When I met with Jacob Treviño at Cosmic Gorilla, his new comic book store/board game shop/bar near Findlay Market, I got to see a bit of the creative process in action. “We were just throwing out ideas for a Mario-themed party,” he says, pointing to his staff at the registers. “Oh, and a weird celebrity game show. Just another Saturday morning.”
Gorilla Cinema, Treviño’s hospitality group, is responsible for some of the most interesting bar and restaurant concepts in the city. It’s also the home of the themed pop-up—everything from fly-by-night movie showings to a Pan Am pop-up party complete with “flight attendant” servers decked out in authentic Pan Am uniforms.
The kind of spitballing I witnessed spawns most of Gorilla Cinema’s endeavors, and Cosmic Gorilla is no exception. That particular seed was planted four years ago, when Treviño and his team imagined a fresher, more interactive take on the “comic con” concept.
“We love comic cons to death, but it is too much of a passive experience,” he says. “So we brought a bunch of comic book artists to the Woodward Theater to show their work, with one requirement—they had to be creating something at the show.”
From then on, he knew he wanted to do a comic-themed brick-and-mortar; it was just a matter of finding the right spot. Sensing a need in the neighborhood, Treviño wanted to bring a concept to Findlay Market that was truly all ages because of the number of families the hub attracts.
His instincts were right: It’s easy for kids to get excited about a comic book shop that doubles as a board game store offering craft mocktails (as well as the hard stuff for grownups) and complimentary bowls of cereal and milk. At least that’s what I gathered from the steady stream of kids that filed into the store, wide-eyed parents in tow.
“So much of what Gorilla Cinema does is about making adults feel like kids again,” Treviño says. “Now we get to introduce a new generation to Gorilla Cinema through the parents.”
None of this would have happened, by the way, if the housing market hadn’t bottomed out in 2008. Treviño was following in his father’s footsteps as a home inspector in his native Texas. But his heart wasn’t in it, and he hated having to “show up at people’s houses and tell them everything that was wrong with their home.” What he really wanted to do was open something like Alamo Drafthouse, the bar/restaurant/movie theater he fell in love with while at college in Austin. It was with a sense of relief that he was forced to find new work during the Great Recession.
He found that work at TGI Fridays, slinging frozen margaritas behind the bar. Soon after, he started working for David Sorrells, a prominent Louisiana chef and restauranteur whom Treviño identified as his first mentor in the business. It was under Sorrells that he ran his first successful pop-up. It was called the Calcasieu Project (named for a parish in Louisiana) and it took place in old bank vault. Sorrells prepared an extravagant multi-course meal, and Treviño created a craft cocktail to go with each course.
He would probably still be in Louisiana if it weren’t for a fateful night out on Bourbon Street, where he met his future wife and business partner, Katie Fraser. She’d flown down from Cincinnati to attend a bachelorette party, and he eventually followed her back, falling more deeply in love with her and her city.
In 2014, after stints working for Jose Salazar and Molly Wellman, he set up a screen and projector, guerilla style, at an outdoor event space in Northside. He brought seats for 50 people and—against all expectations—they filled up. He showed Pulp Fiction while serving a nine-course meal prepared by Chef Martha Tiffany, formerly of Maribelle’s eat + drink. In retrospect, he’s shocked by the audacity of it. “It was completely over the top,” he says, beaming. “Like, there was a scene in the movie where Bruce Willis eats a Pop-Tart, so we served these homemade Pop-Tart-style pastries for everyone to eat along with Bruce. I still can’t believe we pulled that off.”
Luckily, Treviño and his team at Gorilla Cinema have continued to stoke that audacity as the company has grown. How else to explain a cozy watering hole based on one of the creepiest movies ever made or a Lost in Translation-themed bar where robot dumbwaiters lower drinks into private karaoke rooms through holes in the ceiling? And how else would one even begin to explain La Ofrenda, a Day of the Dead–themed tequila bar where customers are encouraged to contribute photographs and other mementos to a massive altar?
Like Cosmic Gorilla, La Ofrenda, which Treviño describes as his “heart,” is a dramatic departure from Gorilla Cinema’s previous ventures and a homage to his heritage (his grandparents, Hilda and Jose, immigrated to Texas from Mexico).
“Our first few bars were about escapism, which for me was often personal escapism,” he explains. “I spent so much time running from the small Texas town that I’m from. But now, like salmon, I find myself wanting to swim back home.” Of course, families continued to file in and out of Cosmic Gorilla as he’s telling me this. It struck me that Gorilla Cinema’s two most recent concepts have put family front and center. I’m tempted to say that this marks a new direction for Treviño. But that’s too bold a prediction to make for someone like him, one who has shown he can change directions on a dime: from home inspector to immersive impresario; from Texas to Louisiana to Cincinnati, and (metaphorically) back; from amplified spectacle to hushed communion.
If you do want to know what’s next for Treviño and crew, head down to Cosmic Gorilla, and maybe you’ll hear some of the ideas being thrown around.