Matt Oliver, the Silent Doorman

Matt Oliver is that quiet guy manning the ropes outside M2 and the uber-hot brunch at Merkato 55. Unlike the other dudes running doors in this town, it’s rare to hear Matt utter more than a “hi” when he’s at work. But the Euro crowd at Merkato for brunch is one of the best around; the money being generated is astronomical, especially in this downturn. And the thing I like about it is that it really occupies a time slot rarely associated with nightclubbing (except for those 24-hour house marathons that I never admit to attending). There needs to be another term for it, since nightlife doesn’t really seem to cover it.

How did you get involved in nightlife? My real career used to be in radio, and unlike this, it’s only about the recording, so we couldn’t take someone’s audio recording and turn it into nice words — it was what it was. But after that I sort of transitioned into this career accidentally. I’ve been friends with Scott Harrison (who now runs Charity Water) since childhood, and when I reconnected with him after 9/11, he was promoting in nightclubs in New York — which is not at all like anything I had been doing in my life – but I came back and helped him get his promotion company going at the time. So, like you said, I sort of silently hung in the background and helped, and through that I met a lot of nightclub people, and eventually Dirk Van Stockum hired me to do the door at B.E.D.

After B.E.D., where did you end up? I did B.E.D. for two years, then I did some traveling with Charity Water in Africa, then came back to New York to do Mansion.

Tell me about Charity Water. It started when Scott wanted a break from nightlife. He volunteered in Africa as a photographer, taking photos of people before they had these life-changing operations on their faces. He was the before and after photographer for an organization that did these surgeries, and by the time he came back to New York, he’d collected a bunch of photos and approached his return like a promoter would — he invited everybody to a big party and showed these gruesome photos of people in Africa. When he realized that the real problem was that people didn’t have clean water, he went on to start his own charity, which tackled that problem and raised money to fund freshwater well projects in Africa. So after Charity Water, you started doing the door at Mansion, (now called M2) and now the brunches at Merkato 55? Yeah, which is on Saturday, and that’s what I’m excited about. Every so often in this town, people walk around for years saying, “I’m so bored, I’m so bored, I’m so bored with nightlife,” and now nightlife is segueing into day-life with a brunch at Merkato 55. It’s interesting — if you look at the 24-hour clock and the space available for nightlife, traditionally it’s from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. … those few restaurants that get the earlier part of the evening, and then the afterhours that get the early mornings. But all of that seems to have already been done, or feels so dirty, and there’s something very clean about going out during the day. You’ve actually slept the night before, you took a shower, the girls dress sexy, and they go out to brunch and have a great time on Saturday afternoon. It really doesn’t feel so corrupt as nightlife sometimes can.

And people actually eat at this brunch? Yeah, they sit down, everyone eats food, and then around 3:30 p.m. or so you see the transition and people start switching from rosé to bottles of champagne, and they get a little crazier. And then by 4 p.m., sparklers are going off, the lights are flashing like a nightclub, the DJ’s playing club music, and people are dancing on the tables.

How would you define the crowd? It’s the wealthy, old-money, Euro crowd, is that right? This concept in general is a European thing, going out during the day. But I don’t think that it really costs a whole lot more for them to spend money during the day than the people who go out at night. Maybe this does attract a little bit of a higher-end crowd, or old-money like you said, but it’s still 20- and 30-somethings — successful guys and really cute, lovely girls who have regular day jobs during the week. And it’s not a lot of the industry people, which is strange because a lot of the times, nightlife is more about the people who work in it.

That might actually make it more charming, that you’re not seeing the promoters etc. Yeah, it sounds like a negative thing, but I don’t mind not seeing a bunch of promoters for one day of the week and seeing a bunch of people who just have legitimate regular jobs, not at all related to the industry, who just come out to this party. You’re filling the room with a lot of like-minded people.

So where do you go from here? A lot of people stumbled into nightlife like you did, but most people don’t have an exit strategy. Do you have one? Are you going to be an owner? This is going to sound weird, but I think that that would be my only option. Because what I do in nightlife, which is letting people in, or not letting people into a club, doesn’t really involve any of the traditional nightlife skills. I can’t pour a drink, I can’t bartend, I’ve never done any of that stuff, I have no idea how to function inside a room, I don’t like loud music, I cant stand inside a nightclub, so I have very few skills that would link to nightlife.

Describe your club — what would it look like, what would the vibe be? It would be small. When I go out, it’s to dive bars or something very low-key. I don’t really get the whole large club phenomenon, I’m just an employee who works at them. I think I would like something like a La Esquina type of place. It’s the best design I’ve seen … I think everything is right about it.

