Industry Insiders: Joey Morgan, Owner of Traffic Bar and WashOut
Native Long Islander Joey Morgan (left) is the man behind Traffic Bar Midtown East, Traffic Bar Hell’s Kitchen, and Montauk’s coolest summer destination, WashOut. How did this down-to-earth guy, who “didn’t set out to own more than one bar,” become the owner and operator of this successful trifecta? In short, he’s a salesman. Fresh from Indiana University, the spry young Morgan was working unhappily at a PR firm, when his boss told him he needed to go into sales. “And even though I’m in the hospitality industry now,” says Morgan, “it’s still sales. I’ve never forgotten that.” We had a chance to chat with Morgan and find out just what exactly it is that he’s selling, and how he’s able to sell it.
Did you always want to own a bunch of bars in New York?
I never did set out to open multiple venues. I had been in the hospitality industry since I graduated college, and one job led to the next before I had an opportunity to manage a venue, and realized I could do it on my own and make money for myself rather than work for someone else. I really was fortunate enough that I was mentored by someone who had been doing this years before I began, and he saw a lot of potential in me and took me under his wing to give me the confidence to do what I do.
How is your brother, Brian Morgan, involved?
Well my brother is more of an investing partner, and not involved on a day-to-day level. We do speak all the time and he shares his ideas with me whenever he feels is necessary, but he has a full-time job in real estate and I oversee and run the businesses with my other managing partner.
How is it being in business with a family member?
We’ve been very close since we were little kids, and work very well together. We were never competitive with each other and were raised in a way which has allowed us to evolve in our adult paths to always be there to support one another in every aspect of our lives. So it’s pretty easy for us to be in business together.
How do you go about opening a new place? Are you always on the lookout for a new venue?
Opportunities always seem to come about and we always will listen to anything. The operation which we implement is a philosophy which we believe we can replicate anywhere. This business has many different variables and if the positives outweigh the negatives where we feel it’s something we can work with, we then crunch the numbers and take it from there.
You’ve managed to open two successful sports bars in Manhattan and a summer destination bar in Montauk, all of which have a lot of competition. What is it that sets your bars apart?
I don’t believe I have reinvented the wheel. In my opinion, it’s exceptional hospitality which is the key foundation to making bars successful. People seem to forget the meaning of the word "hospitality" and I take pride in making sure every person who walks through the doors leaves with a positive experience. The question is how. It’s up to me to create an environment which is fun and positive so that when they leave, it’s with the feeling that they would most certainly want to come back. I feel strongly when I say that I am only as good as the people who work for me. I’m not a micromanager. If the staff is happy and having fun, that energy will be felt by the customers, and that is what I think sets my bars apart from other places in the city – that I go out of my way to remind everyone what exactly we are doing every day – and that is catering to people who have come to enjoy the experience which we offer.
Part of that experience is sports, right? Traffic Bar Midtown East is the New York home for Indiana University Alumni. What exactly does that mean?
Basically, we show all of the IU games and do special events with the alumni. I try to recreate Bloomington in New York. But I don’t want them to just come in for a game and never come back again. I want them to feel like it’s their bar. Like they can come in just for a drink, or on a date.
Do you think the IU affiliation has helped you succeed?
The specific sports emphasis and Indiana affiliation which I have built is for sure a bonus, as is the weekly corporate business, and the weekend and nightlife business, etc. But the consistent and core ingredient which contributes to the success is, and will always be, hospitality.
You seem very passionate about your job. What’s an average day like for you? Is there anything you don’t like about it?
Every day is a different day for me. I mean I’m up at 6:30 every morning, but each day is a different day. I do not have an average 9-5 day, so you never know what to expect. You do the best you can to anticipate problems before they happen, but it’s dealing with the issues which come up on a daily basis, and how you handle them, which, at times, can be mentally draining that I’d say wears you down. I love what I do for a living. And having the opportunity to create something and watch it grow is something which I really do enjoy. I can’t pinpoint one thing over another, but I will say it’s a humbling experience to walk into a place and see the vision I once had in my mind happening right before my very eyes.