Rich Wolf is the fourth wheel of the Tao Group empire. The other three are the flamboyant, press-gathering trio made up of of Mark Packer, Jason Strauss, and Noah Tepperberg. You could walk across America, all the way to Vegas, treading on the press clippings of Rich’s three partners. While the group as a whole is grounded in operations, it’s Rich who seems to be waist-deep in the nitty gritty. He is the least likely to be sharing expensive liquids with celebutants at well-appointed tables late into the night. Tao Group is known for world-class operations, and Rich is the man behind the scenes, the glue, the rolling stone, the stitch in time that keeps this empire thriving and expanding. I managed to get a few minutes of his time in his Lower Manhattan office.
What is your title? I am a Principle of Tao Group.
Can you list the properties that you are involved in? Tao New York, Tao Las Vegas, Lavo New York, Lavo Las Vegas, Stanton Social, soon-to-be Beauty and Essex on Essex, Rue 57, and Avra, the Cosmopolitan night club at the Cosmopolitan in between Bellagio and City Center.
I heard that’s a 50-million-dollar night club. When is it opening? It’s up to 60. We’re opening New Years Eve.
Why will it sell? Because it’s new? Because the economy is better? Or because you have the best operation in the world? I really think that it’s a combination of all of the above. Everybody wants to go to the newest club, everybody wants to go to the biggest club. When people set the bar, that gives us the chance to raise the bar. And there are no other mega nightclubs scheduled to open in Vegas for what we think is going to be years. It’s probably the last major mega nightclub you’re going to see in Vegas for at least two-to-three years.
What strategies do you use to maximize your revenues in both New York and Las Vegas, and what are the differences in the markets? Well, it’s a little early to say what the difference is between Lavo New York and Las Vegas, and there’s a big difference between Tao New York and Tao Vegas in that there is no nightclub in New York, just in Vegas. The average spend per day, per traveler, per guest is higher in Vegas than anywhere else in the world. People lose track when they gamble with hundred dollar chips: it’s just a chip, they’re not thinking of it as a hundred dollar bill. People are much more willing to spend big money in Vegas. That said, the spend in New York is very respectable as well. I think the restaurant is basically the same. Actually, I would say people spend more in the restaurant in New York per person than they do in the restaurant in Vegas, but then they make up for it when they go up to the club.
Tell me how you became the operations guy? Mark Packer has 40 years in the industry, I have 30 years in the industry, our backgrounds are restaurants. You can have the hottest restaurant in New York City full of celebrities and models and tastemakers, but if you don’t deliver, they won’t come back. So when we sign leases, we look to sign 20 or longer-year leases, we don’t sign ten year leases. We’re not thinking about today; we’re always thinking about tomorrow. We simply believe that the bottom line is all about delivering an experience that is as consistent on day one as it is on day 20. The operations is the backbone of the business, and that’s how Mark and I both established ourselves and established our careers—we are operations guys. When we hooked up with Noah and Jason, they brought a whole new element to our partnership. Now, I often say we have the one-two punch where we have marketing and public relations and access to all of the tastemakers and celebrities and models that frequent our places. So when we deliver a new venue, we deliver a sexy, well-run, good food, great service operation that gets a lot of attention. In terms of decision-making, everything is done unanimously.
What happens when there is a deep disagreement? When there is no unanimity, it kind of depends on who feels the strongest. We all pick and choose our battles. When I feel strongly about something, I don’t let go, and the same thing with Mark, and the same thing with Noah and Jason. Everybody speaks up when it’s important to them, and we always reach a consensus. What’s best for the guest, because what’s best for the guest is what’s best for the company.
What is your background? I was a bartender in the Catskills at a disco in 1980. I was a bartender and waiter for about seven years. The Chalet Discotheque. Seven years bartending and waiting, four years of management, and then the first place I ever owned was Time Café and Fez, and that was 1991. Eric Goode, Serge Becker, Josh Picard. That was my first place I ever owned. Then from there my second venue was Angelo and Maxie’s Steakhouse, and the partnership (with Mark Packer) has been a very solid, successful, good-synergy partnership. We work really well together. We see eye-to-eye 97 percent of the time, and we work through the other three percent.
