Building a Better Nightclub

As of this writing, Nocturnal doesn't resemble the lushly opulent and high-tech superclub that is scheduled to debut on March 19, two days before this year's Winter Music Conference begins. Just weeks before the grand opening, construction crews are still working around the clock. On a recent weekday, they were lining the interior of the three-story warehouse with dry wall and wood panels, the final step before painting. Ads had just gone out for an army of bartenders, cashiers, and security personnel, with some 150 positions to fill. Reportedly, there's been a lot of interest.

No surprise. Located at 50 NE Eleventh St. and bearing an $11 million price tag, Nocturnal is one of the most expensive and highly anticipated spectacles to hit Miami in years. And at 20,000 square feet and a capacity of 1500 people, Nocturnal is nearly as large as its next-door neighbor Space, which at 25,000 square feet is the city's biggest dance club.

It has taken nearly three years to complete Nocturnal, and the promotional hype preceding its debut has been in full swing for months. The marketing kit boasts that the nightclub will "set a new standard for the nightlife industry: style, substance, and service."

"This club is absolutely state of the art," said Dade Sokoloff, who has overseen Nocturnal's construction since the fall of 2003 and has just been given the new title of club director. "There is nothing going in here that's not the best you can get." The 41-year-old Sokoloff is himself a seasoned veteran of Miami's glittery twilight world. In 1987, he was one of Ocean Drive's first employees, assembling that lifestyle magazine's sales staff. And as co-owner of the Shadow Lounge from 1997 to 2001, he was one of the first (along with the management at Groovejet) to bring such international progressive house stars as Paul Oakenfold, Dave Ralph, and Sasha to South Beach.

Nocturnal will be a marvel from the moment you enter, Sokoloff boasted. The staircase approach to the entrance, which resembles a garage door, is nine feet wide. It can be fitted with a ramp that will allow vehicles to drive up and through the door -- ideal, he said, for auto companies looking for a venue to display new models.

The club will be defined by several themes, explained 33-year-old Denise Grant, in charge of Nocturnal's publicity and special events. Look for industrialized steel, Asian minimalism, richly textured bars and seating.

The ground floor's dance area --capacity 600 -- will be lined left and right by rows of six granite Romanesque columns. Beyond the columns, two identical bars will line the far walls -- those walls themselves covered in gray slate and floor-to-ceiling waterfalls.

As you walk farther into Nocturnal's depths, you'll find restrooms and clusters of furniture -- and that rarest and most precious of amenities: a café serving light snacks, hot and cold, to revelers who may be tired or inebriated. Dumbwaiters in a basement kitchen will ferry up orders to the serving staff. "You'll be able to come here, walk through, and get a croissant sandwich or a bowl of fruit at sunrise," said Sokoloff.

A glass staircase leads up to the second floor, which is partitioned into four distinct areas and will feature two VIP lounges, two DJ booths paneled in teak, and a catwalk, where patrons can look out over the dance floor below.

One of the DJs will be spinning for the downstairs area and much of the second floor; two doors separate one half of the second floor from the other, where the second DJ will reside. The third area, an "über VIP lounge," is encased in glass partitions and is swathed in powder blue and gray suede. The fourth is a very, very exclusive VIP lounge, nestled in a far corner and protected from prying eyes by a velvet curtain. Its interiors are laid out in similar dark velvet.

Finally, after walking up another flight of stairs, patrons will find a tented rooftop lounge that offers views of the Port of Miami. "You can see the most amazing sunrise," said Grant. "Full-immersion visuals" that offer 360-degree vistas of the bay will be projected onto the tent's interior walls. Grant called the ascension from the dark ground floor to the airy rooftop lounge an "elevation of the spirit."

Then there are Nocturnal's technical details. A $900,000 computer-controlled LED light system will shower up to 16 million color combinations over the club's surfaces. A Funktion One sound system incorporates between $700,000 and $800,000 in equipment. Even the suspended crystal ball will be unique, said Sokoloff. With a circumference of nine feet and custom-built for $30,000, it will be "the largest biggest crystal ball in the world."

