Entertainment Ringleader Matt Strauss Heralds in New Era of NYC Nightlife

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The Rickey and PHD Uptown opened with all the usual fanfare expected from an opening by the best players in town. The girls were tall and beautiful, and the men seemed wealthy and cognizant. All the usual and unusual players were in attendance, among them the extremely friendly Norman Reedus of The Walking Dead, who appeared to be unarmed, showered and enjoying life among the living.

By all accounts and observations the Dream “Team” folks have yet another hit. They make it look easy, but as one who’s created similar illusions before, the Hospitality business is hard work, packed with endless planning and sleepless, paranoid nights. A manager giving a final pep talk to staff instructed them to “smile as much as possible,” adding that “things would indeed go wrong, but a smile would most of the time save the day.” Could it be as simple as that?

My Facebook page has become littered with invites to club reunions from bygone days. A recent Nells reunion was one of the best parties in quite some time as revelers sought to relive a time often dubbed the “Glory Days of Nightlife.” Slated for the near future are even more reunions for Save The Robots, Danceteria, Limelight and Tunnel, but while those “Glory Days” were fun, today offers the same distractions (or even more) if you know where to look. Tonight there are still sexy people doing sexy things, dancing to the beats of a different drummer, finding and losing love and doing all that was ever done.

Nightlife in Manhattan has changed dramatically, since most of the debauchery has been dispatched to the outer boroughs. Manhattan’s no longer affordable to the unwashed masses, in return creating a club culture built on tourists and black card-wielding business types. Clubs now embrace both pop music and patrons who commonly hang with like-minded types, fostering painfully homogenous environments. The gays are hanging with the gays, whites with whites, blacks with blacks, and add to that class disparity. Diversity is essentially nonexistent.

At the opening of the Rickey, I was asked to DJ and came early to witness preparation for the opening of the doors, seeing the new nightlife firsthand—this softened maligned systematic nightlife. Those who complain about the state of things have plenty of choices to attend, but Strategic Group does it right and at its core are players like Matt Strauss with an MBA from Yale to go with his tireless obsession for making money off throwing fun parties.

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The Rickey

I caught up with Strauss, the managing partner of Food and Beverage at Dream Downtown and Dream Midtown Hotels in NYC, to gain some insight about the huge success of NYC’s most successful nightlife organization.

The opening of the Ricky at the Dream Midtown is the launch of a new brand. Tell me more about that.

“The Rickey takes its name for the turn of the 19th to 20th Century cocktail known as the ‘Lime Rickey.’  It was named after a Washington DC bar owner turned lobbyist named Colonel Joe Rickey, who was one of the first people at his bar to use fresh fruit in cocktails. We think this history and story is the perfect launching off point for The Rickey, which is a craft cocktail bar serving stylish, super fresh ingredient drinks and personally curated wines in Midtown. As this neighborhood is surrounded by office buildings that house some of the most powerful people in the world, we see The Rickey being the bar where guests can enjoy a high quality cocktail while doing real business.

And with the room designed with old and new elements ranging from green velvet couches to steam punk lamps, we see the brand building as the place in Midtown to get the best cocktails. With cocktails like ‘The Cartel,’ which has a coconut water ice cube block slowly melting into the drink as it matches with the rum, fresh pineapple juice and coco bean flavors, and ‘The Going Back to Cali’ that perfectly blends muddled avocado and hemp into a vodka-based drink, I know we are onto something special here that once people try, they will crave and want to come back for.”

PHD is the second incarnation of the brand with the first being at the Dream Downtown. Why expand the brand as opposed to launching another brand?

“The PHD brand has been a great success for us downtown and is the flagship brand of our partnership with the Dream Hotel group. We have built something downtown with PHD, which stands for ‘Penthouse at Dream’ that means, ‘this is not your run-of-the-mill rooftop.’  While it has great views of the city, it is a sexier spot than other rooftops, has better quality food and cocktails, and has a great crowd; this is what we are bringing to Midtown.”

At the opening I witnessed a great deal of the Strategic Group players on hand, from principals to promoters as well as staff from your other venues. Tell me how to launch a brand.

“For PHD we will be involving a number of our ‘usual suspects’ to help us bring some of our Downtown flavor to our new Midtown location. With the space being two floors, the smaller rooms will create a fun nightlife vibe with better energy than anything else in the neighborhood. The Rickey is our company’s first craft cocktail bar and we are excited to add this type of venue to our portfolio.”

