By Jenn Danko
“Did you eat yet?” asks Mark Klemen from the back entryway of Funky Buddha Lounge. The sun slices through the hallway as Klemen slinks in clutching two plastic bags of fruit, nearly twenty minutes late for our meeting. A noon yoga class, followed by a routine stop by the organic Sunflower Market, put he and girlfriend (and organic culinary goddess) Verda Okmen so behind schedule that they didn’t have time for lunch.
“I brought fresh plums and dates… I even washed them right at the market because I knew I wasn’t going to have time to grab anything,” he says, placing the bags on top of the bar.
Klemen’s low voice rumbles through the day-lit confines of his brainchild, Funky Buddha Lounge, making the dark walls and leopard-print barstools look loudly intrusive at three in the afternoon. Donning a straw-laced ball cap and black zip-up fleece, Klemen’s 6’3” frame is a lean eulogy to his eco-conscious lifestyle. The sheen of his eyes contrasts all artificialness of fluorescent light inside his River West lounge, while his angular face naturally glows.
“I opened Buddha on my twenty-first birthday, back in 1996,” he says, leaning one arm against the bar. “It was really like a 21-year-old’s idea of what a club should be and it’s grown up and changed with me.”
Part of that eleven-year evolution included Klemen expanding his mission to enrich the city with better-quality—and better-tasting—food and drink options. The end result is Butterfly Social Club, a 1,500-square-foot space nestled against the cozy confines of the popular Funky Buddha Lounge. Its grand opening will coincide with Earth Day on Saturday, April 21.
A project two years in the making, “Butterfly” (as Klemen calls it for short) is an inspired vision steeped in nutrient-rich cocktails, honey-fermented wines and a few thousands pounds of mud.
“Everything inside Butterfly is built from local, natural and recycled materials—from the construction of the walls, to the booths, to the speakers encased in recycled wood…we wanted to create an environment that feels and sounds good,” Klemen says, his eyes pierced with an exuberant intensity.
Butterfly’s opening coincides with a slew of Earth Day celebrations over this weekend, including a few events located at both Buddha and Butterfly. Klemen says his involvement in the “green movement” is all part of a greater vision for living a healthier, more complete life.
“As we know better, we will do better,” he says. “We will become attracted to, consume and exercise that which sustains us and helps us on our quest to be fully realized human beings. We recognize that we have won a genetic lottery simply by being here and we intend to celebrate it responsibly.”
Klemen admits he wasn’t always responsible in his celebratory matters.
Although he says he didn’t have his first hangover until “well into my twenties,” it was at that point that he began to take a step back and look at his lifestyle decisions.
“In the beginning, I was a natural for the [nightclub] business,” he says. He bought the Funky Buddha space from his brother after dropping out of Northwestern University, despite his straight-A average. “It cost less than a year’s worth of tuition and I fixed it up for less than it would have cost to graduate [two and a half more years later],” he says. “Once I decided I would not be a lawyer, doctor or architect, I convinced [my parents] and myself of the merits of ‘experiential education.’”
Soon Klemen found himself freely immersed in the sexy charms of Buddha’s allure. His club instantly attracted a diverse camp of nightlife revelers who were more interested in having big fun than nursing big egos. “I loved late nights, not sleeping, meeting all kinds of people and experimenting with fine alcohols. I took full advantage of my position,” he says.
But as Buddha boomed, so did Klemen’s party-friendly lifestyle. Eventually, he took a step back and examined the toll his late-night living was taking on his mental and physical wellness. “I decided to do something about it,” he says. “Having some time and resources, I began to explore ways of improving my health and combat the depression that I was undergoing as a result of not really believing in what I was doing and not taking care of myself properly.”
While Buddha celebrated the vision of ethnic and racial diversity Klemen craved following his world travels in the 1990s, it was failing to uphold some of the more ecologically savvy and health-conscious standards Klemen upheld. He went back to his roots, examining his travels from the previous decade and researching systems of spiritual, herbal food and exercise. He took classes and certification courses in yoga, Chinese herbalism, raw foods, fasting and cleansing and Taoism, to name a few.
The first steps he took in restoring wellness and order to his personal and professional life was refusing all tobacco money inside Buddha (although Klemen admits he did sell American Spirits for a brief period). Then he invested “heavily” in a cleaning filtration system and made his VIP room smoke free. “At one time I owned and operated this place without air cleaning and selling Camel cigarettes,” he says, motioning around the room. “One day it dawned on me…I was in the basement with a bunch of the bartenders and they were all smoking and I was like, ‘This is ridiculous.’ I knew at that point it was taking its toll.”
Klemen says he was tired of people mistaking him for 33 when he was only 23. He was tired of eating nothing but McDonald’s for eight days straight and scaring himself as he watched his stepfather die of lung cancer.
“At some point, our habits catch up with us,” he says. He was ready to make a change.
Butterfly Social Club began crafting its cocoon two years ago, nurtured with idealistic care from Klemen’s evolving organic philosophies. “I conceptualized it as a way of getting me back to the roots of [Funky] Buddha,” he says, leading me through its entryway. Upon entry, an overwhelming sense of coolness settles over the skin, while earthy wafts of mud flood the air.
