Industry Insiders: Rande Gerber and Roberto Serralles, Spirited Entrepreneurs

Having mastered the art of owning and operating stylish bars and lounges, nightlife entrepreneur Rande Gerber (right) decided to enter the next closest line of business: producing and marketing his own spirit. "I love rum, but I wanted to do something different," Gerber says. "I decided that if I wanted to do well, I needed to team up with the best." The best, in this case, is represented by Roberto Serralles (left), a master of distilling, blending, and aging whose family has been producing rum in Puerto Rico for nearly 150 years. The result of their collaboration is Caliche, an aged white rum with citrus, caramel, and vanilla notes that’s smooth enough to enjoy on the rocks, while versatile enough to mix into daiquiris and other cocktails. "The idea is to make a really light distillate and then let the barrel do its magic," Serralles explains.

Caliche rum is available in the Gerber Group’s many venues, including Lilium in New York, Stone Rose Lounge in Los Angeles, and Whiskey Sky in Chicago. 

Tonight Fashion Eats and Drinks With You

Tis the season for clothes, style, and a whole lot of pomp, but just because the models aren’t downing cocktails and nibbling on the buffet spreads, it doesn’t mean you can’t indulge. Start out at Pizza Roma, where not only can you get gluten free pizza, but you can try their special pesche vino, a white wine with fresh peaches chopped up and served over ice. At the Gastro Bar at 35th in Macy’s Herald Square, ten dollars gets you the Donna Karan, a thyme-infused vodka drink with elderflower and cucumber, or you can get the NY Fashion, a bubbly mixture of cava, raspberry liqueur and orange juice. Nearby, you can also try the Pret-a-Martini, an apricot, lime, and tequila beverage made at The Americano.

We know fashion isn’t necessarily about food, unless you’re Lady Gaga, but for full on fashion-cocktail fusion events, check out: BedHead Pajamas for tasty margaritas, C. Wonder for sweet treats and lemonade, and Revlon plans to pump up their party with music, champagne, and various nibbles. At Diane von Furstenberg, they will host DJ Solange Knowles and pass out free cocktails. For more free drinks, hit up RARE by F.S. Charlie Salon. Michael Kors also offers Prosecco to shoppers, and at Madewell in Soho, they have desserts and tipples for customers who purchase $100 or more of their goods. Head over to Bergdorf Goodman for a little Alexander Wang-meets-Padma Lakshmi, as the model and Top Chef host and Cynthia Rowley throw a designer cook-off.  

If running around stores and boutiques isn’t your thing but you still want to celebrate the art of style, the Stone Rose Lounge has become the official spot of Mercedes-Benz, which means after-party after after-party. Tonight it starts at 5pm with DJ Lincoln Madley for the 2012 Supima Design Competition and their specialty drinks like the Fashion Fizz and Sweet Stiletto will be flowing. Of course, at the end of the night The Coffee Shop, the Union Square restaurant famous for model workers and clientele (yes, they make you give them a head shot if you apply to work there), will be hosting its weekly DJ party starting at 7pm and going until whenever. Which tonight, could be a long, stylish time.  

Industry Insiders: Raphael Chejade-Bloom, Mr. Hospitality

As managing partner and director of marketing and entertainment at Gerber Group, Raphael Chejade-Bloom is in charge of the guest experience for the company’s many sleek nightspots, including the new Lilium at the W New York – Union Square. We asked him to divulge a few secrets to staying on the top of the nightlife game, and he didn’t disappoint. 

 
Where are you from?
I was born in San Diego, went to high school in Princeton, New Jersey, and college at American University in Washington, D.C.
 
Do you consider yourself an East Coast or a West Coast guy? Your temperament is kind of laid-back, but you do have that New York energy.  
That’s what I like to be. I have a funny, laid-back West Coast disposition, but I had some formative years on the East Coast. I can’t exactly say that Princeton was much for cutting my teeth, but it was better than hanging out on the beach all day.
 
How long have you been with the Gerber Group?
It’s been three years this month.
 
