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It’s cocktail (and dessert) hour: Emma Rue’s has opened downtown serving nighttime food, libations and entertainment

The cocktail bar Emma Rue’s, from People’s Waffle owners Aaron Hein and Alyssa Agee, has opened at 17 S. Howard St. downtown serving coffee, cocktails, small plates and desserts late into the night.

Additionally, Emma Rue’s, open until midnight Mondays through Saturdays, will feature live music starting Thursday, Hein said. Villa Blues ’n’ Jazz will be at Emma Rue’s from 7-9 p.m. Thursdays, with a $5 cover, and Rose Throw, a trip hop and chill jazz DJ, will be on-site 6-9 p.m. Fridays, with no cover.

“The DJ is background music, not get-up-and-dance music,” Hein said. “Also, it’s important to note that the volume will be low enough for both groups so that people can still talk.”

Hein, who was born and raised on a small farm south of Spokane, chatted about his Guitar Center playground, cocktails, the downtown Spokane scene and more at the former site of the Observatory and Blue Spark on a recent Saturday morning, and here are highlights of the conversation:

Aaron, how did you come up with the name Emma Rue’s?

Emma Rue is actually a real person from Spokane. Her family, the Jenkins – there is a Jenkins building on Monroe – was a really influential family in Spokane, and she was their daughter. We’re still doing more research, but we think she was one of the first people to open a women’s shelter in town. She did a lot of philanthropy work.

It’s a neat story that is tied to Spokane and fits our vibe, as well. My business partner Alyssa’s daughter, her name is also Emma, so, in a funny way, it creates some confusion. She likes to think it’s for her.

Please tell me about your background. What did you do before People’s Waffle and Emma Rue’s?

I’ve never worked in a bar or restaurant in my entire life – my background is in retail and corporate, and I’m also a musician by trade. I worked for Guitar Center for 15 years. I oversaw their management systems for a long time and was the GM for a while. I was ready for a change.

I left Guitar Center and came onboard VIP Production Northwest. They’re a local production company that does staging, audio and lighting for live events in the Spokane Arena and Riverfront Park. I did that for four years, and I’m still good friends with the owner. I love them, and they do such a great job.

I’m a foodie, and I love the finer things in life. I’m a city boy who was born and raised on a small farm. While hanging out and making dinner and cocktails, I started learning more about cocktails and really got into it. I collect vintage cocktail books and glassware, and I started hosting parties and fundraisers.

When I have a hobby, I go about 1,000% in – my wife can attest to that – and cocktails were that for me. Some friends and I are part of a whiskey group, and it has really developed my palate. Now I’ve ventured into gin and absinthe.

So from Guitar Center to People’s Waffle and Emma Rue’s?

The transition from music to food, well, I was in a band many years ago with Alyssa’s husband, Bryan, who also is a business partner. For the last 10 years, we’ve been talking about this. This has been percolating during that time in different forms. I was all about the cocktails.

They moved to Portland for a while, and that’s where the inspiration is from for the waffles and desserts. The People’s Waffle food truck was never meant to be a food truck, and we’ve been looking at building spaces for 10 years. We put together multiple business plans. When this space became available, it just worked out really great.

When did Emma Rue’s officially open?

We officially opened last week (the first week in January). We had a sneak preview months ago, but part of what held us back was equipment and, obviously, COVID-19. All of my bar equipment was delayed for months. We had a New Year’s Eve launch, and it was sort of our official “we are finally here.”

What is the concept of Emma Rue’s?

Emma Rue’s is a European concept. It’s an all-day experience where you can get coffee, food and cocktails. We wanted to bring that all together. You can come in after a show and get a cocktail or a dessert. Or after dinner for a nice dessert and espresso? We’re the place.

We’re open on Sundays because the Fox has shows, and there’s no place open. Our hours of operation reflect all of this. We open at 9 a.m. on Saturdays since we share the space with People’s Waffle.

Please tell me about the coffee and cocktails at Emma Rue’s.

We opened early with the coffee because of COVID-19; it went OK, but it was not our full concept. From a cocktail and coffee experience, we focus on brunch. We have classic mimosas, and our Bloody Marys are made from scratch. Nothing here is premade; fresh ingredients add to the experience.

The cold plates are offered at 11 a.m. We offer fancier cocktails at Emma Rue’s. The French 75s are very popular. I do my own twist on the popular Hair of the Dog cocktail Corpse Survivor No. 2 with mezcal. We can do some really fun stuff. And I like a nice Irish coffee. We offer pastries and food.

We shift to nightlife at the bar pretty much when Happy Hour begins at 3 p.m. Happy Hour is 3 to 6 p.m. every day of the week. We have great deals on cocktails, wines and bubbly pours. It’s 20% off everything on the spirits wall. And this is when hot food comes into play. This is for the after-work crowd. It’s a dance!

For a new customer at Emma Rue’s, what should they order in terms of coffee, a cocktail and food?

If you’re a new customer at Emma Rue’s, you definitely need to try our caffee corretto, an old Italian tradition that is basically a shot of liquor, espresso and a heavy cream. They’re like mini lattes, and we have a whole line of those. Lindemann’s was our inspiration for caffee corretto, and we’re carrying on the tradition.

Foodwise, our morning pastries and light bites are excellent. The smoked salmon canapes are one of my favorites. We have a fun twist on a charcuterie board called a seacuterie board that includes seafood. We have more hot food coming in the next month or two.

What have been your biggest obstacles in terms of opening?

Which one do I pick (laughs)? Staffing is a challenge. The restaurant industry in general took such a hard hit with COVID-19. Fear of going out, shaking up what we want to do and the talent pool were all factors.

At the same time, I’ve been able to hire some amazing people who have put their heart and soul into this place for us. We wouldn’t be here without them. You really need to learn how to pivot. Now with the pandemic, it’s pivoting times 10.

One of our biggest challenges is learning the intricate dances of operating two businesses in one space. That is daily learning for People’s Waffle and Emma Rue’s. It has been a unique challenge, but all the work we’ve put into it is paying off, and we are getting there.

What are you hoping for Emma Rue’s in the new year?

We really want to be the destination for desserts in the evenings. I really want to revive live jazz again. We just really want to be excellent at everything we do. We want to offer great customer and kindness. It’s really about people.

Anything else, Aaron?

One more fun thing: We want to be known for absinthe! It’s a very fun spirit that I’ve fallen in love with – it has a fun and crazy history. Absinthe service is a ritual, and I have 10 bottles on the wall right now in a whole range of styles and price points.

It’s a really cool experience and a fun thing to do. It’s specialized and doesn’t make sense in a lot of places, but it makes sense here.

My cocktail bar brunch at Emma Rue’s on Jan. 15: Bourbon maple dressed eggs (bacon jam, pickled onions, bourbon maple glaze), smoked salmon canapés (creme fraiche, arugula, walnut pesto, lemon jus), the cocktail the Neptune (gin, lemon juice, simple egg white, absinthe and green chartreuse), the caffe corretto the Vatican (one shot of espresso, creme de cacao, brandy, black Irish cream, whipping cream), an orange pomegranate madeleine and a blueberry earl grey financier. Loved it all – Emma Rue’s is a fabulous after-dinner and post-show.

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