The Art and Science of Clubland
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: Opium and G-Spot already have been snagged, Heroin and Clit remain 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 Drive profile. 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 dance on 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 know of 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.
In the second category was -- well, everybody else. Certainly a venue the size of crobar's 17,000 square feet would have to let in an awful lot of, ahem, regular people just to fill the room and cover the overhead, thereby making any kind of elitist door policy impossible.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the VIP section. Hollywood celebs and big spenders alike began flocking to crobar, apparently deciding that as long as they were safely sequestered (or, as with Harrison Ford, hidden behind a closed door), they were more than happy to be under the same roof as all those average Joes and Josés -- who in turn delighted at the prospect of catching a glimpse of the evening's stars.
As the winter 2000 season wrapped, one of the owners of the high-end Chaos confided to Kulchur that business had fallen off almost 50 percent. The bottle-buying crowd, which is the backbone of VIP-oriented joints, just wasn't big enough to go around, and between crobar and Level (another humongous Washington Avenue space that has taken an approach akin to crobar, with similar success), the old players were getting squeezed. Soon thereafter both the Living Room and Chaos were sold to new management. Tellingly when Level's Gerry Kelly tried to relaunch Chaos as the intimately upscale Vivid, he also foundered, perhaps a victim of the new economic paradigm he'd helped create.
Trying to pry crobar's specific recipe for ascendance from Pincente is not easy. He studiously avoids critiquing the practices of any competing clubs by name. Instead he proudly cites his willingness to pay for admission to his colleagues' establishments rather than insisting on being comped after flashing his business card. It hardly seems an important point until one realizes that the pecking order of South Beach's nightlife often resembles nothing so much as a high school cafeteria, with club figures gazing warily at one another across the rigid hierarchy of their lunchroom tables. And even though Pincente's job puts him squarely at the cool kids' table, he chooses to remain a low-key figure around town, someone who would have to produce his business card before a supercilious doorman recognized him.
"There are no new nightclub ideas," Pincente says. "You want a number?" he asks with a smirk. "There are 300 ideas. That's it. Look at Tide -- how many more times are they going to come out with a new Tide?" He begins good-naturedly rattling off these 300 different party concepts: live animals ("In Chicago the petting zoos bring their own permits"), bondage night ("We've got a full rack here"), before changing tack with a hint of exasperation.
"We're cool, for lack of a better word," he says of his fellow crobar staffers. "We're edgy, we're hip, we're trendy. But we are businessmen." It's that concept which seems to be a key to the club's profitability. Unlike, say, Liquid's heyday, where insiders complained that personalities such as Ingrid Casares drained the payroll but did little in the way of actual work beyond occasionally showing up, crobar lacks any "hired faces." Behind all the fabulosity and Pincente's references to the Beach as "the American Riviera" are the same old-fashioned MBA precepts that govern the staging of a Broadway show. The neo-adolescent behavior that seems to be the modus operandi of so many other Beach clubs only gets in the way of making money.
Pincente grows more animated as he leads Kulchur back downstairs, pointing out facets of the two million dollars plus spent renovating the club while adhering to Miami Beach's strict Art Deco preservation codes. He stops before the main entryway, a long dark hall that funnels clubgoers into the main room, with its dramatic high ceiling and light show. "Compression and release," he says with an admiring chuckle. "It's an old architectural trick." He motions to the semi-enclosed banquettes that ring the ground floor, and then to narrow passageways that in turn lead to a second-floor balcony. "It's like a Habitrail; you keep 'em moving."
So are these voluminous "superclubs," which provide over-the-top spectacle, the key to cashing in on South Beach? True to form Pincente declines to make any sweeping pronouncements. Pressed for the single greatest difference between crobar and the competition, he says carefully: "A lot of people are still remembering the so-called golden days of South Beach, from 1990 to 1995." Gathering steam, he adds sharply: "Well, the golden days are over! All those people who were going out then are either married, dead, or too old."
Read The Art and Science of Clubland, Part 2 -- crobar co-owner Ken Smith explains the importance of midgets.
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