At the door, you’re very quiet. You’re not gregarious like Fabrizio or Kenny Kenny or Wass. These guys have a lot of personality, and you have personality, but you don’t express it like these guys. It’s always just a nod, a hello, and that’s your attitude. Yeah, which is odd, because again, the career that I came from — being in radio — was all about talking, all about being funny. And when I actually get around the blogging, I write a lot, but for some reason I just don’t ever really bother at the door. It seems like it fits a different role in my life. One of the reasons is because nightlife takes up such a small amount of my time, by design. If a club holds 500 people, almost anybody with savvy can pick out the first 300, but the trick to the game is that borderline crowd. How do you draw the line? Is it different on a daily basis? I think it’s always fluctuating, always based on what the event is that night, but then you also have to base it on some sort of economic decision. I don’t think that a room should look totally different on a quiet night rather than a busy night. I think it should just look quieter. It shouldn’t be a whole different group of people that you’ll let in.

So you have a preconceived idea of what the party should be so it doesn’t that fluctuate that much? Yeah, but I also understand that the bartenders and the cocktail waitresses need to make money that night so they can live the next day. So there are some sort of exceptions you have to make, and that’s why you have a doorman rather than just a security man dealing with only the absolute, and I am always weighing those factors. Is it a VIP event, or a celebrity event? In which case you don’t send in more people and make exceptions, or is it just a regular night? So let’s make it that happy medium where the club is full enough to make money, but then you also haven’t done anything to jeopardize your regulars.

How would you describe your tactics at the door? I try and use logic where I think other people don’t, and that’s with everything. When I interact with people, I don’t use the old doorman technique of just telling security to clear these people out. I actually go over and talk to the people and say — look, here’s why I can’t send you in. A lot of times people don’t want to hear the long-winded answer, but I try to explain, even if it’s only to keep from getting my ass kicked! A new problem that I’m experiencing right now is that sometimes, being a doorman, people look at you almost as a Starbucks sign, where if they see that anywhere in the world, it’s an expectation of service. They think, “hey, this doorman lets me in at other places he works, so now I know that this is another place I can get into.” But I work at the biggest club in the city, M2, and also at Merkato 55, which is fairly exclusive and all the space is always spoken for by reservations, so I have to approach it differently. My job is to figure out who my bosses are expecting to see inside, and I run into the situation where I let you in all the time at this one place, but I can’t let you in at this place. So, again, I try to use logic and explain to people, so that they don’t leave feeling insulted.

Did you think it was going to be this much of a thought process when you took the job? No, I didn’t, but this job is only as important as the egos of the people that you deal with. That’s what it really is.

Industry Insiders: Aalex Julian of Tenjune

Tenjune door sentry Aalex Julian dishes on the K-Mart of nightlife, the old chicks and thugs who don’t make the cut, “animals” who grab asses, and why some nightlife vets are toast.

Point of Origin: I’ve been working the door at clubs in Manhattan for almost six years. I started doing a lot of special events, for Lizzie Grubman, other PR groups. I did the Jay-Z event in the Hamptons. I knew people like Jeffrey Jah from going out. Some people resent me because I befriended the right people.

Instead of starting off as a security guard or something, I started off at a good level. A lot of people get hired and fired, are around for three or four years. When I started, I was working at Rehab, which was one of the top places at the time. The first door that was my door was Below, on 19th Street in 2002. Then I went right to Rehab. Then Bed, Cain, Guest House, Pink Elephant twice (on 13th Street and when they opened on 27th Street). I opened Home, I opened Guest House. There’s been a few more, but that’s the chronology. I chose to leave 27th Street before it got as bad as it’s gotten.

What do you think changed? I think [Home and Guest House owner] Jon B is the K-Mart of nightlife. When I started at Guest House, we decided with his partner Ronnie [Madra, now of 1Oak], we all agreed it would be a high-end, selective place. Within two months, Jon B started flipping the switch, letting in thugs, letting in a guy who was threatening people. It sounds like you’re very into keeping your standards. You have to be. I have a lot of friends, but I have even more enemies because I hold my ground. With every team that I’ve worked with, the fact that I hold my ground [at the door] has either been what they respect the most or what leads to a parting of ways. I’ve worked with everybody. But now I don’t need to go through the headache of opening a place unless I’m sure it’s going to be a hit. I believed in Tenjune from the beginning. Without getting into specifics, I make a good living, I get a lot of perks. During Fashion Week, I’m one of the first people they call, and I’m shopping with editors and stuff. I get a lot of free stuff. Everything has evolved now from only nightclubs, to more of a lifestyle. People call me to ask where to take their clients. Is that just you, or Manhattan nightlife in general? I think for the higher-end, yes. There are some people, without naming names — [unlike] the people at 1Oak — [these others are] high-end people but they’re sleeping till 2 o’clock in the afternoon, they’re drunk five nights a week. You know who works hard and who’s just passing the time. Nightlife is really reflective of society in general. You have your slackers, and you have your hard workers. I have my differences with Noah [Tepperberg, of Marquee and Tao], but I can’t deny the gentleman that he’s a hard worker, and that’s why he’s successful. I can’t deny that. At the same time I can look at someone like Rocco Ancarola [of Pink Elephant] who’s been in this business forever and is just barely hanging on. There are people who have been doing this for way too long and they’re burnt out, and it’s obvious to everybody. I tell some of the waitresses [at Tenjune], this business is like a ferris wheel: It’s a great ride, but you want to get off before you get thrown off. If I turn away a beautiful girl one night, there are gonna be two more the next night that are younger and prettier. We’re probably the only city in the world that has that. So you don’t buy into the notion that New York is over and London is the new “It” city? I haven’t had the urge to go to London. There’s something about New York that makes it what everybody else wants to be. You can go to Toronto to fake the backgrounds or whatever like they do in movies, but you can’t fake the Lower East Side, you can’t fake Soho. I can say that because I’m a New Yorker. We have something that just can’t be duplicated.

