Sutra For Sale: Owner Ariel Palitz Explains Why

A couple weeks ago, a client called me and asked if Sutra, that First Avenue joint owned and operated by Ariel Palitz was a good buy. After an eight-year run, Ariel has decided to say goodbye and leaked the news to connected people. I told my guy it was a good buy. Ariel and I worked on the Nightlife Community thing when I was associated with the New York Nightlife Association. She is a member of the community board, CB3, and therefore sees nightlife from many angles. Community boards are manned and womaned by locals who have a local viewpoint of what should be happening in the neighborhood they live in. Bars and clubs and such are often with odds with new development and people who don’t want to live near these late-night attractions. The not-in-my-backyard crowd (NIMBY’s) wants to turn vibrant cultural neighborhoods into bedroom communities. The flipside of this, of course, is that NYC is a place that has always been know for these late-night places, to the point that it has been dubbed, "The City That Never Sleeps." Outside of my crowd, people actually do want to sleep. Another reason clubs and bars and restaurants need to thrive is that they support students, actors, artists, and that ilk who make this city a place to be. The balance of these two opposing forces lay with people like Ariel and unfortunately others not as openminded. Sutra is still open, still happening, still creating vibrancy and supporting people. It is worth a visit while Ariel finds the right person to take her place.

After a very long run, Sutra is for sale. Tell me about the history of the place.
Well, let me start by saying that Sutra is still very much open and moving and grooving. It is business as usual, and I continue to be very proud of everything we have been able to accomplish at Sutra for nearly eight years. From the very beginning, I set out to create a venue that stayed true to the New York underground DJ party vibe.  It was also very important to me that we had an open-door policy that allowed Sutra to express the true diversity of the East Village. I knew that the best way for us to stay relevant was to stay talent and music-driven. I think that, for the most part, that is what Sutra is know for: great DJ’s, great music, great vibe. My programing goal was to create a common ground for diverse expression, to have every night showcase a different genre, from hip-hop to rock to Bollywood. Ultimately, it was to showcase New York culture. As it turned out, there was a very big part of New York culture that was being dramatically underserved in NY,  the true old-school hip-hop-loving community. NY is the birthplace of hip-hop after all, so staying true to my love of great and talented DJs, I went after some of the greatest DJs in the world – the pioneers, the legends and creators of DJing that lived just minutes from Sutra. DJs like Kool Herc, Red Alert, Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Premier, and of course Tony Touch. Together with Tony Touch, we created Toca Tuesdays, one of the longest-running and well-known weekly old-school hip-hop parties in New York. In my eyes, nothing could have fulfilled my intention of preserving New York culture more than to support these DJs and this culture. In the end, I think it is ultimately what Sutra will be remembered for.
 
And your reasons for selling?
In many ways, I think that now, in our eight year, Sutra is at the top of its game. We have the credibility and recognition to continue to get the world’s best DJs, such as DJ Scratch, Just Blaze, Questlove, Kenny Dope, and on and on. But it occurred to me recently that on a personal level I had to pursue other ventures and adventures. At my core, I am an entrepreneur and love to be challenged, and as challenging as it is to continually run a nightclub on a daily basis, in many ways it can become routine. About a year ago, I began my exit strategy and ultimately put Sutra on the market so that I could pursue other dreams, now that I have accomplished owning and running my own club. It has by far surpassed my wildest expectations, but life is short. Most people think I’m crazy to leave such a successful business, but my friends understand.
 
Do you have any hopes for who will buy the venue?
In a perfect world, I would be able to pass the baton to someone who loves New York and the scene as much as I do. Someone who would take the essence of what has been Sutra, elevate it, and carry it on. I feel that was what I did eight years ago when I took the space over. Sutra used to be used to be Bar XVI (16), and for seven years, it was famous in its own right for exactly the same thing; great DJs, great music, great vibe. Many of our DJs, like Evil Dee, used to have their own weekly party there back in the day. In a perfect world, someone will step up and I can pass this great legacy to them. And if not, First St. and First Ave. in NYC is probably the best address on Earth to have two 4am liquor licenses, two floors, in a near-250 capacity venue and its unbelievably up for grabs. Any takers?  
Sutra
 
