1Oak Lawsuit Threatens to Change the Bottle Service Industry

“If you want to make enemies, try to change something.” -Woodrow Wilson This quote has proven to be true with both our current leader Barack Obama and cocktail waitress/model Tarale Wulff. A lawsuit filed in Manhattan federal court against 1Oak will create a ripple effect in clubland and possibly redefine the bottle era. Tips and how they are distributed are at the core of the case and just about everyone who sells booze by the bottle will be effected. I have had conversations with the 1Oak crew, as well as Tarale’s lawyer, and it is clear as mud what will happen next.

When a patron buys a bottle of vodka at a hotspot, there is an automatic 20-percent gratuity attached. This 20 percent usually goes into a pool that the waitress crew divide up, but not before chunks of money are extracted. Various support members (including busboys, bartenders and hosts) take money from this tip pool. Every club I know operates in this manner. Tarale Wulff’s attorney, Brian Schaffer, told me “everybody can be wrong.” These people, according to Mr. Schaffer, are entitled to their fair share, but he believes the law is clear that a maître’ d, sommelier and assistant manager or door person is not allowed to partake in the tip pool. In this case the objection is that 1Oak doorman Binn Jakupi has shared in the tip pool as a policy of the club. Binn won’t be alone in this case, as doorman throughout the city are often included within these same policies. This case will define roles in the new bottle service era. Like many regulations, the laws about hospitality service may become obsolete as times change. A court will decide whether the unique role of the doorperson entitles him to a part of the gratuity. This case will determine whether or not the bottle service industry will look like a very different playing field than the one we see with the current active policies. Schaffer points out that class-action lawsuits such as this against Nobu and Sparks Steakhouse have resulted in multi-million dollar wins for the service employees.

This particular lawsuit will be looked at on a case-by-case basis. One of the basic points that supports Tarale’s case is whether the customer believes the tip is going to the waitress, or believes the tip is to be shared by others including the doorman. Mr. Schaffer points to studies that say it’s possible that up to 75% of restaurants in this town are in violation of some kind of labor law.

I believe that the doorman is an integral part of the bottle service process. When a random customer shows up at a joint, he and his crew are told they must buy a table. Doormen and promoters are most often the actual salespeople when it comes to bottles. They bring the majority of big spenders to the club, and the booze is just part of what the clients get for their loot.

The heavy lifting, in my opinion, is done at the door when the doorperson sells the table. When an agreement to buy is reached, a hostess takes the credit card and ID directly from the doorperson, who has already secured it during their transaction prior to the patron’s entry. The hostess escorts the patron to the maitre’d stand, where a table is assigned. Usually a disclaimer protecting the club from charge-backs is signed. She then delivers the patron to the waitress with the deal and credit card/ID. The waitress, in most cases, is merely a model dropping the bottles and running the credit check. She will flirt, smile and ask if they need anything else while support staff deliver OJ, cranberry juice, glassware, stirrers and the basic setup to the table. Her primary function from this point on is to try to sell additional bottles to the patron, or up-sell them from an expensive bottle of vodka to a really expensive bottle of vodka. At most clubs, waitresses are required to bring in their own tables. According to my inside sources, 1Oak does not require their staff to do so.

To me, the job of the bartender who releases and tracks the bottle from inventory and the waitress are the least important part of the process (except for the flirt and smile part). 1Oak says they have regular staff meetings where staff is encouraged to discuss changes to the system. Tarale’s lawyer rebuts that assertion, saying the staff rarely speaks up because they feel they will be viewed as troublemakers and fired for their complaints. He points out that waitresses in places like 1Oak and other high-end establishments can make anywhere from $75,000 to a $125,000 a year. The 1Oak staffer I spoke with, my inside source, says that she is “part of a team” and that “Binn is the quarterback of that team.”

Tarale Wulff was terminated by 1Oak a week before the lawsuit was filed. It is alleged that “she broke protocol” when she ran a customer’s credit card which was declined and also accepted his I.D., which was expired. This customer rang up $17,000 worth of booze and was allowed to leave without management getting involvement. She claims a manager was informed. Her boyfriend is still employed by the club, and she came by Thursday before the lawsuit was filed to pick him up. A 1Oak source told me she has “maintained her job at Cipriani’s and is texting customers she met while employed at 1Oak to go there instead.”

