For all its growth over the past few years, the niche industry of deal-of-the-day websites has often felt impersonal-exchanging money with a colorful, neatly designed page for a coupon to be used in the brick-and-mortar world. While the final transaction is tangible, sometimes, it’s nice to know the middleman.
LivingSocial, the rapidly growing deal-of-the-day company based in Washington, is trying to fill in some of that gap with the opening of its new facility at 918 F Street NW. The old, Romanesque National Union Building, constructed in 1890, has been converted into a four stories of playrooms for LivingSocial to stage its more upmarket deals, including pop-up dinners, art classes, dance lessons, cooking seminars and live music. More directly, it also gives the company a tangible connection to its customer base.
Walking through the retro-sleek lobby as contractors finished installing floorboards, the company’s communications director, Maire Griffin, showed off the room’s original, ornate frieze which-thanks to one of many modern embellishments-now tops a wall plastered with video panels. A screensaver whirred on the display Monday morning, but once the venue later this week, it’ll give lobby-dwellers glimpses of what’s going on upstairs.
“It gives merchants a whole new way to interact with members,” Griffin said.
Behind the lobby is a nightclub-like room that opens up to a basement bar, all decked out in matte-black hardwood flooring. The first show, this Sunday, is an acoustic set by the jam band O.A.R. The live music schedule isn’t too heavy right now, and the bar will used more as a location for mixology lessons or as a starting point for a fancy food event.
Above the lobby is a lounge area that’ll likely contain more video feeds of the goings-on about the building. The waiting areas might feature demonstrations, Griffin said; those parts of the space are still in flux. In the rear of the second floor is the first of two “flex rooms”-studios that can be rearranged to accomodate any of the non-culinary offerings.
LivingSocial signed a longterm lease for 918 F Street last May, and started renovating about six months ago, Griffin said. The structure, which had been partially filled by offices, has been dramatically reconfigured, save that frieze in the lobby and the elevator, which is one of the last cage lifts in the city. Construction teams ripped out load-bearing mortar walls, replacing the building’s structural support with exposed gridworks of steel beams, about 240 tons’ worth, Griffin said. The floors are tiled in individually laid wooden slats placed on their side to reinforce the structure and add a bit of soundproofing, which will come in handy when a classroom is given over to, say, heavy-footed dancers.
“One hour we could do a tango class,” Griffin said, “and we could flip the room to make it a painting class.”
But it’s the third and fourth floors Griffin was most proud to show off, and for good measure. The culinary sections of LivingSocial’s new playground are where the company will sell its highest-profile deals, beginning later this week with a four-day pop-up restaurant by Mike Isabella, who will be testing out the menu for his forthcoming Mexican eatery, Bandolero.
For the chefs it’s recruiting-besides Isabella, the company has also lined up deals starring Frederick DePue of 42 Catering and Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac from Birch & Barley-LivingSocial has built a commercial kitchen on par with any decent restaurant. Shimmering Viking ranges and Cres Cor refrigerators line the workspace, which is large enough to handle a full restaurant’s worth of sous chefs and line cooks.
“Everyone who comes in there is going to do something different, but for me it has what I need,” Isabella said in an interview.
On the other side of the floor is the cooking classroom, where LivingSocial’s roster of culinarily inclined business partners will teach the masses how to make chocolate or sushi or ramen, depending on the instructor. The kitchen area up front wouldn’t be out of place on a Food Network set, including the motion-capture cameras above the countertops that will follow the instructors around so that customers sitting way in the back of the basketball court-sized room can see on overhead televisions.
The dining room for the one-off restaurants is one flight up, and while nicely appointed down to the G