Industry Insiders: David Sarner, Owner of the Pink Elephant
With the latest incarnation of the legendary Pink Elephant nightclub firmly established on 8th Street in Manhattan, and locations in Brazil and Mexico, you’d think owner David Sarner could relax a bit. But he’s busier than ever, expanding the brand to Miami, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, and Dubai. Sarner is one of those people who gets more done in a day than most people do all week, so we picked his brain a bit to find out how he got into the nightlife business, where he sees the Pink Elephant going next, and his unusual part-time jobs growing up in the city. Check it out.
Where were you born, where did you grow up, and what kinds of things were you into as a kid?
I’m a native New Yorker. I grew up on Central Park West, so the park was kind of my front yard. Growing up in the city was amazing because everything was so accessible. From playing sports in the park to going to movies, museums, and nightlife. Everything was available. My parents were pretty liberal, so I had free reign of the city from an early age, going out on Friday nights to Rocky Horror Picture Show at the 8th Street Playhouse at 13 to Xenon and Studio 54 at 14. The drinking age back then was 18 and the city was a different place, full of edginess, grit and 24-hour excitement. It was a little crazy and I would never let my own kids act that way, but I had a blast. The stimulus of the city really gave me tremendous creative inspirations from which to draw.
What jobs did you have when you were just starting out?
During high school, I worked at various jobs both after school and on weekends, including a cashier and fruitman in a grocery store, a butcher shop, and a couple of restaurants to make money to go out at night. I have been working in the nightlife industry for 20 years. My first nightlife job was as the doorman at Studio 54. Through a restaurant where I was working I catered an event for Michael Jackson at Studio 54 and the owners were so pleased that they hired me on the spot to work in the marketing department and do the front door. It was pretty funny, because I would do the door at night, and then go to high school during the day. There were many nights that I would go directly to school from the club or some after-hours party and show up to class in black tie. Things were very different then.
What was the first nightclub you opened and what was that experience like? What did you learn about how to operate nightlife venues both in New York and beyond?
The first true nightclub that I opened was Spy Bar on Greene Street in Soho. It was an amazing experience because it was the first time that I had taken a project all the way from initial concept to completion and then execution. It operated seven days a week, and became this wonderful mix of all sorts of creative downtown people from art, fashion, media, and entertainment industries. Growing up in New York, you have limited space to entertain, so I wanted to have a huge living room where I could have a party every night, but then not have to clean up. So I took this concept of an Old World dilapidated hotel lobby that wasn’t too stuffy and designed it to feel really comfortable and lived-in. It instantly became this great cross-pollinating hotspot of people on a nightly basis. The thing that made the biggest impression on me is that if you treat people well, make them feel comfortable, and give them a fun time, you will always succeed.
How did you decide to expand the Pink Elephant brand internationally, and what was that experience like? Where do you have Pink Elephant clubs now, and how often do you visit them? What is different about each location, and what remains the same?
Building nightclubs can be fun, but it is also tremendously labor and capital-intensive. Unfortunately, single establishments have limited life spans and can grow stale, so a great way to keep a venue hot long term and realize continuing revenue streams is to have brand extensions in other markets. This provides international recognition and drives public awareness. I had the experience of owning other nightclubs in multiple markets with Chaos in New York, Miami and Brazil. This time around, I wanted to create something more enduring that could translate in multiple languages, hence the image of the Pink Elephant. At present we have Pink Elephants in the US, Brazil and Mexico and we are expanding internationally into Hong Kong and Dubai over the next year and domestically into Miami and Vegas. I tend to spend about 50% of my time on the road these days, visiting existing locations about 6 times a year and researching and developing new locations. It’s a lot of work, but there is no substitute for personal observation and attention. Each of the venues has the same signature features, but has its own unique influences that are respective of the cultures of the individual markets.
After originally operating on W. 27th St., Pink Elephant is now in the Village. What was the experience like reopening the place? Did you apply any of the wisdom you gained when it was on 27th? What’s it like operating in a different neighborhood?
