By Michael E. Miller
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Maybe nightclub promoter Tommy Pooch should have stuck with the pizza business, having once owned three successful pizzerias in Miami and Miami Beach. But who wants to knead dough when you're one of the major players in South Beach clubland, when your parties regularly pop up on E! the Entertainment Channel and in Ocean Drivemagazine, when you're making a handsome living by attracting and entertaining celebrities, beautiful women, and free-spending jet-setters?
Well, as Pooch can attest, the straightforward business of making and delivering pizzas can sometimes look downright appealing when compared with the ugly side of nightlife's glitz and glamour -- especially when you're simply a party promoter, not the guy who owns the venue, owns the liquor license, and signs the checks.
Earlier this month Pooch (real name: Thomas Puccio) sued Jack Penrod, owner of Penrod's on the Beach, the massive nightclub and restaurant complex at the foot of Ocean Drive in Miami Beach. Home to Pearl Restaurant and Champagne Lounge and Nikki Beach Club, the operation is located on public parkland the city leases to Penrod in exchange for a percentage of his revenues.
In 1998 Penrod enlisted Pooch and Eric Omores, former impresario of Bash nightclub, to launch Nikki Beach. Two years later they opened Pearl. Both places have been raking in millions of dollars annually ever since. But on July 27 Pooch and Penrod abruptly ended their partnership. (Omores, who is not named in the lawsuit, is still working with Penrod, having opened Nikki Beach branches in St. Tropez and St. Barts.) Pooch alleges, among other things, that Penrod stiffed him on his share of the profits from Pearl and Nikki Beach. Furthermore, Pooch claims, Penrod had the audacity to ask him to sign an agreement containing a provision that would have prevented the promoter from ever suing Penrod as a result of their business relationship. "He wanted me to sign it because he knew he was screwing me," says Pooch while sipping tea at his spacious home on Rivo Alto island, off the Venetian Causeway.
For his part, Penrod maintains that Pooch -- who can fill a room with A-list models in one phone call -- has lost his juice. "When Eric and Tommy came in together, they did an awesome job," says Penrod. "But when Eric left, Tommy just couldn't get the job done. He wasn't bringing any business. Maybe Tommy needs to look at himself."
"He said that?" a disbelieving Pooch responds. "What an asshole."
Pooch has no plans to get back into the pizza business, even though his clash with Penrod marks the second time in three years he's been burned by a nightclub owner -- at least from his point of view. (In December 1999 Pooch brought a million-dollar lawsuit against the former owners of Chaos, a defunct South Beach club. Pooch said he had an oral agreement to own 25 percent of the business, but when he tried to cash in, Chaos's owners allegedly dumped him. This past April he settled the case for an undisclosed amount.)
No, the congenial Pooch intends to remain a prominent player in clubland. People tend to flock to him no matter where he's throwing a party. "People are very cool about following me to the next gig," he says. "They know I'll show them a good time and make them happy."
Pooch's experiences with Chaos and Penrod illuminate the often volatile relationships between nightclub owners and promoters, who are promised a share of the profits (and sometimes equity in the business itself) for delivering crowds and cash. But once a place has achieved renown, the promoter often is kicked to the curb. "It's an ego thing," Pooch says. "Once you make someone hot, they get memory loss. All of a sudden they're the reason the club is packing people in night after night."
According to Pooch, club owners will start out telling a promoter they want to operate in the shadows, away from the limelight. "But then they want to be the ones mentioned in the gossip pages," he continues. "The Chaos guys couldn't stand it when celebrities would come sit with me in the VIP room."
In the case of Nikki Beach and Pearl, Pooch and Omores (and French designer Stephane Dupoux) are credited with reviving the sagging fortunes of Penrod's, which had been essentially a beachfront sports bar. Before Pooch and Omores, the business was grossing less than one million dollars annually. With them, Pooch asserts in his lawsuit, Nikki Beach grossed more than $5 million in 2000 and 2001, and raked in nearly $13 million last year. "Yet Jack hated that people didn't know he was the owner," Pooch asserts.
The truth is that nightclub owners, particularly on South Beach, find it nearly impossible to strike gold without the use of promoters -- a business axiom well understood by Pooch, who had been hosting club parties even before he arrived on the Beach twelve years ago. It's a nightlife phenomenon that migrated from New York. "The days of club owners like Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager running the best parties are long gone," Pooch explains. "It's up to the promoters, who know the club kids, the fashion models, the locals, and the celebrities, to make a party. Most club owners don't have that kind of cachet."