Opium owner: ‘We didn’t call our bar heroin or opiate. We named it after a flower.’

Opium opens at the end of the month. Photo by The Danforth Inn.

What’s in a name?

More than the owners of The Danforth Inn bargained for. Shortly after the Portland hoteliers announced plans for the rebrand of their soon-to-open bar called Opium, comments streamed in.

Some media cried foul over the perceived brazen swipe at Maine’s crippling heroin epidemic. Others, according to the owner, called to say don’t change a thing.

“We are not trying to use this epidemic to open up a 24-seat bar. That is not what this is about,” said co-owner Raymond Brunyanszki, a Netherlands native who also owns the Camden Harbour Inn with partner Oscar Verest. 

“Coming from the Netherlands there is a long history of communication around drugs. It is a more liberal country with many programs to support people and get them back on track,” Brunyanszki said Wednesday, adding that he is not capitalizing on addiction or heroin chic with his new nightlife endeavor. “In the Netherlands we don’t think drugs are cool anymore.”

Raymond Brunyanszki

Aware of the deadly drug crisis in the state, Brunyanszki looked back a century to Shanghai in the 1900s for inspiration. Similar to the American speakeasy, an opium den was the epitome of cool and is where the term hipster may have derived from.

The bar, separated from the inn’s restaurant Tempo Dulu by a front hallway, has served up fancy cocktails since its 2015 inception, but was overlooked and needed its own personality. Brunyanszki conducted market research in New York, Miami and Portland with three names and Opium won unanimously. 

“We used an artistic name to give us a platform to have a narrative that is luxury and Asian,” he said. “It is on the same grounds as ‘The Roaring 20s.'”

Comments posted publicly on the bar’s Facebook page ranged from “sorry guys, but this is in extremely poor taste and shows a complete lack of empathy for the situation here in Portland,” to “I will be sure to come to this bar, and tell my friends about it.”

Other commenters suggested that the use of the word “addictive” in marketing material would cost the business customers. “What a tin-eared, terrible concept,” wrote one man on Facebook. “Won’t see me there.”

Opium poppy is a plant from which drugs like heroin, morphine and codeine are derived, but  Brunyanszki was quick to point out “there is a difference between opium and heroin.”

In fashion circles opium is used to market high-end products, from perfume to clothing, and is slapped on clubs worldwide. Fellow nightclub impresario Joshua Miranda, of soon to open Old Port bar Blyth and Burrows said this is a sign Portland’s nightlife scene is becoming more sophisticated.

“There is an Opium bar in every city in America. Miami has a whole restaurant group called the Opium Group and they run several of the hottest clubs in the city,” said Miranda. “I think people are being too sensitive.”

The bar, which will serve premium cocktails and close at 11:30 p.m., is not a place that tolerates excess said Brunyanszki. Just the opposite.

“We are not are using the name heroin or opiate. We are not suggesting people use drugs or get drunk, we are not that kind of bar,” he said. “This is upscale dining where some cocktails are $15 and dinner at Tempo Dulu will cost you $85. It’s a niche and well-educated market that understands the difference between opium and heroin and this is a reference.”

— BDN Portland reporter Jake Bleiberg contributed to this post.


Kathleen Pierce

About Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.