Well, this is actually the third Pink Elephant in New York. I like moving because it gives the ability to create something new and reinvigorate the brand. There is always a learning curve, and this time around we created a more intimate venue and included a separate mixology bar where people can mingle. We realized from the last incarnation that upbeat house music is great, but that people also want to slip away and chat with someone interesting at some point during the night, so we wanted to provide that option, along with a fantastic mixology experience. In regards to the new neighborhood, it’s great being in an up and coming area where there is a feeling of growth and exuberance, so the whole resurgence of 8th street is very exciting for us and our clients.
What is it about Pink Elephant that sets it apart from other night spots? I like the idea of having a mixology bar – all too often these fancy places don’t go much beyond vodka with some mixers, so upscale drinks are most welcome. What else is unique about it, from the design to the ambiance to the music?
So much of our DNA comes from service and energy of our staff. We really love to throw a great party, have cutting-edge entertainment, and really provide our clients with a fun experience. So much of the nightlife today has become so formulaic and trite that the industry has actually become stale. We love to provide our clients and friends with a unique experience, from incredible international DJs to high quality drinks from amazing mixologists, to surprise live entertainment, and of course the ubiquitous appearance of the Pink Elephant from time to time. We also have an unbelievable sound system designed by Steve Dash of Integral Design that is so clean that you can feel the music vibrating through your whole body, yet it’s so clear that you can talk to the person next to you without raising you voice.
What’s your official job title, and what are your responsibilities with Pink Elephant? What is an average day like, if there is such a thing as an average day?
Although my official title is Owner, it really should be Jack of all Trades. I tend to get involved in every aspect of the business, from marketing, branding, promotion, ordering, financial planning and analysis, budgeting, everything really. There are definitely areas that I like more than others, but in the fast-paced world of nightlife, you have to be on your toes and able to understand and perform every function on a moment’s notice. That’s the part that I like, the fast paced need to react in real time.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
I love conceptualizing and bringing projects to fruition. That is the most satisfying part for me. To take the seed of an idea, germinate and nurture it to grow into something beautiful and amazing. I also love to provide people with an outlet where they can cut loose, have a great time, and forget the hardships of their everyday lives. It is so empowering for me when people tell me that they met their spouse or significant other at one of my venues. It makes me feel really good, like I have done something meaningful. We’re always changing and innovating, that’s what keeps us fresh. We’ll have a whole new host of fall drinks made by our master mixologists along with more great international DJs for the New York venue. This year we have two additional clubs opening in Brazil (in Sao Jose and Terezina) as well as Miami and Dubai which is slated for New Year’s Eve.
Many people have tried and failed to do what you do. What is the secret to your success? What advice would you give to a younger person looking to follow in your footsteps?
I think the secret to my success is that I came from a very stable upbringing that provided me with an amazing education and ability to travel around the world and experience all sorts of cultures and hospitality. It gave me an appreciation to think outside the box and dream big. My college education was focused on International economics and finance, so I had the skill set to manage my own businesses and understand foreign markets. My advice would be to work in all different jobs in a desired industry to understand how each of the pieces of the machine work. In hospitality, I have done everything from waiter, bartender, dishwasher, office manager, doorman, promoter, mail room, design, etc, so I have a pretty good understanding of what different jobs entail and how they all need to interact to work effectively.
When you do have time off, what do you do to relax?
My passion is travel, so I always try to mix a little business with pleasure, or is it the other way around? I guess that when you love what you do, it’s really not work. I travel a lot so I always try to make each trip a bit of both to get ideas and inspiration from other businesses and cultures. I just got back from two weeks abroad sailing in the Aegean, interspersed with relaxing and reading. I managed to experience some great nightlife in Istanbul, Bodrum, Mykonos, Santorini, and Athens. I’m always trying to see what people are doing differently and new, and how customers react, so that it can spark ideas and provide my own twist on entertainment and hospitality.