Sounds good. Still, Nocturnal has taken an unusually long time to complete; nearly three years have passed since planning first got under way. The one constant is owner Glenn Kofman, a 29-year-old entrepreneur who's so successful, he says, that he hopes to take his telecommunications company public within the next few months.

How did someone so young become a multimillionaire in less than a decade? "I got bad grades in [public] high school," recalled Kofman, who grew up in Chicago. When his parents decided to send him to Marmion Abbey & Academy, a military academy, to gain some maturity, he knew better than to put up much of a fight. Today he counts his experience there as the foundation for his later successes. "[Military school] teaches you organization; it teaches you discipline," he said. "It teaches you a lot of things that help you become better at anything you do. It could be business, or it could be cooking an egg omelet." Nonetheless before his senior year he transferred back to a public high school, Glenbrook North. "[Marmion] is an all-boys school, so there wasn't a lot of social contact with girls," he explained, adding that he felt he wasn't learning enough social skills as a result. "It was unhealthy for me. I needed the daily contact."

In 1994, he enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Initially, he planned for a career in pharmaceutical research, but the more he looked into the field, the more he realized he'd have to earn several degrees and use industry connections to get a decent job. "What's the next best job?" he asked rhetorically. "Working the counter at Walgreens! And I can't do that." He dropped out of college after his sophomore year.

Not sure what his career path would be, Kofman had found the answer while still in college after a friend gave him a motivational tape. The tape, which was about long-distance and network marketing, explained how one could make money by selling long-distance telephone service: Sign up twenty people, and recruit three sales agents under you. When the agents sign up customers for you, you get a percentage of their sales. Concurrently when they enlist more employees, you get a percentage of the new agents' sales, too. Much like a telemarketing firm, the system creates a revenue base by cultivating, and profiting from, an ambitious staff. "It's a pyramid scheme, all the way down," said Kofman.

"I liked what the [tape] sold," he continued, noting that he was impressed by the potential of its concepts. "Sell electricity, sell gas, sell phone, cable. All that's a utility, meaning there's a month-to-month need for it. You always need it. It applies to every consumer."

So in 1995 when he was just nineteen, Kofman created Globcom Inc. in the Northbrook suburb of Chicago. Globcom is a telecommunications carrier that purchases the right to use MCI's phone lines and to sell local phone and DSL service directly to consumers. It targets suburban families looking for an alternative to the major phone companies. Today, Kofman estimates that his company is worth $50 million and operates in all 50 states. "The key to growth in any business is marketing," he said when asked how Globcom Inc. ballooned so quickly. "That's something I do well. I know niche markets."

Despite a few bumps in the road -- in 2003, the FCC fined Globcom several hundred thousand dollars for failing to pay enough back taxes -- Kofman's ride to the top has been fast and smooth, and he displays the confidence and near-cockiness one might expect to see in a guy who struck it rich before the tender age of 30.

"It's something I've never done," he said of his foray into the world of nightclub ownership. "It's completely outside telecommunications. But I believe I can open up any business. Nightclubs, clothing stores, restaurants -- they all have the same concept in mind, which is the business of accounting, marketing, and sales. How I approach it is, it's all about hiring the right people."

Here's how the idea for Nocturnal took shape: Kofman often vacationed in Miami, he said, and the city's vibrant nightlife led him to look for investment opportunities here. He honed in on the burgeoning Park West neighborhood in the downtown area, and the block between NE Eighth Street and NE Eleventh Street in particular. He also wanted to take advantage of the 24-hour liquor licenses the City of Miami has been offering to entrepreneurs who build nightclubs, supper clubs, and bars in Park West to help create a thriving entertainment district. Hopefully, said Kofman, Nocturnal will become the first piece in a patchwork of businesses he'll own throughout the area.