What is your job title and your main responsibilities?
I am the managing partner and director of marketing and entertainment. Day to day, I oversee everything consumer-related for the company throughout all of our properties. I work a lot with strategic partnerships and I’m booking all the entertainment. I like to say that if Gerber Group is a bar, I’m doing the front of the house.
 
When you book entertainment are you talking about DJs or live acts?
Both. We’ve had a lot of success in the last couple years doing live music. We try to work with artists before they get huge. One example would be Jessie J. We had her perform live for the first time in the United States before her album dropped. I think she did SNL a month later, so that was exciting for us. We’ve been doing a lot of events with artists who come in and do a show and then they will do a DJ set and then throw an after-party at one of our venues. We’ve had Foster the People. We’ve had Iron & Wine, and by the time this runs we will have had Young the Giant.
 
Do you work with all the venues—every Gerber venue in New York and beyond?
I oversee the entire portfolio. I do have a very dear friend by the name of Rob Goldstein and he is the southeast marketing director and I oversee his work, but he is pretty much running point in Atlanta, where he lives, Fort Lauderdale, and New Orleans.
 
The Gerber Group strikes a nice balance in New York nightlife. All of its bars are upscale and special-feeling, but there’s never a sense of snobbery at the door. They’re pretty welcoming.
Thank you. We are definitely not in the business of exclusivity. We are in the business of longevity. Consistency is key for us. It’s the benchmark of our brand. We are a classic brand, and we’ve been around for twenty years. We celebrated our twentieth anniversary last year and I think the welcoming attitude comes from the top. I’ve been taught that this is a business of hospitality first and foremost, and that’s what’s going to perpetuate the brand for another twenty years. 
 
This might be a sensitive question, but which is your favorite Gerber bar?
I am a little biased because I started as a manager at Whiskey Park, so I really like that one. It’s kind of the Cheers of the portfolio. Lilium is quickly becoming a favorite as well, because everyone loves the redo of the former Underbar. But Whiskey Park is where we all go if there’s a Giants game on or if we are going to hang out and just relax.
 
The music at Lilium is really great. The tracks they pick really hit the right notes. It’s such a comfortable place to hang out at, yet still quite chic.
Funny story. Before Lilium opened, I sent out an email to all of the top DJs throughout the company, and I said that we were opening this new bar and I want everyone to get together at Whiskey Park so we can do a musical test run. I want you to give your interpretation of a one-hour set for a Sunday night at Lilium. We tried to keep it under wraps, but I got a call from our corporate office saying that someone just called asking if they could enter our DJ battle that we were having at Whiskey Park for Lilium. And I’m like, what’s going on here? And I guess somehow it had leaked to a New York nightlife blog, which posted “DJ Battle at Whiskey Park for New Lilium DJ,” so that was pretty funny. The point is that we went above and beyond to make sure that the sound was right. And that’s for our core hours. We have extended our music offering on Friday and Saturday nights after 11 pm because people want to hear different things. But when you are going in there for our core customer hours – after work on a Tuesday or Wednesday, for example – you are going to hear the Lilium soundtrack, which I appreciate that you liked.
 
Any particularly memorable moments in the line of work?
I think having Foster the People at The Living Room at the W Times Square was pretty exciting. We had decided to pump a little more energy into the bar, and that opportunity came about with perfect timing. We had a line down the block. Foster was really hitting their stride at the time. It was right after BlackBook did its bit with us and Foster the People and they were right at the point of breaking out. It was really exciting. And then, on our twentieth anniversary, we had Fitz and the Tantrums perform live at Stone Rose Lounge, so that was pretty great. More recently, during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, we did the after-party for Betsey Johnson. Stone Rose Lounge was the official lounge for Fashion Week, and that was a formidable party. It was probably the most packed that I have ever seen Stone Rose.
 
Do you enjoy what you do? Are you having fun?  
Absolutely. I love the camaraderie of this business. That is really the most exciting thing. And, you know, I look at myself really as an industry apprentice. I’ve got great people that I work with. Scott is an amazing mentor. I feel very, very lucky. 
 