What’s next for you?
I will always be a soldier for New York Nightlife and Culture Preservation and have recently started my own consulting company called Venue Advisors, LLC with Paul Seres, the president of the New York Nightlife Association, and Moses Comas, my business partner. My goal is to help other people open and run their own clubs. It is very important to me to share everything I have learned and to assist other people to reach this incredible dream. For me, its time to feel the excitement of starting something new. I’ve been working on a new venture for a couple of years and now is the time to make my move to develop it. I can’t reveal too much about it just yet, but it’s health-driven, with a dash of vice. I am also in the process right now of producing a short film documenting this long and amazing journey; it’s a love letter to Sutra.
 
The neighborhood has changed. You are a local community board member. Tell me where you think things are going down there.
It’s true. I have been a CB3 Community Board member on the State Liquor Authority (SLA) Committee for over three years, but I’m also a native New Yorker who grew up in the club scene and have also lived in this neighborhood for over 15 years. It has changed in more ways that no one who lives here now could ever imagine. Aside from the obvious gentrification that pushed out the diversity of large ethnic families and artists and musicians –  and, yes, even a few drug dealers and prostitutes – what has changed the most is the great neighborhood feeling it used to have. Its true that due to a variety of reasons there has also been a proliferation of bars in the LES/EV and a decrease in diverse businesses for residents and even a decrease in one’s quality of life because of it. Even as a bar owner and resident, I can’t deny that. But a lot of the anger and blame for it has been unfairly targeted at the bar owners themselves for the perfect storm of errors that created it. Today, the community boards, city officials, and planners are putting a closer conscious effort to rebalance the community and to return it to that neighborhood feeling.
 
Do you think that progress is being made?  
I do believe that a tide is turning and that the effort will ultimately pay off, as long as the angry protesters of the "No More Bar" movement, as well as other nightlife opposers, do not tip the scales back too far. There is an anti-nightlife agenda that is very unfairly targeting and criminalizing the industry, city-wide. Instead of appreciating and respecting the industry and its contribution to NY, "crackdowns" and overregulation has made it, in many cases, an impossible nightmare to operate a nightlife business. And now there is a slow and steady effort to scale back our famous NY 4am liquor license law to 2am, through stipulations – all this in an effort to take back the streets for residents. But the truth is that, in many ways, the New York nightlife culture and economy is what has made New York the best city to live in. Remember "The City That Never Sleeps" people?? We are the city where people come to live and party from all over the world, people who were too creative or strange to be accepted in their hometowns. They are the innovators, artists, and great thinkers that have put New York on top in almost every field. New York is, by all accounts, a place where the freaks come out at night to party and then lead the world during the day. Not to mention all the great waiter and bartending positions that have sustained many a movie star or doctor on the way up.
 
You are on a mission.
I didnt realize it when I first opened Sutra, but being in nightlife has a greater purpose than just parties. Preserving New York nightlife, in my opinion, is preserving and saving New York identity. Saving it from all the great restaurateurs and club owners from going to Vegas, Miami, LA, or even Europe and taking all the great, interesting, and brilliant people with them. As far as the East Village/LES goes, I don’t know if we will ever reclaim the great glory days of art, music, and bohemia, mixed with families and freaks, but I do know that striving to reclaim the balance between nightlife and community, mixed retail, and affordable rents, we can find our way back to a New York we recognize and love. That’s why I’m on the community board, to push back so that hopefully we all meet in the middle and not lose what makes us the greatest city in the world. Literally.
 
