forced to regroup. That meant doing something they hadn’t ever planned on doing: in-house food preparation and service.
Etsi Bravo began offering food for pickup and delivery along with canned and bottled cocktails about six months ago. The move required a license change, kitchen build-out, new staffers, canning equipment and most of the young couple’s nest egg. But it was necessary to remain viable during the pandemic.
“We had been waiting for when nightclubs would get to open again, and it still hasn’t happened,” Cory says. “We were just kind of like sitting ducks.”
Before the pandemic, Etsi Bravo served a limited selection of menu items from Black Cypress, the upscale Greek restaurant downstairs, as well as a wide variety of original craft and classic cocktails. Its business license, specifically for nightclubs, required revenue to come from alcohol sales and entertainment. Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s phased approach for recovery, nightclubs weren’t slated for re-opening until phase four, the final phase of the plan. The newly implemented “Healthy Washington-Roadmap to Recovery” plan still prohibits most live performances keeps 21+ establishments without food to remain closed.
“We realized we wouldn’t have a fighting chance without changing our license and adding a kitchen,” Cory says. “We were, I think, the only business in Pullman that couldn’t open when phase three came around.”
The state expedited the process. But it still took a couple of months to get the license changed.
During that time, the Prestons added a commercial kitchen to the nightclub’s mezzanine level, converting their former green room and a storage room into a “food truck-sized kitchen.” The remodel cost the couple “pretty much the rest of our nest egg,” Cory says. But, “It was all or nothing at that point.”
Loosely translated, Etsi Bravo is a Greek expression meaning, “That’s the way, well done,” explains Cory, who formerly tended bar at Black Cypress. “We wanted to create some synergy between the restaurant downstairs and give a nod to the entertainers, the deejays, musicians and comedians who perform at Etsi Bravo.”
He met Blake while she was a hospitality student at Washington State University and working at a now-closed Pullman bar. “I would wrap up my shift at Black Cypress and go sit at her bar,” Cory says.
They married about a year after opening Etsi Bravo. Their daughter, Cameron, was born about two months before the pandemic hit.
“I miss the people,” Blake says. “Whether it was a first date, a friend’s birthday party or someone coming in alone after work for a quick one, I always enjoyed providing a welcoming space for whatever that person needed that day. It warmed my heart seeing people come in and enjoy themselves, and I miss that.”
The ambiance is one of Etsi Bravo’s charms. The bar sits in front of a row of tall, heavily curtained windows overlooking Pullman’s main drag. It’s anchored on the far end by a display showcasing an eclectic vinyl album collection. Moscow tattoo artist Thad Froio created a trio of works for another wall. Pullman artist and recent WSU fine arts graduate Gracie Brown did the staircase mural.
Elements of the dimly lighted lounge — exposed brick, Art Deco-inspired wallpaper, five crystal chandeliers — lend a vintage vibe. One of those chandeliers once belonged to actor Burt Reynolds. “We got it at Pacific Galleries in Seattle,” Cory says. “We already liked it. When we turned over the tag and it said it was from Burt Reynolds’ private estate we had to get it.”
Since both owners’ backgrounds are in bar management, the couple contracted with a consulting chef to help them transition to food service. Later, they hired a full-time chef, Nate Weiner, who had been laid off from another Pullman restaurant because of the pandemic.
Etsi Bravo also hired a cook, and there’s one bartender in addition to Blake and Cory. Before the pandemic, they employed about 20 people, including part-time deejays and security personnel along with bartenders and servers.
They opened for online food and cocktail orders at the end of August. Menu items now include a pulled pork sandwich with tequila chipotle, fried chicken sandwich, B.L.T. on brioche with garlic mayo, mac and cheese with penne pasta and sharp cheddar, Italian-style beef-and-pork meatballs with basil and marinara, waffle fries with cheese and chives, and mixed greens salad. All entrées cost between $8 and $9.25, with the exception of a one-dollar PB&J sandwich on Wonder Bread.
Still, Cory says, “The cans have been the heart of what we’re doing now. At the end of the day, that’s what’s been keeping us alive. That’s our lifeblood right now.”
Making the canned cocktails in keg-sized batches is a three-day process. A print shop two doors down, J & H Printing, produces the labels.
Offerings rotate. Eight to 10 canned cocktails are typically available for $7 to $9 in 12-ounce cans that serve two. Top-sellers are the mai tai — a blend of rums, bubbles, lime, almond and orange liqueur — and the WoooHooo, with vodka, lemon, lime and ginger. Others include a vodka-based pineapple mule, French 75, and Polecat, with tequila, cinnamon, lemon, vanilla and bubbles. There’s also usually at least one “monster” 20-ounce canned cocktail that serves four for $12.50.
Etsi Bravo also offers 2-ounce top-shelf pours to go for $10 to $50, with the exception of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23-Year-Old Family Reserve Bourbon which sells for $166 per pour. A limited selection of wine and beer is also available. So are bottled cocktails, typically Etsi Bravo’s stronger drinks. Each 4-ounce bottle serves one and costs between $8 to $10. The House Old-Fashioned — with Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon, Angostura Aromatic Bitters, Regan’s Orange Bitters and simple syrup — is a top-seller.
While the Prestons’ second pandemic pivot has proven successful, re-imagining their strategy was a challenge.
“We had to re-think what we consider good business,” Cory says. “You can’t sell your ambiance anymore. All of a sudden, your competition is fast food. We had taken the (pre-pandemic) normalcy for granted. The conversations. The dancing. The ambiance. That’s something none of us can replace. It can’t be duplicated. At this point, it all feels like it was a different planet.”
Looking forward, the Prestons are cautiously optimistic. They’re considering expanding their food offerings when the time is right. But they’re not planning any post-pandemic dance parties just yet.
“We don’t know what it’s going to look like,” Cory says. “We want to wait until it’s safe.”