Schaffer says his client is not vindictive. He told me she is doing this to make things right for everyone. Since this is a class action suit, she figures she will not be making that much money, and employees that have been there longer than her will be the ones to benefit. He says they are in clear violation of New York law, and Tarale is doing this for all the right reasons. I pointed out to him that I can’t imagine another club feeling comfortable hiring a litigious employee, but then she does still work at Cipriani.

The papers I read said that the class action suit would include about 50 other employees. I asked whether he had lined up all of the people involved in this suit. He admitted that as the suit progressed, more people would get on board, but at this time they had one other person ready to join. I’m sure that attorneys all over town are being asked to weigh in as individual clubs are facing a crisis. Management meetings will be held in haste and policies reviewed. It all seems sad, as bottle service has been the golden egg-laying goose for so many.

I think that things will change drastically. At its core, bottle service is not about the booze but about the real estate — the entry to the hot spot and proximity to the action. I believe the clubs will find a way to rent the table — the real estate — for a fee that is not linked to the actual bottle. A tip or incentive wage for the doorman and maybe even promoters will become a common fee. The bottles will be separately billed, with tips divided amongst the service crew. This or something similar this will occur whether Tarale Wulff’s lawsuit is won months or years from now.

I must point out for everyone who reads this article and column that I wear two hats. I write here for BlackBook and I am also a principal of Lewis and Dizon, a hospitality design firm currently designing a space for the principals of 1Oak and 10 other places where owners will be similarly affected by this suit. I also know and am friends with a lot of waitresses. I believe I have reported this story without prejudice but am open to any and all analysis of that statement.

Barbarians at the Gate: New York’s Door Deciders

Gone are the days of the grunting, cross-armed, meathead bouncer. Inspired by the example of revered nightlife fixture Gilbert Henry Stafford, the current generation of doormen are sophisticated and stylish toughs who adorn — and block — New York’s tightest doors.

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Aalex Julian, Simyone Lounge and Abe & Arthur’s – “In the end, the man makes the clothes. It’s not always what you wear, but how you wear it.” Aalex wears blazer and shirt by Tom Ford, jeans by J Brand.

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Richard Alvarez, subMercer – “People need to wear their clothes rather than be worn by them.” Richard wears leather patchwork jacket by Maison Martin Margiela, vest and tails by Norisol Ferrari Bespoke.

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Binn Jakupi (right), 1Oak/a> – “Clothing is an integral part of setting the tone for the place that you represent, and it is of the utmost importance that you do it with your own style.” Binn wears shirt and tie by Dolce & Gabbana. Genc Jakupi, The Box – “The Box, being about performance and extravagance, requires a more theatrical form of dressing up.” Genc wears suit by John Varvatos.

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Wass Stevens, Avenue – “People are dressing up more, finally. I think it’s great.” Wass wears suit and shirt by Isaia, tie by Barneys New York, cashmere overcoat by Gucci.

Photography by Adam Fedderly. Grooming by Tracy Alfajora for MAC Cosmetics.

Strong Silent Type: Genc Jakupi, Keeper of The Box

I am not a frequent visitor to The Box, even though I live just a short walk away. The shows don’t excite me much; in fact, what I have seen has had the opposite affect. However, I cannot deny the cultural impact the place has had on our town. In the jaded land of nightlife, The Box has redefined the model-bottle era. In its performance-based theatrical approach, it has shocked us into believing once again that if you think outside of the box in clubdom, you can achieve success. My problem with the bottle-model era is that it’s never been over the top enough to excite me. It never pushed the envelop or culture. Having Lindsay Lohan, Paris, and a gaggle of lowbrow celebutantes, models, and promoters throwing napkins into the air to generic music is not greatness. Any night at the World, Studio, Area, Paradise Garage, or any of the classic joints was better than the best nights ever at Marquee, Tenjune, or Kiss & Fly. I am not knocking these clubs, as they are doing their formulated best to entertain their crowds. They are the product of these times and are a reflection of the attitude of their owners and the need to make money against impossible odds.

These crowds are not, for the most part, interested in serious music or culture as an important part of their nightlife experience. Their clone-like clothes and views define an age where Grey Goose is more relevant than art. The Box said there can be another way, and even though I don’t go there, I celebrate it for taking the scene in another direction. The Box is always swirling in controversy. Showgirls and other distractions, scandals, and such have been well documented in the gossip columns. Life on the edge can sometimes get edgy, so let’s talk with Box doorman Genc Jakupi about his vision and how he guards Simon Hammerstein’s playground.