At a recent conference, I was asked why there are so few women in ownership positions in clubland…your take?
I’m not so sure that there are as few woman club owners as people think. I personally know dozens, and as a community board member, I see them apply all the time. But for sure, there are not as many as men. The bar business can be brutal and hardcore, no matter what gender you are. As a woman, I have used my charms to get me out of many bad situations that no man could ever wrangle his way out of. Not to mention, it’s amazing what you can get away with when you are being underestimated. In my eight years of owning Sutra, I have been faced with almost every scenario you can imagine and survived and thrived through them all. I dont think that there are less women nightlife owners because they cant hack it. I think its because there are so many other great ways to make a living that don’t require them to make as many sacrifices to their quality of life and to still have the ability to have it all. As much as I have loved owning a club in almost every way – the  amazing people, the great parties, celebrating life everyday etc. – the truth is, to be a club owner, you to need to harden yourself to pull it off. There are so many takers, haters, liars, freaks, and crazies, not to mention the unbelievable scenarios that you have to deal with on a regular basis. All while you’re giving your all to keep your venue cool, relevant, and packed every night and, oh yeah, making money. Then your dealing with the police, the community, the city, the state, and all the government agencies surrounding and watching your every move, ready to close in on you for your slightest error. Why aren’t there as many women in nightlife? Maybe they’re just smarter. Either way, for me, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. One of the greatest gigs in the world and proud of it.
 
How did the emergence of hip Brooklyn change the crowds coming to the East Village/ LES?
I’m sure the fact that there are more cool local places to hang out in Brooklyn has made it more of a challenge to get Brooklynites to venture across the bridge. All New Yorkers prefer the comfort of their own hood, but I also know that New Yorkers will travel anywhere in any weather to experience something cool and unique. It does put a greater pressure on operators and promoters in the EV/LES to step up their game to make their venues worth going to. If they do, the people will come.

To David Yassky: Kick the Bad Cabbies Off the Road

Last week the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) of this fair town voted to increase yellow taxi fares by 17 percent. The raise was a foregone conclusion as an increase in fares last occurred in 2006 and costs for everything have gone up. Reports say that the average cost of a ride will rise 2 bucks, to $15. The commission, through mouthpiece Allan Fromberg, says that after a 12-hour shift, a driver will take home around $160 as opposed to the current $130. I’m all for it on many levels, but I do have some beef. Taxis carry about 600,000 passengers in 450,000 separate trips. Living in Williamsburg has allowed me to avoid the yellow perils as I opt for the convenience of my beloved, albeit rat infested (another story) "L" Train or the comforts of Northside or Metro Car services. I am sure there are many polite and respectful yellow cab drivers out there, but the bad eggs spoil the carton.

On Saturday night, around 3:15am, I was rolling deep with three attractive, well-dressed ladies, leaving the wonderful Le Bain. They were casually enjoying the night air while trying to navigate cobblestone in their Balenciagas and Louboutins…not an easy task. They had zero sense of urgency about obtaining transportation to our next and last stop. I warned them that in about 15 minutes, all the surrounding bars and clubs of the Meatpacking District would be emptying out and a cab would be scarce. We hustled to 9th Avenue, where I witnessed yellow cabs refusing fares or demanding exorbitant amounts for normally metered fares. It was "$30" or "I’m only going to New Jersey" or simple rude "no’s" as the cabbies broke every rule in the book in this feeding frenzy. All of the cabs had their off-duty signs on as if this allowed them to be above the law. 

One particular cab driver was beyond the pale and said some terribly rude things to multiple applicants for his services. He refused me even though I was well-dressed, completely sober (as is my norm), and was going to a nearby Manhattan location – even though he would be obligated to take me anyplace in NYC. He wanted more. He wanted $30 and a quick ride. He used profanity and pulled his cab forward, almost injuring me and a drunk patron crossing in front of his vehicle. I took his number and told him I was going to file a complaint; he laughed. As he sat there negotiating fares with revelers, I looked for a cop. Alas, none were near, so I opted to complain through the TLC web site. We ended up getting a cab on 8th Avenue where they were plentiful.David Yassky is the Taxi and Limousine Commisioner and a reasonable guy. He has ambitions. When I sat on the NY Nightlife Association Board, he was talked about as a friend and a possible future mayor or such. The illegal and unenforced rape of the public by cab drivers on late nights is a disgrace. Past commissioners have found ways to regulate taxi-gouging of the public at airports and the Port Authority; surely a plan to stop this nonsense can be formulated. Maybe a taxi stand or an increase in enforcement is called for. I am sure that the extra loot these bastards demanded from people desperate to get home or wherever was not figured into the average earnings statistics.

