As the original pioneers of two of Chicago’s storied nightlife districts past and present–Weed Street and River North–it appears that the gentlemen of Rockit Ranch Productions possess the Midas touch. With the continuing success of their current venues, The Underground and Rockit Bar & Grill, Billy Dec (CEO/Founder), Arturo Gomez (President), and Brad Young (Chairman/Founder) seem to have perfected that elusive formula for success and longevity (more on that later). Amid a whirlwind lifestyle spent constantly managing, honing, and promoting their venues, their brand, and their city, Dec, Gomez, and Young found time to chat with us about how they all met, what you need to do to create longevity, and why Chicago simply has everything.
How did you guys all meet?
Billy Dec: I opened Dragon Room in 1998 [which is] where I met Arturo.
Arturo Gomez: I actually started working for him at the time as a barback. I had recently graduated from University of Michigan where [I studied] biology and Latin American Studies. I’m using absolutely zero of what I studied. I was supposed to go to dental school and I had cold feet so I moved here to see if there was anything that sparked my interest in the year I was taking off. When I jumped in, I quickly realized I had a passion for the hospitality industry.
Billy Dec: The cool thing about Arturo was he started as a busboy, a barback, and then he made his way up to head barback and then manager and now he’s the president of the company.
Young: I [had] left a job working at Mesirow Financial and I had planned on taking the whole summer off and traveling, going to Europe. It was probably two weeks after I left Mesirow, I happened to run into an old high school friend who was in the nightclub business and was partners with Billy at Dragon Room. The direction of the club scene in Chicago at that time was going really small. There were a lot of boutique clubs but not a lot of big dance clubs like there were in New York and Miami. We began a partnership to start Circus in 1998 and it was a 17,000 square foot dance club that people would perform live circus acts over your head when you were dancing. It was really over-the-top. People loved it. It was a great way to get my feet wet in the business.
You guys ushered in that era where Weed Street was crazy.
Dec: Yeah, it wasn’t there before we got there. We totally pioneered Weed Street; no one was there. Brad and I, in 2002, went off and started our own company, Rockit Ranch Productions, and looked for a desolate, up-and-coming area, and it happened to be Hubbard [Street]. No one was in River North, which is now the #1 entertainment district in Chicago. One of the first things we did in 2002 when we looked for a new space [was] we took a consulting deal with ownership at a club called Le Passage, which wasn’t doing well [at the time]. [We] took it over, made it a hit. They were losing their butt in the first two years until we came in in 2002 and made all their money back.
Le Passage was huge in the early aughts.
Dec: Yeah. Then immediately we started building Rockit [Bar & Grill]. We were building it in this area that everyone said we were crazy to be in. It was called Hubbard/River North and we pioneered that neighborhood.
Young: Basically we looked at [Rockit] kind of how we looked at Circus. Not necessarily that the concept was the same but we looked for voids in the marketplace. What are the things people might want but don’t know they do? At that point, personally, I was sick of dance clubs and hearing the same kind of techno music or trance or hip-hop or whatever. I was in my car driving one day and listening to Guns N’ Roses and thinking, “God, what an awesome song.” This was nine years ago already. “How come I can’t go somewhere and listen to rock music and not have it come out of a jukebox at a dive bar?” So we also said, “You know, there’s not a lot of places where you can go out to dinner and have a great meal and not spend $50 a person.” There was nothing that fit that middle market. So we combined that into Rockit Bar & Grill, which tailored to a very mainstream [crowd]– no velvet rope, no guest list, no VIP. We had rock music, pool tables. It was a place that I would want to go to and hang out. We always build places that are places that we’d want to go to because if you don’t enjoy what you do, what’s really the point?
How would you summarize the three of your respective roles?
Dec: I’m mostly focused on branding and communicating to the rest of the world outside of our four walls. Marketing. PR. Social media. What I do has a lot of celebrating what our team of top talent is constantly creating and is capable of creating. I do a lot of external communication at large, rapid volumes. I’m constantly meeting with influencers from around the city or people who are visiting the city. I’m hugely into creating new products and new brands and new business and new relationships for the company.
Gomez: My personal responsibilities as the president are really to ensure that all departments that exist within the company are focused, given clear-cut directions, and have the resources needed to achieve and accomplish the goals we set out in the beginning of the year. It’s also to make sure there’s consistency in all of our products. A lot of my time–I would say a vast majority of it–is focused in on the four walls of our businesses. Billy is focused on business development and outward messaging. He’s become an ambassador of the company. Brad also shares that responsibility with him so together they are really focused on how the company is going to grow. Brad is the person who is really the front person for all of our investor groups. Brad is the person who has become a liaision to those individuals.