“What you are smelling is earth,” he says, directing us toward the bar in the middle of the space. Behind it, a mural of an ancient Mayan pyramid frames the center of the bar. The walls are bathed in warm tones of peach and yellow, evoking the essence of a Costa Rican sunset. The only noise inside the lounge streams from a mud fountain bubbling near the front entryway. Eventually, the fountain will house an energy bike that will provide a portion of natural energy to the space.
Chef Verda Okmen, who joins us on the tour with a plum in her hand, says that all of the walls, booths, doorways and the DJ booth are crafted from an ancient mixture of straw, mud and clay. “Even on the hottest days it stays cool in here all day long,” she says.
Designer Miguel Elliott (also known as “the mud guy,” according to Klemen) crafted Butterfly’s entire mud-based look, creating tree trunks and branches that jut from the walls and are adorned with fake leaves. The rounded benches and stones are warmed up with velvety pillows while ancient Mayan artifacts adorn the walls. Butterfly’s design is so steeped in ancient mysticism that mud-made “magic” mushrooms sprout from the top of the DJ booth, creating a magical sense of realism inside the space.
“My inspiration behind the mud design is that I was looking for a way to curb the sound in here,” Klemen says. “I wanted this room to be like a womb—a cocoon.”
The arched doorways—framed by mud-made tree trunks—act as a sound insulator, Klemen explains. It could also be the largest continuous mud sculpture in the world, according to Elliott. The club’s sound system, designed by local sound juggernaut Howard Windmiller of Sound-Bar fame, features speakers encased in recycled wood, giving their placement a natural feel amidst the crush of fake greenery.
“All of the materials we used in its building are eco-friendly materials,” Klemen says. From the mud garnered from local excavation sites to the Mica glittering over the mud-made booths, everything is connected to the natural flow of the earth—including the bathrooms.
“Each of the four bathrooms represent the four elements of life—fire, earth, water and air,” he says. And all are pointing in the proper direction, framed by both an eagle and condor taking flight over the doorways.
Klemen sees Butterfly as an opportune doorway leading people to make healthier lifestyle decisions. Don’t compare it to an oxygen bar, a tea room “or any other term I’ve heard thrown around out there,” he says.
“Ultimately, Butterfly is my opportunity to make a living doing something healthful for people that raises awareness and inspires positive action and change.”
That means serving a menu comprised of nutritive and herbal-based creations both alcoholic and non-alcoholic in nature. Chef Okmen crafts a variety of “superfoods” including the sensational “Berry Happy Chocolate,” made with raw Ecuadorian chocolate, Peruvian maca root, Tibetan goji berries, green grass powder, Celtic sea salt, agave and raw honey. One taste had me tearing through the rest of my four-piece serving in seconds.
“These are creations that are so healthy for you, you shouldn’t feel guilty about eating them,” Klemen says, and notes that desserts is actually “stressed” spelled backwards.
Butterfly’s culinary and beverage philosophies revolve around one-hundred-percent organic principles. Everything served from behind the bar is “uncompromisingly organic,” crafted from fresh fruit and sourced from bottled spring water.
One of Butterfly’s flagship drinks promises to surpass the energizing effects of Red Bull (“Sketchy stuff,” Klemen quips). The “Roots Rocks Rasta” is meant to be a natural alternative to the daily Starbucks jolt or energy drink meltdown. It includes a cocktail of natural herbs, including rainforest-grown yerba mate, Hawaiian Mamaki tea, wild chaparral and a Tibetan elixir for energy. The infusion, served with or without organic alcohol, prices at $6 and $10, respectively.
Other creations include unpasteurized, unfiltered apple cider, “one of the few bottled products I actually trust,” Klemen says. Despite its 4.8-percent alcohol content, he says he would “give his child this before he gave them a bottle of apple juice.”
Dubbed “The Enchanted Apple” on Butterfly’s cocktail menu, the beverage mixes organic Illinois Apple Cider infused with cinnamon, anise, nutmeg and sassafras with Vanuatu Kava Kava.
Also on the menu: an array of honey wines (traditionally known as meads), rounded out with Big Island honey to create “raw living fermented beverages,” Klemen says. Other drinks, such as the “Berry Happy Goji Ginger Tea,” blend spring organic ginger, spring water and Tibetan goji beers and sweeten it with raw honey. The brew will be served with or without the alcoholic punch of pomegranate wine.
The versatility of Butterfly’s drink menu will allow the venue to be open for both daytime and evening hours. Klemen hopes that people will see his herbal pick-me-ups as an alternative to Starbucks. In the evenings, Butterfly will focus more on its alcoholic creations, with the help of downtempo lounge music and muted lighting.
“It’s going to be a constant work in progress,” he says, standing in the middle of the space.
Beyond the physical venue, Klemen hopes to make Butterfly Social Club a social network that will promote eco events and field trips. He envisions hosting raw-food potlucks, trips to botanical gardens and retreats to organic farms. Additionally, he will sell all foods and products used in Butterfly’s cocktails or connect customers with a supplier for the best deals.
“Healthy food is not only for the wealthy,” says Klemen, who has been wholesaling products for himself for the past ten years. “It has been, and still is, difficult to source most of our products…and the ones that are available at Whole Foods are expensive.”
But Klemen isn’t about to let a few partially hydrogenated obstacles hold him back. “I would much rather feed people what I eat when I get home as opposed to, say, the hotdog vendor.”