Level V Sinks

If Hanson can’t make it, who can? At 10 a.m. yesterday, management was informed of the closing of underground Meatpacking club Level V, part of Steve Hanson’s B.R. Guest empire. It was one of four places closed. The others — Fiamma, Ruby Foo’s Uptown, and Blue Water Grill Uptown — were restaurants dependent on broker bucks, which are becoming quite endangered lately. Level V, on the other hand, was the underground lounge/club beneath Vento, the corner restaurant in that v-shaped building at 9th Avenue and 14th Street.

The Hanson team tried their best to have a separate identity for each place, but they did share bathrooms, and neither place ever gathered the kudos they sought. Even with the best location in town, Level V could never muster an A-list crowd, and instead settled to grab what came by. Its promotional theory was basically that of a spider: build a web in a busy spot and hope for your clients to fly into it. I asked an axed Level V employee why it didn’t make it and was told that the restaurant mentality never could grasp the necessities of club promotion. They could not grasp paying promoters and decided to keep every dollar for themselves. He said he was always asking them if they would, “rather have 50% of $50,000 or 100% of $15,000” but they never grasped it. The concept of a promoter-driven club diluting the Vento brand was the reason cited to opt out. Not dealing with lowlife promoters is one thing, but shutting the doors might be a bit worse.

I’ve never felt that the Vento brand was all that great anyway. All of Steve Hanson’s places are well run, and the food is always solid, but the atmosphere at Vento is very 1992, and Level V

Upon returning from his New Years’ Eve at the Fontainebleau in Miami, another source reveals that Steve was faced with a “huge cashflow problem.” The Dos Caminos in Las Vegas’ Palazzo Hotel, with a $20-million-plus-plus-plus build-out and launch, is doing — I was told — “A mere 150 covers a night. The entire casino and resort hotel has performed poorly.” My source said that “the mounting problems with this spot are so bad that only ego and thoughts of a terminal blow to the brand are keeping it afloat.” Still, more bad news comes from the newish restaurant Primehouse that he operates on Park Avenue South. Despite a $10-million-plus build-out and launch and a Himalayan rock-salt-tiled aging room for steaks, my source tells me, “It’s a bust.” She said, “There’s no more money coming down the pipe from the famous merger of Steve Hanson and Barry Sternlicht,” which seemed just a short while ago to be the greatest deal ever made. The real question here: If Steve Hanson isn’t making it, what does it mean for everyone else?

Industry Insiders: Rande Gerber, Lounge Wizard

Do a Google image search of Rande Gerber, and you’d be hard pressed to find a photo of him that doesn’t include his supermodel wife Cindy Crawford. Gerber is a tabloid fixture thanks to his famous wife and famous friends (think George, Brad, Matt), but guess what. He also owns bars. A lot of them. He’s the self-described creator of the lounge concept, his Whiskey brand a permanent guest in hotels all over the country. Here he talks about his start in the business, his Vegas hotel with George that almost was, and why being famous can’t hurt (that much).

Point of Origin: Well, it started in about 1990. I was actually working in commercial real estate in New York City. And I was representing Ian Schrager and the Paramount Hotel, and at the time he was interested in bringing whatever nightlife he could to the hotel. And he wasn’t happy with anyone in New York, and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing it. So it was kind of an opportunity to do something that I’d never really ever thought about. But I did entertain at my apartment in New York, and I thought “Hey, it’s a commercial space. I can design it the way I want.” And the deal was great for me — there was no rent for a couple of years. And Ian really wanted me to do something to bring in life to the hotel. And I created this lounge atmosphere, which at the time really didn’t exist. So I brought this lounge concept to the hotel. That was the Whiskey at Paramount. From there I opened a few more bars. I went to Los Angeles and opened a Whiskey there. And eventually, after about five or six places, I was approached by Barry Sternlicht, who at the time had this concept to open a W Hotel chain. And signed on to help him create the W’s and do all the bars in the W Hotels. So now we have the Whiskey Blue in the W Hotel in L.A.

So owning bars was never a long-term goal of yours? No it was never a goal of mine. I was always interested in architecture and design, and it was really an outlet for me to be able to create spaces for people to socialize. And like I said, whether it’s in my apartment in New York or my house in LA, I like to entertain, and I like to create a space where people can meet. Whether it’s meeting for the first time or offering them a place to go with their friends and just socialize, have some conversations, have a couple of great drinks, and listen to some good music and not have to clean up afterwards.

Give me a quick run through of the kinds of places you’re running now. We have a brand called Stone Rose Lounge, one of which is in the Time Warner Center. And that’s another really upscale, more sophisticated and elegant place — which is also similar to what we typically would do except it’s a bit more elegant, but still attracting a very high-profile clientele. And we have Whiskey Park which is in Trump Park on Central Park South. So we briefly started this Stone Rose concept in the Time Warner Center. And we brought one to Los Angeles, and we just opened one in Scottsdale, AZ.

Known Associates: I am partnered with Starwood Hotels, and I have a partnership with Hard Rock Hotels. That’s the Rank Group, so we have a partnership with them. We have Biloxi, and we have San Diego right now. And we’re talking about a few others. Who else? We’re partners with Sol Melia, and we have the Melia Hotel in Cancun, and we have a great place, the Melia Hotel in Madrid. We have a place on the top floor there, a patio area. And that’s called the Penthouse. And then downstairs we have a great restaurant and bar called the Midnight Rose. And we have a partnership with Sofitel, so we have the Stone Rose in New York at the Sofitel.