What are the most challenging parts of your job? What takes the most leg work to accomplish?
Keeping up with the programming can be a challenge. Everyone in the nightlife business is fighting with each other to get the hottest new act, the best new DJ, the new acoustic set, or the most exciting impromptu performance. The challenge for someone like me in the marketing space is maintaining the right energy and keeping consistent with the core values of our business.
 
A lot of people would like to do what you do. What advice would you give to a younger person that wants to get into the space that you’re in? What do you need to know to succeed?
Much of it is maintaining a sense of hospitality. You have to be wired for this business. Yes, at times you’re attached to your phone, but more often than not, you have to be receptive to personally interacting with people. If you’re a nice person and you enjoy taking care of people, you can go far.
 
What do you do in your spare time? Any hobbies or leisure activities that help you unwind?
I love working out and running, and I definitely like to spend my time exploring and traveling. I am a huge travel junkie. Last year I went to so many music festivals and special events, everywhere from Art Basel to Night Club and Bar in Vegas to Coachella, South by Southwest, Ultra, Lollapalooza. This year I will be going back to Coachella and back to South by Southwest. Anywhere I can go I’ll go. It’s important to get out of the city sometimes. 

Los Angeles: Top 10 Places to Get Devoured by a Cougar

Stone Rose Lounge (West Hollywood) – The East Coast version of this star-lit bar is NY’s reigning cougar palace. This is similar, except the furniture—and the cougars—are a burnt orange. ● The Ivy (Beverly Hills) – Studio bigwigs are more than thrilled to let their bored wives run wild on the company expense account, which means lunch (and dessert) at this Hollywood clubhouse is just a “How you doin’” away. ● Ecco Ultra Lounge (Hollywood) – The only thing that trumps a regular cougar is one that drives a Prius. Savor the ride home from this eco-friendly supper club, because it’s about to get dirty.

Downtown Standard (Downtown) – No one really knows why owner Andre Balazs named his crack den for design junkies The Standard, but we’re pretty sure it’s because every time you hit the rooftop bar, a hungry urban wildcat is waiting to take you into her mod-tastic room for a swift disemboweling. It’s the standard here. ● Sidebar (Beverly Hills) – If you’re wondering what business a slobbering cougar would have in classy establishment such as this, well, none. The cougars here have funds and they’re willing to spend them. Congratulations, you just discovered how to support yourself between auditions. ● Whiskey A Go Go (West Hollywood) – Because cougars are a lot more vicious when they’ve been Motley Cru-ed, Poison-ed, and Bon Jovi-ed. ● Chateau Marmont (West Hollywood) – When Cameron Diaz appeared on SNL as a cougar in early 2009, a new queen was crowned, and this is her court. ● Hal’s Bar & Grill (Venice Beach) – An L.A.-based photographer tells us this where cougars “specifically seek black guys with money.” You know who you are, fellas. ● Mr. Chow (Beverly Hills) – This legendary Asian restaurant, big with Hollywood types and hip-hop royalty, should be renamed Mrs. Chow, if you buy what we’re selling. ● The Dresden Room (Los Feliz) – This hepcat haven (immortalized in the movie Swingers) puts out a distinctly retro vibe. The cougars here just put out. ● Good Luck Bar (Los Feliz) – We appreciate the superstitious name, guys, but the question is: who needs luck when you serve vodka sodas to vaguely single women in their late thirties and early forties? Anyone know the number to a taxi?

LA New Year’s Eve Parties

imageFive ways to ring in the New Year in Tinseltown.

1. Katy Perry performs at the Gridlock NYE party 2009 at Paramount Studios. $100-$200. 2. The Standard is hosting two “Gold 009” parties, one poolside and one in the Purple Lounge. There will be live music, dancing, DJs, and plenty of champagne. $25 for the poolside party, $40 for the Purple Lounge. 3. The Kress is hosting a party from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., with an open bar and three floors of dancing. $125.

4. Stone Rose Lounge is throwing a party that includes a prix fixe dinner, DJs, and magnums of Moet. $200. 5. The SkyBar at the Mondrian is hosting a Venetian-inspired masquerade ball on NYE, complete with be-masqued models serving drinks, and a Bebe fashion show. $500 and up.

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.