WILMINGTON — A new venture between two business partners started with one question: Have you ever heard of Tokyo listening rooms?
Abbye McGee and Matt Ray’s latest bar, The Ibis, will focus on the concept by the time it launches in late summer, early fall.
READ MORE: Whiskey and wine lovers will get their fix at The Starling
The two opened the craft cocktail lounge The Starling in the Cargo District last year. Over the last six months, they got an itch to expand.
“We really had our eye on the Soda Pop District lately,” Ray said. “Then Abbye sent me an article about the listening rooms — I thought it was fascinating.”
The audiophile bars were popularized in Japan post World War II, where folks would go for music listening experiences, outfitted with stellar sound systems and walls lined with vinyl records that DJs would spin. The bars saw a resurgence pre-pandemic including stateside, with lounges opening in Florida, New York and California.
“We grew up in this town,” Ray said, “and it’s always been our goal to bring something that’s unique here — that you may see a lot out West or in other areas really picking up speed.”
The Ibis will be the Soda Pop District’s first craft cocktail lounge located in the renovated Coca-Cola building in the 900 block of Princess Street; however, in the mornings it also will serve coffee.
The district — coined by locals after the famed Coca-Cola bottling plant was built there in the 1930s — has been undergoing renovation by Parastream Developers. The group purchased numerous buildings along the strip in the last few years to make it an urban mixed-use development.
The lounge will be split up as Ibis Coffee and Ibis Hi-Fi, taking up three units, fully open between both businesses. The vibe will be cozy, with leather, wood, rugs, loungey furniture and a bar in the 2,300-square-foot space, ably suited for anywhere between 60 to 80 customers.
“A place people can come and feel at home,” Ray said.
When it came to naming the business, the two lifelong friends thought sticking with a bird theme was appropriate. The ibis bird is abundant in Wilmington and said to be the last animal to take shelter upon the approach of a storm and the first to return after.
“There’s kind of a symbol of courage and resilience in the face of adversity,” Ray said. “And coming off all these Covid years, the name rings true.”
Before long, he added, they may have a whole “flock of bars.”
The Ibis will join other businesses in the Soda Pop District, such as Pomona Shrub, Craftspace, and Downtown ILM Markets in the 76,000-square-foot warehouse. Across the way is the soon-to-open Bowstring Brewpub, while Hi-Wire Brewing and Cugino Forno pizzeria are located one block up.
The Ibis’ launch comes at a time vinyl is experiencing a resurgence in popularity. Last year, vinyl sales surpassed CD sales for the first time since the late ‘80s.
Ray and McGee reached out to Gravity Records owner Matt Keen about curating the music.
“We really support working with local businesses and brands,” Ray said. “And Gravity has had such a great influence on the community.”
Keen said the concept of a high-quality listening space has been on his crew’s wishlist “for ages.”
“Somewhere that folks can hear just how superb vinyl as a format can sound,” he said, “to congregate over a love for music that invites a more casual hangout.”
DJ RizzyBeats, also known as Richard Humbles, has worked at Gravity for three years and will be the house DJ, setting the mood each evening with a theme to guide the music he spins.
The DJ will home in on “unsung heroes” and sounds “criminally overlooked or have a weird stigma toward them.” Humbles said he spends hours of his free time doing deep dives into sounds of various eras and countries.
“People can expect to hear a lot of music they’ve likely never heard before,” Humbles said, “and to discover something new about how they experience music. My entire approach to DJing is to curate an experience you can’t get out of a Spotify playlist.”
Soul, funk, jazz, progressive rock, house, dance, hip-hop, and especially world music will be featured. Humbles, who got his start with the local hip-hop collective Beats & Coffee, is also a proponent of disco.
“He regularly enlightens folks on just how diverse that genre sounds and how many of the songs we love are actually disco or disco derivative,” Keen said of their days spent in the record store.
Disco will be a regular themed night, punctuated by a mirrored ball hanging in the space.
“Dancing is never turned down,” Ray assured. “We will be bringing in guest DJs from time to time as well.”
Keen foresees the format extending to promoting local bands. Though The Ibis is not a live music venue, there are opportunities for performers to host listening parties for their latest releases.
“We see a lot of potential ways to connect with our community,” Keen added, something Gravity has been doing for 19 years now in business. All the vinyl Gravity stocks in the bar will be for sale to customers as well.
And careful attention will be taken to install premiere equipment, including tube amps, vintage wood grain speakers, and state-of-the-art turntables. Keen is well-versed on the technical side, working on analog audio equipment for three decades.
“I’ve gained a wealth of knowledge about what it takes to provide the best possible playback quality with records,” he said.
The music will be spun predominantly on in-house turntables; however, there will be opportunity for visiting DJs to bring in their own equipment.
The cocktail program will be the same high quality as the sounds, a focus on layered, balanced flavors. While The Starling has a proclivity toward featuring high-end bourbons, The Ibis will have all varieties of spirits — gins, rums, tequilas — and signature cocktails. Ray, McGee and the Starling staff are working out recipes this week for the menu.
“We also will be doing batch cocktails to serve from a keg,” Ray said, noting it likely will change weekly.
The entrepreneurs will be adding their new neighbor’s product, Pomona Shrubs, to the shelves to help build on the flavors. The fruit-tinged fermentations are vinegar-based and come in a variety of styles — blackberry-orange-ginger, pineapple-sage and lemon-lime.
Ray said The Ibis cocktail prices will be similar to The Starling, ranging $12 and up. Canned local and regional beers will be served and there will be a refined wine list.
But there will be more to the business than cocktails. The Ibis Coffee will open at 7 a.m. daily to serve java lovers. Wilmington’s Casa Blanca Roasters will be utilized for the brew.
”There will likely be a crossover with boozy coffee drinks during the transition from morning to evening,” Ray said.
Ibis Coffee will operate until 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. daily, then Ibis Hi-Fi will be open until 11 p.m., likely closed Mondays. It will always be free admission unless special events are hosted. Ray and McGee hope to open by August or September.
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