Occupations: I’m director of VIP services for Tenjune. Eighty percent of the night, I’m at the door expecting celebrities, clients, models. I do the seating arrangement of the floor. I keep track of the minimums (who’s spending $1,000, who’s spending $4,000). A lot of this business is based on the come-back. If you have someone spending $1,000 every once in a while, that’s one thing. But if you can keep that person coming week in and week out, that’s how you make your money. We just happen to do it better … well, Marquee does it as well — they’ve been at it longer — but that’s what sets us apart from other clubs. We have so many repeat [guests]. The main reason I do this job is the freedom it allows me. The only regret that I have is that I’m the only person in the industry that gets paid to say “no.” I’m respectful about it, and I don’t talk down to people, but people think I’m nasty or rigid — but I’m not. I’m playing a role.

What’s your worst experience with jilted clubbers? This is the first summer in four years I haven’t been at Cain and Pink Elephant in the Hamptons. Last summer I had an issue with this one thug-type guy who showed up with a couple other people. I let him in, but one of his friends was this big, sweaty, 350 pounds — it just wasn’t a good look. Anyone who was inside wouldn’t want this guy rubbing up against them. I didn’t let him in. He said, “Look, I know you’re here, and you’re gonna catch a beating for it.” Two weeks later, in the Hamptons, I’m inside looking at the room [before the club opened]. And one of the security guys runs in and says, “Listen, don’t go outside.” The guy was out there with 15 guys waiting for me. These guys aren’t kids, they’re pushing forty. It’s like, grow up already.

Everybody always talks about how it’s all about money, and if you can buy your way into clubs, you can always get in. And that’s not true. I can’t tell you what Wass Stevens does at Marquee, or what Armin [currently of Socialista] used to do at Bungalow 8. I can only tell you that … well someone commented on my New York magazine interview that I’m the “King of the Bottles.” I can tell you flat out that’s not the case. I’d much rather sell a table for $800 that’s gonna be a good crew and be respectful and fun inside than someone who offers $5,000 and behaves like an animal and pisses off tables around them or starts fights. Frankly yes, if I see a beautiful girl outside, I’m going to let her in, and I’ll buy her drinks all night because she’s going to add something to the party whether she’s buying something or not.

So the goal is the party as a whole? Yah. Tenjune is almost two years old, but it’s still a viable product simply because it’s a good party. Yah, there might be smaller places that are more selective, and bigger clubs where you’re not going to have a problem with anyone you walk in with, but I think most people are going to pick Tenjune over most other places because it’s always a good party. You might go to 1Oak and see 50 people, and then what? You have to get in a cab and go somewhere else.

I’m not a promoter, I’ve never been a promoter. It’s a very different role. The job of promoters, whether they’re owners, managers, whatever, is to get people to the door. I can’t go to work unless they bring me a good crowd of people [to choose from]. The owners have to trust me, and they do, to let in people that are going to add to the party and not detract from it. In almost two years at Tenjune, we haven’t had a single fight. If you look at the money that we’ve made and the money that 1Oak has made … in fewer risks that [we’ve both] taken because [we’re both] so selective, well, they wanted to be so selective, they’ve had more problems than we’ve had in two years. Some promoters and I argue that they’ve brought all these people and I’m not letting them in, and my answer to that is look: The checks never bounce. I have a proven record. My job is to gauge who’s coming in and who’s not. I do seating too. Working with Jayma [Cardosa of Cain, GoldBar, and Surf Lodge], I went from just running a door to seeing how critical it was to know how to sit a room. I decide where the promoters sit, where the big clients sit, who goes to VIP, who doesn’t. It’s a lot more than Ben does at 1Oak who just lets people in and then there’s a manager inside and then a floor manager. I make much more of a hybrid decision. But it’s critical.