What about the casino and hotel you were planning on building in Vegas with Brad Pitt and George Clooney? I contacted them a while back to build a hotel and casino, and we had purchased a piece of land and come up with some ideas and some architectural drawings of what we wanted to see on the site. And within a year, we got an offer for our property that we couldn’t say no to. Our neighbors decided they needed more property and they made us an offer and we looked at each other and said, ‘Hey as much as we would love to build this concept, it would be a really bad business decision to turn down this kind of money. It was really just George and I. And then we had discussed with Brad to maybe do some architecture and design cause he’s very talented as far as design.

Do you have any places in Vegas right now? No, I had two places in Vegas which I sold about a year ago. I had a place called Cherry at Hard Rock and a place called the Whiskey at Green Valley Ranch. I was friends with the owners of the hotel and the company, and it was a public company which they were taking private. And I was their only partner over there, so they asked me if it would be all right if they made an offer to buy my places back, and they wanted to take everything in house. And I said, “Of course. We’re friends and partners.” So we worked out a deal, and I sold them back to them. And now we have new opportunities to go back. We’re exploring a few different opportunities. But I don’t do what most of those guys do — these mega, ultra clubs of 50,000 square feet. I keep mine a bit smaller and more intimate.

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Projections: We continue to build spaces. We opened Whiskey Park in Atlanta at the W Hotel. We’re doing a Whiskey Blue at the W in Fort Lauderdale. I’ve recently over the past year come out with a line of drink mixers called Midnight Bar Collection. We have margaritas and Bloody Marys and mojitos. It’s an all-natural drink mixer line, which is doing fantastic. A lot of the high-end retailers have picked it up. There’s Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel, and Crate and Barrel, and places like that, and it’s doing really well.

How did the drink mixers start up? What would happen was every time I would go to a party, a private party or a friend’s house, they would ask me to mix up some margaritas or put together the Bloody Marys for them. So I would go to my bartenders, and we created recipes within Gerber Group. We have our own recipes for all of our drinks, and if we can, we have all of our bars create the same drinks so it’s consistent throughout the 35 places that we have. So if I’m in LA, I’ll go to one of my places and I’ll pick up a couple of gallons of each that they mix up for us, and I bring them to the parties. And after numerous requests to just bottle them and start selling them, I did, and it really took off fast. I was fortunate I was invited on the Oprah Winfrey show because she really likes the mixers, and I got to talk about it there.

Do you have any innovations you’re working on? I have a few other concepts that we’re very close to.

Well tell everyone so they can copy them. You know, when I started the lounge concept 17 years ago, it didn’t exist, and now everyone’s opening up a lounge. I’m definitely flattered that other people appreciated what I did and are trying to do the same thing. So even when I do come out, I don’t want to talk about what I’m doing. But I definitely have a different direction that I’m going with some of my newer places and different concepts. And I’m sure that when I do them, other people will do the same.

Industry Icons: I respect people like Barry Sternlicht, who everyone said couldn’t compete in the boutique hotel industry because he’s coming from such a corporate giant as Starwood Hotels and who just said, “Yeah, watch me.” And he did it, and he took over. He literally built this brand, this W brand. At the time he had the St. Regis and Sheraton and some other mammoths. But he started the W Hotel, and that’s taken off. It’s the biggest in that industry. I think Andre Balazs has done an incredible job. I mean wherever he goes, he’s got the golden touch. And he does it in a more subtle way, but I really appreciate his aesthetic and the way he operates his company and his hotels.

Industry Rivals: It is a very competitive industry, but for me, I’ve been in it for over 15 years. I’ve had 35 places and another 5 under construction. So I don’t feel the competition, and I don’t see it. I think there are people out there doing some wonderful things. But from what I hear, I think a lot of these places go in and out really fast. People assume they can go in and open a place and make a lot of money in a year or two and then it’s over. For me, I’m in it for the long run. I’ve never closed a place in all my years of business. I don’t really see the other people in my field out there as competition. I think we all have something unique to offer, and I’m very happy with my company and our continued success.

Favorite Hangs: I think when I go out to a bar, it’s always my place. It’s either Stone Rose or it’s Whiskey Blue because my friends are always there. So whether I’m there or not, all my friends are there, so it’s always nice to pop in; and truly, I create spaces out of my personal desire and what I like. I don’t go around and do research and say “Hey, what’s needed here?” or “What do people want?” It’s really what I like. So if I’m creating something I really enjoy, that’s where I want to go.

You have a famous name and a famous wife. Do you think your coverage in the tabloids and your famous friends helps your business? Well, there’s no doubt that exposure is great for a place, and I get plenty of exposure. But we’ve always had this philosophy to never discuss any high-profile people or celebrities that are in our places. So we’re a company that never calls the press to say, “Hey, so and so was here yesterday and they were drinking this and they were with this person.”

Is that common practice? Oh yeah, I think most places do that. And I think that’s very short-sighted because if a celebrity comes to a place, they’re not necessarily coming in for publicity. And my attitude is they come, they’re having a good time, they’re having a few drinks, they’re letting their guard down. They don’t want to be talked about the next day. They don’t want to have to worry about ‘Oh Jeez, what did I do?’ and then have to read about it in the paper the next day. I think the reason they all come back to my places is that they know their privacy is going to be protected. And we’re not going to talk about them. So I think that’s one of the keys to our success. And ultimately we have employees who have been with us from the start. And I think that’s a big key. Everyone wants to know someone. When you’re going out to dinner or to a bar, you want to know the hostess or the maître d’ when you walk in. You want to know you’re going to be taken care of. I can go to the local diner, and I love it if I see George when I walk in. He has my drink on the table, and knows what I like and how I like it no matter what. It just feels good when you walk in and you can know someone.