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The PHD

How do you keep your brands from competing with each other?

“We work hard to make each nightlife brand one hundred percent its own unique experience.  PHD is a brand where you party while looking over the city you conquered that day. While it is a rooftop that gets the nightlife vibe more than other rooftops in NYC, it does get going on the earlier side compared to our other nightlife venue. When people are looking for a spot post-dinner in Midtown or Downtown to get the nightlife feel earlier, PHD is where to go, but if you want a more music-focused big club luxury nightlife experience, Marquee or Lavo are your spots. If you want the cool downtown ultra-stylish club that skews to hip-hop and open format music, Avenue or Tao Downtown nightclubs are your spots and if underground sexy rock den is your scene, then the Electric Room is for you. I don’t think our brands cannibalize or compete with each other because our guests want a specific experience each night and we are finding different ways to give it to them.”

You have a great education. How important is an education to the new breed of nightlife operators?

“Today the strong operators have high business acumen, as well as being real personable connectors with charisma to spare. The day-to-day managers are in this because they want to be the producers of the show. They are involved in so much more real business, from budgets being looked over by banks to high level HR, and team building to inventory controls. Higher education is a big help in the business. I personally utilize my MBA every day in my life and I am finding it to be a great help. But while some of my best managers have great educations from places like Northwestern and the University of Virginia, others have been just as strong due to high IQs and have learned on the job how to navigate this new world of nightlife and restaurants.”

What are you looking for in an employee?

“Some people fall into the restaurant and nightlife business out of necessity, but others have a real passion for hospitality. We train all our managers in the interview process to be looking for staff with this trait.  Honestly, if someone is a naturally happy person and is very enthusiastic about being in the service industry and not just doing this to make ends meet, then they are the staff we want no matter their experience. One step more important than that is looking for employees who’re genuinely excited and proud about working for the particular brand they are applying to working for.  If you have a staff that’s truly happy to come to work every day, that shines in the experiences they give to the guests.”

The Rickey and the new PHD join some of your other properties being located in hotels. What are the advantages and disadvantages of being in a mostly tourist location?

“I really like being in a hotel; there are certainly advantages. I don’t see it as a nuisance at all. On the day-to-day level you have a built-in audience of people who are living for a night or two right above or below your venues who all need a place to eat and drink. [They’re] all on vacation or a work trip with a per diem to spend on food and beverage. Our goal is to give these people a great experience where they don’t even have to leave the building. It’s exciting to have multiple venues and brands in the same venue that can feed off of each other. For instance at Dream Midtown people can come to The Rickey for a quieter drink and catch up before then heading upstairs to PHD for a more social and party atmosphere.”

Food and Beverage has had a pretty major boom in the past 10 to 15 years, while other industries have decline. What can you credit it to and where do you see it going?

“I think back in the ’80s and early ’90s, the Yuppies were spending their expendable income on toys.  It was a bragger’s world where people wanted the coolest car, the biggest boat and the latest gadget in their apartment from the Sharper Image. Money was being spent on possessions. Overtime, there was this shift where people wanted to spend their money on experiences and having good times. If you speak to anyone who graduated college in the last 20 years, they would say in their twenties they spent most of their income on rent and going to bars and restaurants. It’s just what people began to do and there are different levels of this.”

How are you addressing the younger generation?

“Today with social media culture, people are doing things for the experience, but almost not to experience, but to show others the experience. A friend of mine Matt Britton wrote a very cool book about this called, ‘YOUTHNATION,’ where he wrote that the youth of today are living by the expression, ‘I did it all for the Instagram.’  I completely agree with this and think that it plays a key role in the direction of where our business is going.  Everyone has to find a way to constantly work at giving people experiences that people are proud to say they have done. It is almost as if the brands have to be an extension of what people want as their personality.”

How does the group assure quality in so many venues spread over the country?

“I believe it is all in the leaders we hire and in the training process.  All of our managers and day-to-day operators of the venues love their brands, but they really love producing the show and not being in the show. Therefore, when they implement all of our company steps of service and back of the house details that make the venues run well, they do it with joy and pride—they aren’t too stiff acting like robots who are overseeing one store of a franchised chain and yet they also aren’t in the mix partying with the guests. It’s finding that perfect balance that starts from top, where the leaders on the floor love what they do, and take pride in the details and the party atmosphere. [They’re] always being a great host rather than the great partier.”