Industry Insiders: 1Oak’s Woodsmen
At the tastefully burnished 1Oak, four vastly different drivers are at the wheel. Richie Akiva, Jeffrey Jah, Ronnie Madra, and Scott Sartiano, partners in the timeless, game-changing venue. “You have a southern boy here, a bred New Yorker, a Canadian and an Indian” says Akiva, one quarter of the 1Oak braintrust. The diversity of its management has proven to be key in building 1Oak’s wide-ranging clientele. “We wanted 1Oak to bring nightlife back to what was fun about New York” he says. “An eclectic mix of people — gay, straight, artists, celebrities, yuppies, blacks, whites.” The result? A $3 million lounge filled with everyone from Jay-Z to Giorgio Armani to Union Square skateboarders, and happily turning a huge profit. “The fact is,” says Sartiano, “we’ve paid back 110% of our investments in one year.” Avowing that culture could never be wiped out by a weakened Wall Street, Akiva harkens back to the disco era: “I sometimes refer to myself as the new Steve Rubell.” Here, the gentlemen talk the talk to shed light on how they walk the walk. How did you guys all come together? Scott Sartiano: I think we all met and we all came together working at the same place — called Life — years ago. It was maybe the last great nightclub. We all just sort of kept tabs on each other for years. Then Richie decided to open up Butter, and he asked me to get involved with him. Then we asked Ronnie to get involved, and it just kind of grew from there. Richie Akiva: It was a good working relationship that we had together. I had asked him to start something on a Monday night, because that was our slow restaurant night. I told them, “I think should really start a party,” different from all of this stuff that was going on in New York City that was just like, way commercial.
What kind of stuff? RA: I’m not going to say names of places, but other people that were running their parties and running their clubs in New York were making it really overhyped. And since we started as a restaurant, I thought we could keep it more exclusive than a bar, and not whore it out as a full-on club. Eventually everybody else involved at first kind of fell off the map as we were doing this party, because I guess they just couldn’t hack it with us. And Ronnie, his relationship with us grew stronger as everyone else’s kind of disintegrated. He stuck with us for so long, and he’s a very loyal guy, and he’s very good at what he does, and he matched us and what we do, very well. Ronnie Madra: Well, we’re friends first. Do you think that has a lot to do with your business success? RA: Yes, I think our friendship is important. I think what has the most to do with our success is that we’re all really different. We have similar friends that run in the same circles, but we also have our own lives and our own friends, and our own people that support us and love us, and take care of us. So, it’s kind of like we bring all these people together, and since we’re all different, and coming from different worlds, it went well. I find, from my point of view, that there seems to be a lot of backstabbing, and just poor business ethics, in your industry. Do you think that trust is a big element of the reason why some places work out and some places don’t? Is it that working dynamic which ultimately has a lot to do with the success? SS: Well, I have to say, we come from a different school in a way of doing business in this industry. We come from a time where your word is your word, and a handshake is where the trust is. There were no contracts. I think the newer people in this business — they’re the ones that are more back-stabbing than anybody because they didn’t start where we started. This business has gone through a huge change, and before, it was more about your word and a handshake was everything, and if you didn’t trust that, it wasn’t good. Going on that, how has your point of view on basically the climate of the nightlife industry changed now, compared to when you first started? RA: First, it’s not about the quick hit, you know? I love what I do, so does he [points to Madra]. You have to love what you do, and if that’s the pattern that you put yourself into, I think it will be great. I love walking through those doors at night, knowing everything is lined up perfectly, from start to finish. SS: I think it’s gotten way more corporate. The whole business is built on relationships. If you screw somebody over at age 22, at age 32, you’re not going to be friends with them, so it’s like you lose a potential client-friend-customer, for life. And I think a lot of guys would do that — they’re usually young guys who are new to the business. We’ve been doing this for over 10 years, and we’ve built ourselves as a business. We have guys who went from being a bar back, to bartender and now he’s a manager of the club, and he is doing it well. You find people to grow with. Anytime that you screw somebody over in friendship, or business, it ruins this business. And you see a lot of people who have maybe a two-, three-year lifespan in this business, but they’re not around longer than that. RA: I think people took the handshake more seriously than they take a contract, these days. SS: And we don’t use contracts for people who work with us. And everybody else, they sign contracts. It’s like, do you want to imprison someone? Or force them to come to your place when they don’t want to be there? The whole purpose of a place being successful is to get people to want to come and have a good time. So now you’re going to pay somebody who doesn’t want to be there, you’re going to make those people sign a contract? It’s backwards. What do you guys think of the current economic times? Not business in general, but what you see as far as the clientele coming in, or the way people are approaching the idea of nightlife, spending money on alcohol and going out? RA: I can speak for myself — I kind of live in a bubble over here. I don’t really go to many places anymore that I don’t own, and the only effect I see is the corporate business tour, and the marketing dollars, and the corporate dollars, and the