It is rare that I find myself in this desperate search for a ride. I walk a lot, am not allergic to public transportation, and have a car. However, on this night I had civilians with me. From now on I will stiff bad cabbies and over-tip the good ones; I think this should be a public policy. The bad cabbies need to be weeded out and the good ones rewarded.

A 17 percent fare increase is a good start for good service. With it must come a commitment from David Yassky and his team to protect the public from the assholes. These creeps are a bad messenger for the tourists who take these bad experiences back to Peoria and other backwater towns like LA or Chicago. If a driver refuses a fare with no reasonable excuse, they should pull his license and fine the jerk $500 for the first offense, and make it worse after that. If a driver picks up a fare with his off-duty sign on, hit him hard. If he charges more than the fare on the meter, shoot ’em. O.K., O.K., don’t shoot him.

I am filing a complaint against an individual driver. I will have to take time out of my day to go to a hearing. He deserves a hearing. Most New Yorkers can’t take the time out and just shrug the whole thing off. Giuliani, for whatever he was, did understand that the squeegee guys lowered the quality of life in this town. David Yassky must step up and do his job. As the drivers were just given the carrot, he must wield the stick. 

To David Yassky: Kick the Bad Cabbies Off the Road

Last week the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) of this fair town voted to increase yellow taxi fares by 17 percent. The raise was a foregone conclusion as an increase in fares last occurred in 2006 and costs for everything have gone up. Reports say that the average cost of a ride will rise 2 bucks, to $15. The commission, through mouthpiece Allan Fromberg, says that after a 12-hour shift, a driver will take home around $160 as opposed to the current $130. I’m all for it on many levels but have some beef. Taxis carry about 600,000 passengers in 450,000 separate trips. Living in Williamsburg has allowed me to avoid the yellow perils as I opt for the convenience of my beloved, albeit rat infested (another story) "L" Train or the comforts of Northside or Metro Car services. I am sure there are many polite and respectful yellow cab drivers out there, but the bad eggs spoil the carton.

On Saturday night, around 3:15am, I was rolling deep with three attractive, well-dressed ladies, leaving the wonderful Le Bain. They were casually enjoying the air while trying to navigate cobblestone in their Balenciagas and Louboutins…not an easy task. They had zero sense of urgency about obtaining transportation to our next and last stop. I warned them that in about 15 minutes, all the surrounding bars and clubs of the Meatpacking District would be emptying out and a cab would be scarce. We hustled to 9th Avenue where I witnessed yellow cabs refusing fares or demanding exorbitant amounts for normally metered fares. It was "$30" or "I’m only going to New Jersey" or simple rude "no’s" as the cabbies broke every rule in the book in this feeding frenzy. All of the cabs had their off-duty signs on as if this allowed them to be above the law. 

One particular cab driver was beyond the pale and said some terribly rude things to multiple applicants for his services. He refused me even though I was well-dressed, completely sober (as is my norm) and was going to a nearby Manhattan location – even though he would be obligated to take me anyplace in NYC. He wanted more. He wanted $30 and a quick ride. He used profanity and pulled his cab forward, almost injuring me and a drunk patron crossing in front of his vehicle. I took his number and told him I was going to file a complaint and he laughed. As he sat there negotiating fares with revelers I looked for a cop. Alas, none were near, so I opted to complain through the TLC web site. We ended up getting a cab on 8th Avenue where they were plentiful.David Yassky is the Taxi and Limousine Commisioner and a reasonable guy. He has ambitions. When I sat on the NY Nightlife Association Board, he was talked about as a friend and a possible future mayor or such. The illegal and unenforced rape of the public by cab drivers on late nights is a disgrace. Past commissioners have found ways to regulate taxi-gouging of the public at airports and the Port Authority. Surely a plan to stop this nonsense can be formulated. Maybe a taxi stand or an increase in enforcement is called for. I am sure that the extra loot these bastards demanded from people desperate to get home or wherever was not figured into the average earnings statistics.