Young: My role was always the creation of the entity from the ground up. Everything that people take for granted, as far as the actual opening of a place from the financing of it to the actual construction to the design to the conception. Not just raising money but making sure your place is [going to be] profitable.
Dec: I think a really cool way to look at it is that anything that happens within the four walls of any property we have, whether it’s training, the temperature of the food, a lightbulb, anything a customer can touch or see or taste, that’s Arturo. Anything that happens outside of our four walls that a customer can hear, perceive, learn about, that’s me. And things that customers will never know about or see, that’s Brad. Like accounting, finances, architecture, design, things before we even open that people will never know about.
What do you think the Rockit Ranch brand signifies today?
Gomez: I think three words: Elevated Entertainment Experience. That’s something that we preach and we focus on in everything we do, whether it’s a nightclub experience or a higher-end culinary experience. For us, it absolutely means looking at every single detail start-to-finish and making sure people enjoy our products as much as we do. It’s giving them a mental vacation when they stop by. That’s the mantra we focus on and [we] make sure we’re always delivering that elevated entertainment experience.
What has been the secret to your longevity when people are so fickle about nightlife?
Young: I think the key factor is we have three partners: Billy, Arturo, and myself who all do different things. I think a lot of the problem with a lot of operators is that they start off with a common goal because they’re either friends or they’ve always wanted to do a certain thing – whether it’s a restaurant or nightclub – but their skill set overlaps a lot. What that doesn’t allow you to do is expand or cover each other’s weaknesses. What Arturo and Billy and I have set out [to do] from the start is truly to have a mission to define our roles and do what we are best at and apply it not only to Rockit Ranch Productions but also to our venues.
Dec: No one in this entire organization is more important than any other–it’s a collaboration. That mix and commitment to the mix is what separates us from everyone and what has kept us in business. We have our separate strengths, [so] we need to work together and keep them equally valued.
Gomez: We pride ourselves on really staying very, very close to the pulse of the way the city is moving in likes and tastes. Relationship-building is something we put a strong emphasis on too.
Dec: Chicago is a very relationship-based city. It’s not as transient as, let’s say, L.A. or Miami or even New York. People here create relationships and a lot of that is built on dependability, so when people like Arturo execute consistency and Brad has implemented accountability, which helps solidify the relationships, you have true relationships in place. People will then communicate with you how you’re doing. If they like something, they’ll let you and 100 people know and if they don’t like something, they’ll let you know so you can have honest feedback and you can improve. The whole relationship-building thing is literally at the core of our mission statement.
Gomez: It’s [also] really continually coaching our people that the overall experience–whether it’s an entertainment aspect, service aspect, or actual product aspect–has to continually evolve to accommodate to changing tastes but also have some consistency.
As guys who have traveled to a lot of different cities, what would you say Chicago has that other cities don’t? What do you think is a misconception about Chicago?
Young: First and foremost, I think Chicago is the best city, really, on the face of the Earth. Maybe I’m being biased but Chicagoans are good people to their core. What I think separates Chicago from the primary markets–L.A., New York, Miami, Las Vegas–is that those are way more transient cities than Chicago. Most people who live in Chicago are either from Chicago or from the Midwest.
Gomez: I think the misconception–from people who haven’t been here–is that Chicago is still some ho-bunk town in the backwoods of the Midwest. Obviously, if you’ve ever been here, you know that’s not the case.
Dec: [People] don’t understand the different diverse offerings [in Chicago] and the levels within each of those different offerings. Diversity in culture, diversity in income and flash. People don’t realize how beautiful the new buildings are to the old architecture. They don’t realize how cosmopolitan, how business we are. They don’t realize how hardcore our business and financial scene is and they don’t realize how beautiful our parks and lake are. They don’t realize those extremes. The extremes are bigger than anywhere in the world and the diversity is really special. Basically what I’m trying to say is we have everything! We have everything!
Gomez: I’ve had so many people who have come to visit and been floored by everything Chicago has to offer. This is a world-class city without a doubt. For me, growing up in the Midwest, it’s the epitome of everything I’ve ever known. It has true Midwest hospitality–that means welcoming everybody with open arms, and you don’t necessarily get that in every major city. From an entertainment aspect, Chicago is on the level of any other city, no problem.
What can you share about the two new venues you have in the works?
Dec: Basically we just have two new places that we’re opening! They’re like restaurants and bars–they’re not clubs. I can’t really say anything about them because partially we’re still in the process of formatting the concepts.
Gomez: We think that there’s going to be some more movement in the more casual sector.
Dec: But what people don’t have with casual and quicker as we know it is [something] as innovative as Sunda is, so we won’t compromise the innovative part. It’ll still be ridiculously cool and innovative and we’ll combine that with quicker and easier.
Do you have a timeline for them to open?
Dec: I would say one is gonna happen spring/summer and the other will happen summer/fall.