Side Hustle: I’m exclusive with Tenjune. A lot of friends ask me, “Why don’t you work at different clubs on different nights?” and yah, maybe I could make even more money doing that. But clubs are all about consistency. Let’s say I work Tuesday/Wednesday with someone, and Friday/Saturday with someone else. When I get back on Tuesday, I don’t know who they let in on Friday and Saturday. Then I have to either clean up their mistakes or make up for people they didn’t recognize.

Favorite Hangs: I love to travel. I’m looking to go to South Africa, I’m going back to Brazil in October. I just bought an apartment, so I’m going to go look for some art. Asking me if I like to go out in the city is like asking the chef if he likes to go to restaurants when he’s not working. Going out can feel like work. It’s flattering [when people recognize me from Tenjune or other clubs], but still. Then there’s the other side of it. I was in Williamsburg at a deli getting apple juice in the winter, and the guy behind the counter’s like, “You’re Alex, that doorguy for that club in the Meatpacking.” We [at Tenjune] had just done the victory party for the Giants for the Super Bowl, and I guess I didn’t let this guy in. People take [getting turned away at a club] like I’m slapping their little sister around or something.

Do you think that’s indicative of who’s going to clubs in Manhattan now? They’re a more aggressive group of people? I think it’s indicative of people who don’t get in, who shouldn’t get in. And that reinforces the need for people like me who will stand their ground and be selective. I have had people come up to me and say “Oh, you have to let this guy in, he’s a super VIP,” and I didn’t. They got mad, but an hour later, in line, the guy is grabbing girls’ asses. I’m not going to take chances. I’d rather know who someone is.

Industry Icons: I have a lot of respect throughout. I’ve learned a lot from people like Steve Lewis, Jeffrey Jah, Dirk Van Stockum, Mark Baker. There’s a bunch of other people. I mean this respectfully, but truthfully, as much as I’ve learned from [other nightlife people’s] success, I’ve learned even more from their mistakes. It’s like if you’re walking up an icy block, and you see some people make it, and some fall, I know where not to walk. Sometimes you need to see someone you look up to fall, so you can say, wow, if he can fall, I can fall too. There’s someone I won’t name but who’s stuck around [in the business] way too long. You can only be in this business if you’re going to exit gracefully. Otherwise you’re like the girl who’s gone out too long, who was cute at 22 but now she has the injections and the lifts and is mad I don’t want to let her in anymore. It’s one thing when you’re 23 and you’re tipsy and giggly — it’s another when you’re 43 and sloppy drunk. It’s not a good look.

Frank McCue who runs the place under the Gansevoort [G-Spa & Lounge] for Scott Sartiano and Richie Akiva [currently of Butter and 1Oak], he’s great at what he does. He told me one time, “I respect you and I respect Armin, but you guys do a thankless job. If you let someone in nine times, they may never thank you. But if you don’t let that person in one time, it’s like ‘you’re such an asshole”’. It’s just thankless, but you have to deal with it. Known Associates: This is the first time I’ve worked for Mark Birnbaum and Eugene [Remm]. I’ve known Mark for six, seven years. I just met Eugene when we opened. Working with them happened over three or four days. It was very quick. I had told Pink Elephant like a week before that I was leaving, then I opened Tenjune two weeks later. I didn’t like the direction 27th Street was going. Even though I know everybody [in the nightlife business], that’s not who I hang out with. You’re not going to catch me at Butter on a Monday night. Partly because of the drama I get when I go out. It’s embarrassing if I go out on a date or with friends and have to deal with that. I love Jayma Cardosa. I’ve know her about eight years. We happened to work together at Cain, but it was a genuine friendship. We like each other.

Projections: A lot of people with financial backing have asked me over the years when I’m going to open up my own club. And my answer to that is: I like the freedom that my job allows. I’ve been fortunate enough to make a very comfortable living without having to spend all day in an office staring at a computer screen. I take three or four weeks off during the winter and go to Brazil or Southeast Asia to hang out. You can’t do that when you have a 9 to 5 job. It’s not for everybody.

The dilemma for me now is, do I open my own place, or not. There might be a chance for financial growth, but at what cost? [At my own place] maybe I couldn’t take a month off a year. If someone falls at a club now, they don’t sue me, they sue Mark and Eugene. They have to put the fire out. That’s a lot of weight. That’s a decision I have to make in the next year or two. I’m not going to be doing this 10 years from now. Where do you hope to be next year? In nine months I’m going to do something new, and it’s going to be a hit. I hope that it’s going to be with Mark and Eugene, but my deal’s up with them in September, so we’re going to sit down then and make some decisions about the future. I do have two other projects I’m looking at. One in the Meatpacking, and one here [in Soho].

What are you doing tonight? Tonight I’m going to the screening of Pineapple Express, and then we’re hosting the after party at Tenjune.