It is rare that I find myself in this desperate search for a ride. I walk a lot, am not allergic to public transportation, and have a car. However, on this night I had civilians with me. From now on I will stiff bad cabbies and over-tip the good ones; I think this should be a public policy. The bad cabbies need to be weeded out and the good ones rewarded.

A 17 percent fare increase is a good start for good service. With it must come a commitment from David Yassky and his team to protect the public from the assholes. These creeps are a bad messenger for the tourists who take these bad experiences back to Peoria and other backwater towns like LA or Chicago. If a driver refuses a fare with no reasonable excuse, they should pull his license and fine the jerk $500 for the first offense. Make it worse after that. If a driver picks up a fare with his off-duty sign on, hit him hard. If he charges more than the fare on the meter, shoot ’em. O.K., O.K., don’t shoot him.

I am filing a complaint against an individual driver. I will have to take time out of my day to go to a hearing. He deserves a hearing. Most New Yorkers can’t take the time out and just shrug the whole thing off. Giuliani, for whatever he was, did understand that the squeegee guys lowered the quality of life in this town. David Yassky must step up and do his job. As the drivers were just given the carrot, he must wield the stick. 

Gone Fishin’: NYNA Talks About Paid Sick Leave

I used to go fishing regularly, until my conscience would no longer allow me to pull the beautiful creatures from their imagined paradise into the nightmare of mine. But fishing is not necessarily for food. It is an art that requires patience and wit and often a plan. I used my fishing experience the other day when I wrote an article about restaurant and club lobbyists opposing legislation that seemed to benefit the public, and not necessarily their clients—the owners. I hooked, reeled in, and landed a response from a very big fish, Paul Seres, the president of the New York Nightlife Association. Paul and I are old friends. I used to go sit in on board meetings of the NYNA. Nowadays I just don’t go. There are a few theories as to why, but mostly it’s because I don’t own or operate a joint, and was finding myself more and more on the other end of many issues. Back in April, I offered that the NYNA “Is often the only thing that stands between a vibrant night scene and the powers that would turn the Big Apple into a bedroom community.” I still believe this is true.

If not for the NYNA and the New York State Restaurant Association, we would have 2AM closings and a lot fewer places opening. They do much good. Where I strongly differ from the organization is the Letter Grade System—now in effect—the proposed Paid Sick Leave legislation, and also the way they interact with the city. On that last point, I see most of their victories as small, while many clubs have been harassed into closing. I have advocated for a far more aggressive approach. As last week’s article dealt with letter grade and paid sick leave, the last issue will be discussed at a later date.

The Paid Sick Leave Bill has been tabled, probably until after Election Day. Impact studies were demanded by the lobbying associations and are being conducted. Paul Seres and I chatted on the phone and exchanged emails over the weekend. We talked about girlfriends, and nightlife trends, and puppies, and the weather, and we talked about this stuff. There was general agreement that “so far” the letter grades issued by the Department of Health have not been the disaster predicted by the association. We agreed that it’s too early to tell the true result of the new rules, and that “so far so good” was once heard coming from the lips of a gent who jumped off the Empire State Building on his way down. Maybe subtle changes were indeed made as a result of the association’s good efforts. These efforts possibly postponed the apocalypse, or will result in another bill. I asked him for a response, and followed up with a few questions. Here’s what Paul Seres had to say:

After reading your posting “ABC’s and Other Controversies” it is apparent you haven’t heard the entire story. We, as an industry—that is to say the owners and operators—are not opposed to paid sick leave, we are opposed to the way this version of the bill is drafted.

Lets look at how the bill defines a small business, and defines a large business. To be defined as a large business, you have to have 19 employees. 19 is the number that differentiates between an employee getting 5 paid sick days, or 9 paid sick days a year.

Second, as most tip employees, or employees who qualify for the tip credit can attest to, most policies in restaurants, bars and clubs are: if you can’t make a shift, then get it covered, but notify management. That usually means that employee is swapping shifts with someone else, therefore they are not losing any wages, and they are not losing their jobs. Other cities who’ve adopted paid sick leave bills, like Washington, DC, have exempted tipped employees for this very reason.