In July 2002, Kofman bought the warehouse at 50 NE Eleventh St., paying $910,000 for the property. In addition, he bought a stake in a second warehouse at 90 NE Eleventh St., with plans to convert it into a nightclub as well. (He later sold his interest in that property.)

Another story involves Kofman's former partners. In a separate interview, club director Sokoloff explained that these one-time associates, not Kofman himself, were the inspiration for Nocturnal. "The club kind of started like most clubs start," he said. "Most clubs start because there's a guy -- or guys -- who've been in the club business, who have some know-how, but don't have money and want to open a club.

"Then there's a guy with money," he continued, referring to Kofman. "They all form a partnership and open a club. And that's how [Nocturnal] started. There were two guys who came down here and had the idea to do this."

According to Florida Department of State Division of Corporation records, the partners included Chris Mingilino and Philip Arnoni, who co-owned a Chicago nightclub called Nocturnal. (Other men listed on the records include Robert J. Verberg II and Joe Vitale.) In separate phone interviews, both Mingilino and Arnoni confirmed that they had been part of the Nocturnal Miami project but declined to comment further. Kofman himself acknowledged that he had a few early partners but refused to disclose their names or the extent of their involvement.

At any rate, Kofman parted ways with them by spring 2003. "I ended that relationship real quick," he noted, "because obviously they really didn't know what they were doing."

Construction came to a halt, and the project foundered. Progress did not resume until January 2004.

Sokoloff also suggested that the Chicago club owners, not Kofman, were to blame for Nocturnal's early problems. "There were design issues -- they really hadn't thought out the design -- and they had construction issues. They had all kinds of shit wrong," he said, and the relationship ended badly.

There were "a lot of obstacles" while building Nocturnal, Kofman acknowledged. "A bad contractor at the beginning, a bad designer at the beginning. Not necessarily bad publicity, but a lot of negative responses. Even people I know who were helping me were saying, öThis is too difficult.' öHow can you do this?' öThis is a tough project.' öYou should put your money somewhere else.' But I'm the kind of guy where, if I start something, I finish it."

On August 1, 2003, several months after Kofman split with his original partners, he hired Bob Jones as his consultant. The 34-year-old Jones was managing a steak-and-seafood restaurant in Fredericksburg, Virginia, when Hunter Group South, a consortium of nightclub owners, hired him in 1997 as operations manager for Salvation, a club at 1771 West Ave. in South Beach. Salvation was shuttered in 1999, but Jones moved on, first as operations manager for Level, then general manager for Space, and finally general manager for Rain.

Most club owners who purchase a building simply renovate the interior, but the old 50 NE Eleventh St. warehouse was built of wood, making it potentially unsafe for a rowdy crowd of a thousand dancers. So Kofman had devised a plan to make Nocturnal from scratch by completely demolishing the warehouse's insides, knocking down its back wall and part of its front wall, and destroying its rooftop and floor base, leaving nothing but a hollow frame.

When Jones joined Kofman's management team, the walls had been rebuilt. "The building was about ... only ten percent completed," he said. But other aspects of the construction process were driving costs over budget. "It was a really great project," he said. "But some of the pricing of things seemed out of line ... it seemed as if they were spending a little more money than was necessary." Three months after Kofman took him on as a consultant, Jones was named the new general manager; he subsequently recommended Sokoloff, whom he knew from the local nightlife scene.

Problems that emerged once construction restarted in January 2004 were minor. During September 2004, for example, Miami-Dade County announced hurricane warnings in anticipation of Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. Even though the storms missed Miami, construction was suspended for nearly a month.

Then in early October, Sokoloff recalled, Telesco Associates, an award-winning contractor that had built Opium Garden and crobar, reported that it couldn't find enough concrete to continue. "Building materials can be a hassle like that," he said, adding that high demand for hurricane-protection materials caused a brief scarcity. "It's one of those things you don't even count on," he added. "You think that when you need concrete, you make a phone call and the concrete truck rolls up." The shortage delayed construction for two weeks.