sponsorships. In terms of our regular day-to-day business, we haven’t really taken a hit. RM: There was times in New York when it wasn’t driven on people to present their credit cards at the door to get in. We didn’t say, “Oh, okay, we’ll just bank people at the door, and have them come in and take their money.” SS: We don’t have a bottle minimum. RA: We never said, “This is how you get in. This is buying your way into the club.” We wanted it to be back to something that was really fun about New York, you know, an eclectic mix of people — gay, straight, artists, celebrities, models, yuppies, blacks, whites — whatever it is, we wanted them all through those doors. It’s not like you’re pigeon-holing yourself into this, “Oh, that’s a yuppie club, or that’s a hip place.” People have been saying that because of the economy, we’re destined to go back to pre-Giuliani New York: people going out a lot more, and staying out until much later, and basically getting back to a certain level of debauchery. RA: I do see that, without a doubt, I see that. Like I said, I can’t say for any other place, because I don’t really go to many places, but I can see the energy is getting better. There’s a new attitude focused onto going out again. I think alcohol is up, and a lot of things are going down, so it has a lot to do with it. I think people lost a couple million dollars, or this, or that, and they don’t mind going out and spending a little money at night just to forget about the economy, and let loose a little, and let their aggression out, in terms of fun. You have all pretty much said that you don’t really go out to other places. Jeffrey, I know you are pretty vocal about never setting foot in other clubs. The question that comes to mind is how you are able to gauge the competition, or the atmosphere that other places are bringing to the table. Or, is the idea of being involved with competition just sort of stifling? Jeffrey Jah: I read a lot, but mostly I feel that I depend on Scott, Richie, and Ronnie — they go out a lot. I don’t go to other clubs, but I go to other restaurants, and other bars. To me it sends a message that if I’m at somebody else’s club, it shows that my club isn’t hot. So you’re not going to see me sitting at another club. RA: But also, like we said before, we’re very dependent on relationships we’ve built in the past. Jeffrey’s relationships go back 15, 20 years, and they still support him. And they’ve gotten bigger themselves. So, he has his ear to the street, and they tell him what’s going on. JJ: But I also rely on people that aren’t in the business. Twenty years ago and today, you still see creative people, these young artists, young designers, young photographers — those people don’t go away. The models come and go, the girls come and go, the young guys come and go, but people in the arts — they’re here for the long run. They have more of a creative run. Take a stylist. They start out as a young assistant to a stylist, and by the time they’re 25 they’re a stylist, at 30 they’re a senior stylist, at 35 they’re an editor, and by the time they’re in their 40s, they either become a fashion director, or a creative director. They’re here to stay. And they might be more interesting and they have their own context, and their own sense of style, and that is timeless clientele to you … JJ: And I think that’s what we all agree on, and we take pride in. When other people are doing things way more corporate than us, we’re doing things way more artistic. And the people who we know and who come to our place. If Richie doesn’t know one person, Scott will; if I don’t know, Ronnie will know. So, between the four of us, you’re going to find that one of us will know one of those people. And because of our ages we span different generations. RA: So, that’s and edge, you know? You have Southern boy, over there, and Canadian, and an Indian. What the fuck? How did that happen? How the fuck did four guys like us get together? I was actually talking about that the other day. You guys all bring a different perspective and point of view because of where you come from your roots. RM: Yeah, that’s part of the key, because when decisions are made here, there’s never anything done unilaterally. There’s respect enough to say, “You know what — ” SS: ‘”You know more about this than I do, so you take care of it.” RM: I’ll never say, “Richie, this is what you should do,” when he knows exactly what to do, and it’s his area of expertise. RA: If one of us is tired, than the other one is working harder; if one of us is sick, the other one is there ten times more. There is, obviously, an incredible amount of design in the space, and attention to detail. Do you guys ever think that the great attention to detail that’s gone into this place was ever lost on the clientele? JJ: Hundreds of times. RA: We’d been doing the clubs for so long, and from being at everyone else’s clubs, and working, and making other people millions of dollars over the years, we thought, “What can we take, and what can we learn, from all the mistakes they’ve made?” We decided to really pay attention to detail and say, “You know what? It’s all about the details, at this point.” It was a complete decision, from the beginning, to pay attention to detail. Some people are oblivious to the details, but the people who matter, and the people who understand design and taste, and class — they understand. SS: People go out to nightclubs all over the world. You sit in a Ford, and then you’re in a Bentley the next day — you notice the difference. Even if you’re not really looking for it, even if you aren’t an expert. We want our place to be nicer than every where else, we want it to raise the bar, we want people to come here and say, “Wow, that place is really nice.” That’s where you notice it a lot; it’s not here, it’s when you go somewhere else. RA: We never wanted it to feel like a nightclub with lights, and flashings, and strobes, and all that craziness. We wanted an older person in their 30s, 40s, 50s — 60s, even — to accept this place. I had Giorgio Armani in here not too long ago, and he stayed all night. His assistant