We, as an industry, are not opposed to paid sick leave but we don’t feel the entire price tag should be placed on our wallets. One of the things we’ve suggested is that a fund is set up where the employer, employee, and the city all contribute to the paid sick leave pool, so as the employee needs to take time off, they keep their job, and the employer doesn’t have to pay the entire bill.

One of the biggest issues I see with the bill is that New York City does not have a Department of Labor, so figuring out who is going to monitor this bill once it gets passed is going to be tricky.

Is there a boy who cries wolf problem with the NYNA and the NYSRA? The letter grade system, although still very new, seems to be working way better than you lead us to believe. 78% of the restaurants graded got A’s (48%) or B’s (30%) with only 12% getting C ratings, and the rest were shuttered until unhealthy conditions can be corrected. The B’s and the C’s and the shuttered all have a chance to upgrade. Isn’t that great for the public? I don’t see it as crying wolf, I see it as a city desperate to make money. You are also getting your statistics from the NYC DOH, so of course their numbers are going to lean more towards what they want public perception to be. The other major problem I have with the system is that it is constantly being compared to the system set up by the Dept of Health in LA, but they are very different. Their system is intuitive, in that 90-100 points gets an A, 80-90 gets a B, 70-80 gets a C and so on. New York’s system is not intuitive at all. 13 points gets you a B. 13 points can be water on the floor by the dish washer, a dented can in an un-opened case, or an uncovered light bulb. Items that have nothing to do with food borne illnesses. I agree that the places with complete and total disregard for the public safety should be shut down, but that, I hope, isn’t the norm.

Are the “studies” just an attempt to slow down the inevitable, as the bill has overwhelming support in the city council? I think some form of the Paid Sick Leave bill will be passed by the end of this year. However, I’m not sure about the overwhelming support in the city council. While I think there is momentum, we are now in the process of negotiating with the council to determine how we can make it work without the entire price of paid sick leave falling to the business owner. I still don’t know which city agency will watch to make sure all business are staying on top.

Do businesses like stores or wall street firms or law offices get public or government subsidies for sick leave? In these penny-pinching times do you believe that will even be considered? The last time the Paid Sick Leave bill was introduced and there was a public hearing, all types of businesses testified about how it would effect their industry. Even large corporations who are headquartered here spoke up and said that if this policy was introduced in New York they would have to change their policy nationally, or even globally. Companies like Citi, Verizon, and Met Life all have existing policies in place, and this would trump their policies. More than a few restaurants, bars, and nightclubs already offer some form of paid sick leave, which may or may not apply to the required days this bill would mandate. But the devil is in the details, and that remains.

So accepting that this bill, in some form, is coming, please lay it out. I think it is definitely forthcoming, and I think the logic behind the bill makes sense. However, the entire cost can’t come from the small business owner. I think that if an additional insurance fund were created that had three contributors—the city, the business owner, and the employee (very similar to workmen’s compensation)—I think that would work. I also think that the number for a large business can’t be 19, it needs to be greater.

How and by whom do you want it to be administrated? When I say “you,” I mean NYNA, of course. As far as who it should be administered by, I don’t know. I’m guessing some new adjunct to an existing department would have to suffice, but then it gets tricky. This is truly a Department of Labor issue, but New York City doesn’t have one. Makes you wonder if the state will get something passed as well.

What number represents a fair cut off between small and big establishments, and how did you arrive at that number? When I talked to you yesterday, you described a 60-employee establishment as “Mom and Pop.” In this town, that’s no longer possible is it? A 60-employee joint is a nice size business. It isn’t the number of people working at any given time, it is the entire number of people working in that establishment. A 50 seat restaurant, when open, may have a host, a bartender, 3 servers, 2 bus boys, 1 runner, 1 dishwasher, 2 cooks, 1 porter, and that is just for a Friday night. That doesn’t include anyone else who isn’t working that shift. That’s 12 people, and if they have additional staff to support and augment their schedule, figure there are another 5 people in various positions. I don’t consider a 50-seat restaurant a big business. I’m not entirely sure what the answers are, but I do believe that this bill was created in a vacuum, and needs work. A coalition of business groups have been meeting with the legislators to work on the bill together, so hopefully something balanced will come out those meetings.