Complicating matters was the fact that Nocturnal's staff had begun making arrangements to open by the end of October. When it became clear that wouldn't happen, a few announced performances were canceled. One show in particular, with DJ Craze and Felix da Housecat, had been booked three months in advance. "It was too late to cancel without screwing over the DJ and his agent," Sokoloff explained. Luckily, he managed to work out a last-minute production deal with the Opium Group for the two stars to perform at Opium Garden.

Jones compared the seemingly never-ending Nocturnal project to his old nightclub, Rain, which also took years to build. "They basically tore down everything but the front wall and started brand new -- and that's 12,000 square feet in a [one-story building]. It took them about two years from about the start of the project to the day they opened," he said. Then he added, laughing, "At the same time, they built the Empire State Building in thirteen months."

If location means everything, Nocturnal's residence in the growing Park West neighborhood may prove to be a problem. Can the Eleventh Street block sustain yet another superclub?

To Nocturnal's immediate left at 34 NE Eleventh St. is Space; until recently, another dance club at 90 NE Eleventh St., Club Envy, sat on its right. Meanwhile other neighborhood competition includes Players, the 30 NE Eleventh St. sports bar that has recently begun hosting music events, too; and a strip joint at 29 NE Eleventh St., Gold Rush Miami.

Nocturnal's main competition, however, will be Space. An internationally recognized emporium for progressive house and trance fans, Space overshadowed the struggling Club Envy until the latter announced it was closing its doors. Nocturnal probably can't compete with Space, either, so it will have to present a viable alternative.

Sokoloff predicted that Nocturnal will not only be a place to dance, but a technological and aesthetic experience that will dazzle everyone, from people looking for a good time to discerning music aficionados. "What we don't want to do is compete with Space musically," said Sokoloff.

In contrast to Space, which caters to "true" electronic music fans who want to see the most popular DJs in the world (Tisto, Paul Van Dyk, Deep Dish), Sokoloff said that Nocturnal will feature lesser-known but critically acclaimed artists, such as Armand Van Helden and Felix da Housecat. Its residents include techno maven DJ Strike, house DJ Edgar V, and turntables guru DJ Craze. The rooftop lounge will feature performers enlisted by deep house/soul promoters Aquabooty (Joe Budious and Tomas Ceddia).

"Our job is not only to entertain people, but to service customers," said Sokoloff. For example, when a customer purchases a bottle, the wait staff will use a Palm Pilot to automatically transmit the order to the basement; there's a kiosk that can shuttle bottles from the basement to any of the three floors. "The bus boy and the bar back don't have to go any further than that to get anything you need," said Sokoloff. "It'll cut that 30- to 40-minute time down to five minutes, six minutes."

But even great service won't guarantee patrons will continue to show up once the novelty of partying in a new place wears off. For now, the strategy is to offer a bit of everything: music, food, bay views, multimedia shows, even concerts. Celebrities might even host theme nights, Sokoloff said, and the club is trying to attract corporate events.

All these elements will be necessary to survive in a neighborhood that, with the exception of Space, has yet to take off. "There will be production every weekend, freak shows -- whatever it takes to entertain people, to make people feel like they got their money's worth," said Sokoloff. "If this street is going to survive and we're all going to do well, we have to do something different."

Nocturnal is scheduled to open for an invitation-only "soft opening" on Friday, March 19. The following week it will host a series of parties during the annual Winter Music Conference, including Circus Miami 05, headlined by platinum-certified big-beat producer Fat Boy Slim and house music icon Frankie Knuckles. After conference, the management team will shutter its doors for a few weeks to assess progress. The official grand opening party is tentatively scheduled for the weekend of April 21.

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Mosi Reeves
Contact: Mosi Reeves