says, “Armani’s never stayed at a club this long in his entire life. He doesn’t even stay at Armani Privéin Milan that long. He’ll come for a drink.” But here he didn’t want to sit down, he stood in front of the table all night just looking around. And he was in awe. JJ: Same with Dolce and Gabbana. RA: Yeah, and Armani had to go to the Oscars the next day in L.A., and he stayed until 4am; he stayed literally until we turned the lights on. He said everyone in New York was at 1Oak, and he said it was the best place. I mean that night was very crazy. We had Leonardo DiCaprio here. See, when you look at 1Oak, it doesn’t look like a club, it looks like someone’s home. You’re not being thrown into a nightclub atmosphere. You want to stay. What are you guys really impressed with right now, in terms of restaurants? SS: I like Waverly. RM: I like the Minetta Tavern; it’s actually very nice. JJ: But I’m really old school. I go to the same places. I go to Bar Pitti. RM: We’re creatures of habit. We’ll go to like, Blue Ribbon Brasserie. SS: I go to the Spotted Pig. RM: Lure Fishbar. I like to go where we can listen to music and just hang out. RA: We go to Butter all the time. Monkey Bar. I check out everything when they open to see if I like it. RM: Other clubs don’t impress us, really. I walk into a club, and we’ll dissect it completely. “Oh, they didn’t do this right, they didn’t do that right. How could they do that?” It’s insane, in a way. But that’s why it’s hard when we go out. So, how do you guys go out an let loose? RM: Not in New York. JJ: I leave the country. RM: We go to Europe, or somewhere else. We’re very different when we’re not in New York. RM: Here, we are in the service industry. We’re all in hospitality mode. JJ: I’m 40 years old — I wouldn’t live two minutes, after 25 years, if I didn’t love what I do. RA: You’re 40? Damn, old man. I’m right behind you.
What are some of the projects you guys can talk about now? SS: We’re trying to open more Butters, as well. We have one in North Carolina. It will probably be complete in September. What made you attracted to North Carolina? SS: I’m from there, so it’s kind of almost like a personal project with the developer. JJ: This guy’s the Mick Jagger of the Carolinas. RA: The Southern heart-throb. North and South. SS: We’re just focused on really, here, with the economy, and everything. I think we’re all really happy, and we’re fortunate with how well this place is doing, and how well our hard work is paying off. The recession is kind of filtering out the corporate backstabbers that you spoke about in the business. RA: I think that’s really what the recession has proven: All the real artistic people, all the people who are doing something cool, and fun, and new, and real — they’re going to be around for a while, and I think the people that just come in don’t really understand the business, or have just decided one day that they want to open up a club just because they had money, or just because they wanted to be cool, those are the ones that are going to fail, and I think the recession is weeding out all the bullshit. Back in the 70s, when there was disco, and Steve Rubell, and the people in that industry, today have earned themselves a certain notoriety; it’s legendary. I know it’s hard to look at the work you guys are doing, in hindsight right now, but do you think you guys aspire to that kind of iconic nightlife representation? RA: I sometimes refer to myself as the new Steve Rubell. RM: [Laughs] I’m going to start calling you Richie Rubell. RA: No, I’m serious, I am the new Rubell. SS: I think more than anything else, sometimes, it’s hard to step outside of yourself and say, “Wow, what I did is really cool,” or, “Wow, we’re living in a moment.” Sometimes, when I’m in a cab and I’m saying, “Take me to 17th and 10th Avenue,” and the cab driver says, “Oh, 1Oak.” I know it sounds stupid, but when you hear from someone that’s never really been to our place, that really knows nothing about it, to have heard about it, that kind of makes you say, “Hey, what should we do next? What are we going to call it? What’s it going to look like?” I think years from now, I will look back and say, “Wow, that was a lot bigger than anybody had ever done before.” At the same time, the one thing about us is that we’re fighters, and we want to do good things and be successful, and when you do that, you always strive to be better tomorrow than who you are today. And as great as that is, I think we all have much bigger plans than just Butter or just 1Oak. What are your aspirations? SS: We plan on doing hotels, and resorts, and luxury condominiums, and things like that. And we’ve had these ideas in the works that we’ve had for a long time. It doesn’t stop at just 1Oak, it’s going to continue to grow. Everything’s been a step further, from the day we started; we take one step back, and two steps forward. RM: But we are aware that things are working well for us, especially with everything else going on. We all wake up and say, “Wow, luckily, our place is doing really well.” There’s a lot of places that people think are doing really well that aren’t. RA: And just to add, we’re kind of like a band. We’re kind of like a U2 band, you know, like, none of those guys do the same thing — we play bass, we’re on guitar, we’re singing, we’re drums. There’s a mutual respect, and there’s a talent and there’s a team, and I think the team is what makes it stronger, because we’re not going to be this one-dimensional group of guys, all going for the same shit like it’s a competition. RA: I actually have something to say, I have something to add. We have been a little bit cocky, because we’ve done well, but the fact of the matter is that we’ve paid back 110% of our investments in one year. And that’s very hard to do, for any other place, in the worst economy. And that’s why I wanted to tell you we paid 110% back, because we’re a little bit happy, in a good place, in our minds, because everyone, since this recession started, has been cutting people, has been firing people, closing — so while everyone is like this, we’re moving up.
Photo by Scott Pasfield