You are a mysterious character — we really don’t know each other. I’ve met you maybe once or three times. I know your brother Binn pretty well. He does 1Oak, and you do The Box. How did you become doormen, and who was first? Binn started G-Spa with Richie Akiva. He took off for like a year I think. Anyway, I got into it with my brother’s help. I started just doing hosting and helping with Mark and Richie at Tenjune. That was just for a short amount of time. I met with Serge Becker, as they needed a guy at the door of The Box. They’d really never had one before — not that they didn’t have a doorperson, but they didn’t have somebody who knew the people. They did not have it down at the front of the house, you know what I mean? It’s such a complex project, you know what I mean?

I did the door there one night — they brought me in for an event. Cordell Lochin asked if I’d be interested in doing. I told him I couldn’t because I have other things to do. Cordell told me that it underscored their need to have someone who know a lot of people out there. I was doing it for Tricia Romano’s party. I’m glad that I actually became a part of The Box because I really care about that place — I care about it, very much. I’ve been in New York for about seven years, so I can’t speak so much about past New York. I started first working like two nights a week, and then Thursday, Friday, Saturday I was still at Tenjune, and then I just switched — took over the whole thing at The Box.

The Box is certainly a prestigious door … it’s one of the premiere clubs in New York. You’ve got a lot of important people showing up. How did you train yourself to do door? Did your brother instruct you, or did you take your own approach? I used to bartend at Bungalow 8. I learned from Armin Amiri. I have a lot of respect for him, the way he did things, the way he did the door — he kinda ran the whole place. That’s what I do at The Box, that’s what Binn does at 1Oak. it’s not just standing around at the door — he’s doing more than that. So there’s no real training to become a doorman besides knowing the people, knowing what the party needs to have. Knowing what you need inside to make the party happen, how many people you need, who do you need and what are you lacking … different things for different clubs for different clientele,

You need to make money at The Box — it’s showbiz. You have three shows a night, right? Yeah, we have three shows a night … right now we’re going through a little different way of doing the shows.

You have to make revenue off the tables You have to. Everybody has to. At The Box you have to more because there’s more overhead. We’ve been doing pretty good considering the economy; we’re still being exclusive, whatever that means — having the right people. The good thing about it is that we have a name out there; it’s a destination place. So I don’t have a problem with a lot of people outside.

Yeah, the people showing up are getting in for the most part People are showing up with 80 percent expectation of getting in. When you talk about fights, when you talk about stuff like that, I don’t — have much of that

I don’t want to dwell on this too much, but lately there’s been a spate of the incidents involving doormen where people are just losing their cool, and both of us are astonished that that could ever happen. I mean, there’s no need for it No need, no need.

Contrary to the public’s perception, doormen are there to let people in, and to educate people how they may get in in the future, and to be nice even when you turn people away, and say something like, “This place may not be for you.” Do you agree with that? Not “this place might not be for you,“ no.

Well what do you say? As much as I take doormen’s side in this, you know the fights and everything, I look at it in two different ways. I look at it if I was to approach the door — people who go out, they’re ready, they’re dressed, they put a lot into that, you know what I mean? So now when you say no to somebody, my approach is to let them know to come back. I want them to come back. That’s the main thing — I want them to come back and just to see to let them decide how they’re gonna show up when they come back. And people get it right — believe me, people get it right.

I used to say that I’m not making the decision that you’re not getting in; you made that decision when you left your house like this. True.

Nobody likes to be rejected … it’s the hardest thing in the world to tell people that they don’t belong, but that’s probably it, they don’t belong. You’re saying this is a club, and you don’t’ belong. You’re the expert on whether they belong or not. See, with the Box though, that’s not what I’m trying to do, because of the show. It allows me to let people in. I want to have all sorts of people. As long as there’s a community between people — as long as people see something, and they can talk about each other, and they can talk to each other, and they connect. I don’t believe in dress codes and stuff like that.

That’s very interesting. I used to say, “We don’t have a dress code, we have a heart code,” and I think that’s what you’re saying. If a person puts enough effort to come out, thinks about it, puts a beautiful gown or a beautiful something — something interesting. We don’t wanna see boring stuff. All of these people that work in offices, they see so much boring stuff … the last thing you want to give them when they go out is to see the rest of what they saw in the day. So I like to see people going a little crazy, going a little wild with the way they dress. … I never had fights, and I knock on wood because I don’t wanna have fights in The Box. We don’t have them because I really keep people with good attitude. A lot of times people approach the door in a very aggressive way. I never deal with that, and I’m not at the door all the time, so that’s a way of avoiding conflict.

