All Images by Studio Maha, courtesy Tecture, Inc.
Black Swan Hospitality’s Doug Hamm teamed with San Diego’s on-the-rise design and fabrication house Tecture Inc. to realize the concept for Nolita Hall, where nostalgic Italian design meets modern hospitality while highlighting its San Diego setting.
Nolita Hall punctuates its unique food and beverage environment with a train station-style Split Flap Display that presents menus and info about passing airplanes visible through the restaurant’s gigantic skylight.
“I would admit I am somewhat obsessed with design,” said Hamm, founder of Black Swan Hospitality and owner of San Diego’s “most stunning” beer hall, located in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood. Pursuing his passion for ambience, Hamm wanted his first owned and operated restaurant and bar to present the atmosphere of a European beer hall with Italian design flourishes, coupled with elevated cocktails and a select menu of gourmet pizzas and salads. To do so, he felt that the space needed an active, unique element that would captivate patrons again and again. Working with local San Diego design firm, Tecture Inc., that need led them right to the engineers and designers at Philadelphia’s Oat Foundry, the only North American manufacturer of the classic train station-style Split Flap Displays.
After buying the property and gutting it to create an open environment with an enormous 10-foot by 60-foot skylight, Hamm had a vision of their beer menu being presented on an old-school train station sign. “It’s an element that most guests will never have experienced, and it is definitely not a part of any other San Diego bar,” he said.
Hamm continued, “We were thrilled to find the Oat Foundry Split Flap Display, and after meeting with company founder Mark Kuhn, I became even more confident the technology was perfect for Nolita Hall. I asked what their biggest sign to date was, and requested that we go bigger. We decided on a 10 row by 32 column display, and worked in collaboration to design a truly one-of-a-kind dining experience.”
While the Split Flap Display is undoubtedly cool on its own, Hamm wanted to bring guests something even more surprising and specialized to the restaurant’s location. He tasked the Oat Foundry Engineering team with programming a custom Flight Tracker API that delivers real-time flight information for airplanes as they pass overhead flying to or from San Diego International Airport. The flight details are then shown on the Split Flap Display.
“I put in this ridiculously big skylight, and it wasn’t until later that I realized it could be used to give guests, especially travelers, an experience I truly believe they cannot get at any other restaurant, anywhere,” Hamm explained. “While it seemed like a long shot idea to me, the Oat Foundry team didn’t even blink when I brought it up. By combining my inventive idea with Oat Foundry’s seemingly boundless engineering and creation capabilities, we are able to delight guests and generate conversations totally unique to Nolita Hall.”
To keep interest piqued, the Split Flap Display is constantly updated with food and beer specials, funny quotes, flight statuses and any other information Hamm or the managers choose to share. Using Oat Foundry’s simple Web App, Nolita Hall creates pre-programmed schedules for the content, which can be added to at any time. The restaurant opened in April 2018 to great reviews, and quickly earned a 2018 Orchids & Onions Design Award from the San Diego Architectural Foundation. It was also just named San Diego Eater’s Most Stunning Bar in 2018.
“The end result is a technologically advanced piece of art,” Hamm added, “and I believe it played a role in Nolita Hall winning of the award. Oat Foundry can do things I don’t think anyone else can do. I can’t wait to work with them again.”
The hand-built Split Flap Display purchase took roughly 12 weeks from inception to delivery, and was installed in less than a day by Oat Foundry engineers. The company hand builds each Split Flap Display custom to order, making them available in any size and offering endless customization possibilities.
According to Hamm, Oat Foundry’s customized approach to product engineering seamlessly pairs with his design goals. “Every project and property I acquire starts with the underlying belief that regardless of location, use, or financial underwriting, it should have potential to become something special and provide a certain ‘wow factor’ with aesthetics and design,” Hamm said. “This can be done successfully in a number of different ways. It can be simple and subtle, or unexpected and bold. Often times, and I think in this case, it’s the perfect combination of both.”