The Art and Science of Clubland

Get yourself a building, pump a million into it, hire a doorman, and let the money flow? Not quite.

It all looks so easy. Just lease a space on Washington Avenue, hire a DJ, throw a velvet rope up out front, and voilà! You're a South Beach club owner! All that's left to do now is pick out a name for your venture, preferably one with a not-so-subtle allusion to the free-flowing sex and drugs your nightclub will be serving up to discerning patrons (note to the uninitiated: Opiumand G-Spotalready have been snagged, Heroinand Clitremain available).

Soon after you've opened shop, European models will be dancing wildly on your bar top while Hollywood celebrities pose at your side for the obligatory Ocean Driveprofile. Monied gentlemen will approach you, asking in suave, exotic accents for VIP access, in order to better enjoy the privilege of downing those $300 bottles of liquor that cost you a mere $15.

At least that's how it looks to the annual crop of would-be nightlife impresarios who descend on the Beach every season, and just as predictably slink away come summertime, accompanied only by the gnashing of their investors' teeth and the sucking sound made by six-figure sums of capital disappearing into the void. Bacchanalia? Wax? As but two of last year's grander flameouts illustrate, despite more than $100 million worth of alcohol being sold on South Beach during that same time, actually turning a profit in clubland remains a tricky business.

Which makes the thriving state of crobar -- one of 2000's few genuine success stories -- that much more impressive. According to co-owner Ken Smith, last year crobar grossed ten million dollars, of which approximately one quarter ended up as profit for himself and fellow co-owners Callin Fortis and Bob Myers. And if the size of current crowds is any indication, 2001 looks to be equally lucrative for the trio. Obviously crobar's management knows something the competition doesn't.


On a recent Friday afternoon, the interior of crobar (originally constructed as a movie theater in 1938) wasn't looking too glamorous. "Yo, I need two pink and two green," a workman barked out in a thick Brooklyn accent, pointing to a row of overhead lightbulbs. Behind him, several other paint-splattered men were concentrating on the 37-foot-high ceiling, hoisting up large banners which announced ASS, FUCK, and LICK, all decorations for that evening's "Sex" theme party.

Of course by the time that shindig actually gets rolling, none of this work crew will be able to get anywhere near their handiwork. Their dusty jeans and mullet haircuts would keep them cooling their heels amid the crush outside the club's front door.

The irony isn't lost on Paolo Pincente, crobar's marketing director, who previously honed his buzz-creating skills at the Chicago crobar -- one of twelve nightclubs and restaurants owned in that city by Smith, Fortis, and Myers's Big Time Productions. A black T-shirt emblazoned with Shut the fuck up and danceon his chest belies Pincente's calm, measured tone as he speaks.

"In Chicago crobar is the world's largest Cheers," he says to Kulchur. "Everybody knows everybody, and they don't care about star power. They're more interested in who the bartender is; they're looking for familiar faces." He continues with a wry smile: "In Miami you don't even know the face; you knowof the face."

That much is clear from Pincente and Kulchur's current surroundings -- a windowless VIP suite at the very top of the club, complete with its own custom-designed bathroom so its exclusive patrons won't have to suffer the indignity of peeing alongside "regular VIP" folks on the second floor, who shouldn't be confused with "filler," the unfortunate anonymous revelers confined to the ground floor.

Pincente explains that the suite is favored by stars such as actor Harrison Ford, who after a long day of filming in Miami was looking for a little privacy for himself and a select group of pals.

But why would Harrison Ford want to drag his friends to sit inside a vaultlike chamber, cut off from all the music, all the people, all the action?

A sympathetic look crosses Pincente's face as he answers the question: "Maybe somebody like Harrison Ford wants a little bit of privacy."

Kulchur still doesn't understand. If Ford doesn't want to be hassled, why come all the way to this isolated spot? Wouldn't it be easier for him to just hang in his hotel room?

Pincente pauses and cocks an eyebrow, as if indulging a child who keeps asking why the sky is blue. "Maybe he wants to go out with his friends."

Kulchur isn't the only one in Miami confused by this logic, however. As crobar prepared for its initial opening on December 28, 1999, many of the figures behind the Beach's tonier clubs scoffed at the notion that Harrison Ford, or anyone with that degree of name recognition or financial clout, would venture through the new club's doors. Conventional clubland wisdom divided the terrain into two categories.

First were the small establishments, such as the Living Room, which catered predominantly to high-rollers and celebs, the women who were attracted to them, as well as a sprinkling of out-of-towners willing to pony up the required cash for the opportunity to bask in it all. It was a gathering whose exclusivity was its very attraction; keeping a tight lid on entry wasn't just a point of pride, it was the underlying business principle.

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