That’s a problem — the fact that you’re not at the door all the time. I showed up once, it was late at night a couple weeks ago, and nobody knew me at the door, and I should be somebody that people know. I’m not bragging, but I should be known. But you ended up inside

I did end up inside. I waited about 10 minutes outside. No you didn’t!

Yes I did. No you didn’t –there’s no way!

Yes I did. And I wrote about it. But it didn’t bother me. It seems to have bothered Noah Tepperberg the other day when he showed up, but we’re not going to get into that much because it’s an unfortunate thing — old news. I didn’t mind waiting because I don’t go to the place, so I can understand why they don’t know me — but you do go inside, and what happens when you go inside? Do people just wait, and that’s the attitude? I know we’re in the business where some people in this industry really take it hard when they have to wait a little. I’m inside because I do a lot of stuff. I’m not just a doorman at The Box. I take care of everything that needs to be taken care of to make the place happen. When I’m not the door, I have guys outside that I trust — I don’t let them make decisions, but people that come here all the time end up inside. It’s rare that anyone gets a surprise when they show up wrong, like, “Oh, why am I not coming in?”. These are people who have been coming for a long time — people from downtown, people who don’t take it personally if they wait a little.

I have been told by some people that The Box used to be much better; other people tell me that it’s better now. The first time I went that night I did the door there, I felt it was too pushed, like it was forced, and it was all about shock value. The shows?

Yes, and just the crowd itself, the vibe inside was like poseur or pushed. The second time I went, I liked it less, but the last time I went it was really natural, the way people sat, the way they interacted, and there was a sexiness to it. I guess I can credit you, and Simon Hammerstein. You have to credit Simon because he’s the visionary, and he’s really the best guy that I’ve ever worked with — he really knows what he’s doing. He’s an expert on his thing, and he trusts me with things that I want to do. He knows that what I do is good, and he believes in me.

That’s how a doorman has to work, and a doorman has to understand the message and the needs of the house, and he has to be left to do it himself. You have to know who’s expected, and what you have, because you’re really a maestro or an orchestra leader … you’re coordinating, mixing the crowds and creating this energy. But besides that, at The Box, you’ve got to have a certain amount of people by the certain time, because of the show. It’s more than just letting in who you want to let in.

How about money at the door? I mean, I’ve heard from people who I don’t really go out with — but I know of them — and they went The Box, and they got hit up for $1000 at the door, or $800 dollars at the door, and they bought tables. Tables are very expensive there, and yet you’re still selling them, even in this economy. Still holding up.

Because you’re offering something that no one else is? Not that no one else is — you’re offering something that people really appreciate. People don’t mind paying the show charge.

Is there an exit strategy? I’m addicted to nightlife; I’ve evolved from running clubs to writing about them, and designing them. I haven’t been able to get out. Are you addicted to The Box, to the nightlife, or do you think it’s a phase? I am at The Box because I like what The Box gives to people, which is not just nightlife. I’m addicted to New York. Even when I wasn’t at the Box, I wanted people visiting New York to go see what The Box has to give, because it’s really what I think New York is about. I don’t know if I would have been able to come up with something like that, but seeing it, my hat’s off to Simon for bringing that thing to life.

It’s not a nightclub — it’s a way of life? I wouldn’t be able to do any other place the way I’m doing it at The Box. If another place opened up, and they offered me a job, I don’t see myself going to work for somebody else. It’s not just a job.

Your job is theater in itself, plus your job is a responsibility to the acts inside and to the patrons; there has to be a certain intelligence, there has to be a certain way of people being treated, from the moment they get out of the taxi. Certain way of people being treated, certain ways of seeing where the party should be, and envisioning, where people want to sit, deciding where they’re gonna sit so they sit next to somebody who they’re gonna have fun next to. The first time I went to The Box, before I was working there, Serge and Cordell invited me, and I said to myself: there’s elegance in this room that could make such a good party.

There’s a movie called Casablanca, and in that movie, which is a classic nightclub, the lyrics for the most important song of the flick are, “the fundamental things apply as time goes by.” That’s the thing with The Box, isn’t it? It really gets down to the fundamentals We’re not going against time at The Box. A lot of clubs open, and they have this expectation of first year, second year, that’s it … but we are still developing.

You’ve reached a point where the performers and the audience are one thing. I want to let people in such that when they came in, you wouldn’t actually need to know who the performer is.