At what point did you say, I’m going to make nightlife my career, and at what point did you realize you were blowing up? Well, I saw a lot of people around me making a lot of money — owners, managers — and I thought that I could do just as well, if not better than them. I thought that I was passionate about the business. I like throwing a party every night, it’s a lot better than being a doctor, where people come to you when they feel like shit. People come to complain to doctors, people come to me to have fun.
Do you do it for the money? The money is secondary. I get off on hospitality. It gives me an opportunity to express myself creatively. I’m a creative person, and that gets expressed in what these places look like, what the people in them look like, what the music sounds like, what the menu is, and what we do. We deliver an experience that I think you don’t find in most places. It’s a whole package: it’s vibe-dining, it’s theater. To me, the lighting is as important as the food. Not almost as important as the food, but as important as the food, as is the music, as is the service, as is everything. Nothing to me has any lesser importance. Many years ago we were having a particularly successful night at Time Café, and we were making money hand over fist, and one of my managers asked me, “You must be thrilled with how much money we’re making tonight,” and I said, “You know, I’m thrilled that everybody is having a good time. That’s what I’m thrilled about.” I really meant that. People were just having so much fun, they were loving the venue. Parties going in, parties going out—it was controlled pandemonium.
You spend money to make money. At what point do you say this is good long term, or this is short term, or it’s costing too much to do it? We never think short term, never. Our decisions are never based on short term. If we throw a party and we spend $200,000 on that party, what type of business will it generate in the future for us? What type of press will it generate? So it’s never about how much money we’re making today, it’s always about how much money we’re going to make tomorrow. Now you’re a mega operator. Where can this take you? Where do you want to go? Where would Rich Wolf want to be ten years from now? I think my answer is that I want to do it as long as I love doing it. When its not fun for me anymore is when I’m done. I’m still having fun.
How do you relax? I love spending time with my wife and my son.
What do you see when you look at hospitality ? I think the industry is steeped in mediocrity, and I thought that it was a good business to pursue excellence in because there was less competition. I’m still not sure if I’m happy with that answer. That’s OK, it’s a real good answer. What are some of the big changes you have seen, and what big changes do you see for the future? I asked you and the group a few weeks ago about a hotel. Is that a logical next step? The journey takes us to funny places, and you can’t always plan for it. When people have interesting ideas, I listen, and I think that some of the brands we have, particularly Tao, are ready-made for a hotel experience. It’s the hospitality industry. I mean, its not our base business, it would be a brand-new endeavor for us. But, what is a hotel? We have the restaurants, we have the clubs, we have the pool in Tao beach, we just need a room and a lobby.
I’m not a big chain guy. We, as a group, are way too creative to keep copying ourselves over and over again, but I think there are many incarnations, particularly of Tao, and now Lavo even, with the opening of New York, of “Wow Lavo could be this in London.” Without sounding like too much of a self-centered New Yorker, I think that our clientele has been around the world and they know the difference between style and luxury and what is built for the masses. Vegas is a place that has a different customer every three days. And New York is a place that if you’re good, you could have the same customer three days a week. When you have that, you have to deliver the best possible experience. There are just way too many choices in New York. I have always said that it’s easy to get people to come to your place once, the first time. Getting them to come back is the hard part. In New York, there is no tougher customer. I would argue that New York City is the food capitol of the world. It’s far more diverse. As such, you have to be the best. Only the best survive, and surviving for three years is not a business, surviving for the length of your lease is a business.
Nobody thinks that way… Well, maybe they should.
Do you believe that specialization will become more and more the norm as people want to hang out with like-minded individuals, or will there be a time when people want to mingle with other types of people again? I see more of the former. Again, it depends on the market. New York is specialization all day long, and Vegas is mass market.
Why are there no gay clubs in Vegas? It’s a good question. We are considering a gay night in Vegas at the new club, and we’ll see how it goes. You never know until you try it.
Anything to add? The only thing I would add is that I am very passionate about adventure travel. Helicopter skiing, rafting down the grand canyon. I’ve been on a safari in Africa, bungee jumping off the second highest bridge in the world, in Zambia, right over the Zambezi river, and I love skydiving. I have a passion to see every corner of the globe and do everything ever invented for fun.