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Authentic Hospitality at Barrel Proof Nashville: Robert LeBlanc on Community Engagement and Expansion

Community Engagement and Expansion


Founder + Creative Director, LeBlanc + Smith

Meet Robert “Ro” LeBlanc, the visionary behind LeBlanc + Smith, a boutique hospitality brand celebrated for its collection of restaurants, bars, and hotels across the Gulf South and beyond. Ro sheds light on the significance of community engagement through his latest venture, Barrel Proof Nashville, the second location following the success of its Lower Garden District counterpart.

Tell us about Barrel Proof Nashville (“BPN”), and its importance to you?

We opened BPN in December of 2023. This was our first project in Nashville, but the second location of Barrel Proof. We want to see expansion, but with that said, we don’t want 100 of the same Barrel Proofs anywhere. We would rather vertically integrate in fewer cities, than horizontally cover more cities.

Our goal was to export a little bit of New Orleans into BPN. Not by literally offering a Sazerac or Po’boy on the menu – but by offering the joie di vivre of New Orleans. Bringing the energy, the emotion, and the innate sense of storytelling that New Orleanians just inherently have. We’ve been successful, so far, at infusing that into BPN.

Did you have a specific community outreach plan for BPN? Please share any examples, challenges or specific details on your approach to engaging with the Nashville community.

Our community outreach approach genuinely dovetails with our mission. We talk about all people – the people that we entertain, the people with whom we work, and the communities in which we operate. So, remaining true to our mission allows the community to always know the foundation that we’re built on. It builds trust, and that speaks volumes.

Whenever we enter a new market, our goal is to go in as a great neighbor. Cleanliness, noise, and developing/maintaining positive relationships with the neighbors are all things we consider as a best practice, always.

For BPN, external communications played a crucial role in keeping us accountable with our development timeline. That said, we were inevitably delayed by 5 months, but not due to any community opposition.

After closing on the property, we immediately engaged with the neighboring business to get their feedback and hear any lessons learned. They shared insights on their preferred vendors and partners, which was so valuable.

About a year before BPN opened, Jason Sorbet (formerly the Manager at our Barrel Proof Lower Garden District location and now the Managing Partner at BPN) really learned the local bar and restaurant scene, making connections and learning the City’s dynamics. This was valuable in two main ways: it was part of our organic community engagement strategy, and helped us assemble a local, high-caliber team. We cultivated a team that not only understands the nuances of the Nashville market but also shares our mission – to create excellent 21st century southern hospitality experiences.

Some examples of additional features we offered that “felt right” in the Nashville environment were adding bike racks outside of the bar and advertising our location as pet-friendly. These were two small but high-impact concessions that we learned were valuable from our conversations with the neighbors. Again, staying true to LeBlanc+Smith’s genuine character to serve the people organically carries through to our growing locations.

Why Nashville? How do you decide where to expand?

We take a very humble approach when we expand into a new market or region. Just because it worked in New Orleans, doesn’t mean it will work elsewhere. We don’t look at it as ‘we’re here from New Orleans, and you’re lucky to have us’. We look at it the opposite way. How can we learn from Nashville?

Additionally, the south is important to us, but particularly the 21st century south. The south is often seen historically as a pretty backwards part of the country. The reality is that the south that we live in is diverse, inclusive, creative, progressive, and innovative. We have an opportunity to stake a flag and show the world what a 21st century southern United States can and should be.

Central to our development strategy is a deep appreciation for the historical context of each site. Whether a new construction or renovation, we get curious about the neighborhood's past and allow it to inform the essence of the project. We want each project to embody the unique spirit and character of its surroundings.

In the development of BPN, we luckily experienced little to no pushback from the community. But we made a concerted effort to plan for community forums, and it was all well received. It’s no doubt that neighborhood forums are necessary no matter where you are building, even if they’re thorny. It’s better to know what the pushback will be before it goes unaddressed for too long.

What advice would you offer to those embarking on a new project in a new city?

For anyone starting a development project or new to the development world – make sure to create a clear, authentic vision and remain true to that the entire time. Approach everything with respect and sincerity. Building trust with the public will be that much easier when you practice what you preach. It’s the guidepost for every interaction you have with the community.

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