Jean-Luc Kayigire came up with a code name for his new Los Altos cocktail bar while it serves as a pop-up with limited, spontaneous hours: the Amandine Project.
Until the old Honcho digs at 235 First St. are remodeled to Kayigire’s liking and he and his staff decide among three names floating around, that’s the only name that will be advertised.
“We don’t want people to come in and be disappointed because it looks half-done,” the Los Altos Hills resident said. “We don’t want people to associate us as being (open) full time and write a review complaining. … People are judgmental.”
A ‘Godfather’-like decision
Los Altos Community Investments offered Kayigire, a 15-year restaurant veteran who opened his first establishment at 22 years old, an offer he couldn’t refuse. He didn’t elaborate on what that offer entailed.
Kayigire had refused any opportunity to start a business near his hometown in the past; opening a small, comfortable eatery in the area was previously a dream he had reserved for his eventual retirement. But the Amandine Project’s new space, small and requiring only cosmetic changes, seemed like a safe play.
“(In) all my experience, everything I had was big,” Kayigire said. “I’d like it to be an intimate place. The way we are working on it, it’s going to be a cocktail bar where it’s not going to be busy every single day but just feels very comfortable to sit down (in).”
Kayigire considers himself lucky. From the day he signed the lease and got his keys to the day of the Amandine Project’s soft opening, just three weeks had passed. The self-described entrepreneur, who has opened restaurants and wine bars from San Francisco to Japan, credits the help of fellow local restaurant owners Larry Chu of Chef Chu’s and Vickie Breslin of The Post and the tenacity of city and county staff with easing the process.
“I literally know everybody in this town,” said Kayigire, a 10-year Hills resident.
His favorite restaurant is Chef Chu’s, which he said will be bringing food to the Amandine Project Friday and Saturday because it does not serve food yet.
Kayigire also acknowledged the crew at State of Mind Public House and Pizzeria.
“(They) have been great, so it’s really a good community, (this) restaurant industry,” he said.
The Amandine Project is a happy medium for Kayigire; he can put his experience to use while remaining in close proximity to his other venture, a software company that designs programs for managing restaurants, and his twins. They were ultimately the reason he decided to settle down from the big-business lifestyle three years ago and bring things back to the basics.
The design of the cocktail bar reflects Kayigire’s inclusiveness. A large map covers one of the walls, making it the focal point of the establishment. Each continent is framed, and LED lights will be installed behind them so that each can be illuminated when the regions are celebrating milestones.
“If it is Nelson Mandela’s birthday or Independence Day, we (will) make specific cocktails just for that and have (an insert) in the menu with the story behind that specific holiday and its continent,” he said. “That’s the idea – it’s a piece (of art) that you sit down and talk about, try to figure out what is going on.”
The bites, which Kayigire described as “light and tapas-like bar food,” will also have an around-the-world theme to complement the conversation piece. Going light was a necessity, as the First Street space has no kitchen. Kayigire and his friend, who will jump in as chef soon, have been testing recipes from his former restaurants that are easy to make, such as vegetarian meatballs, homemade corndogs and polenta.
Turning a different type of profit
Kayigire has launched his share of businesses driven by a money-on-the-mind mentality; this time around, his goal is to create a gathering space for the community while simultaneously supporting other downtown businesses.
“We want to be a little, local lounge bar,” he said. “I’m not trying to promote tourism, I’m trying to promote to the people who live in Los Altos. This is our place, this is our community, and this is what we’ve built.”
The Amandine Project proprietor said stage one of preparing the bar for opening is nearly over, and when his liquor license arrives and they continue to make upgrades, stage two will kick in. Each week, changes such as adding faux brick near the bar, dropping the ceiling and installing lighting near the bathrooms will be tackled one at a time. The motto is casual, but not divey.
Kayigire’s twist is allowing the public to watch his bar’s transformation. He has opened it on Fridays and Saturdays over the past few weekends to gauge public response. He even created an Instagram handle, @amandineproject, where he posts updates in real time.
While stage two seems leisurely, Kayigire is OK with that if it means getting the ambience of the bar just right. His choice to sell bar food at $15 or less follows suit; he knows he will likely lose money on food, and will only make some on the cocktails.
“The idea of opening this place is not to make a profit,” he said. “We know we don’t (aim) to make any money. My goal is to have my spot to go drink with my friends and enjoy the Warriors game. It’s more about a community versus a business.”
Kayigire said that if the Amandine Project becomes a gathering spot where people come to order an appetizer and a drink before or after dinner at another establishment, or if they come back for dessert, he will consider himself a winner. Even if someone comes in, orders a $4 beer at happy hour and heads home, his job is done.