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Late-Night Playgrounds

Restaurants clear tables to make room for deejays and dancing.

Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar one year ago was a place to be seen and heard on weekends. Between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., the restaurant-turned karaoke lounge offered 50 percent off all menu items. Alcohol flowed freely. And if you were lucky, the crooners on stage weren’t tone deaf.

Sansei’s popularity was short-lived, however. By 12:30 a.m., customers opted for Oceans Club, located in the same wing at Restaurant Row. “The room would be virtually empty,” recalls Ivy Nagayama, general manager and partner of Sansei. “Doing karaoke five nights a week got pretty boring.”

So Sansei fought back. Managers plunked down $500,000 to renovate one of the dining rooms. Deejays were hired. And in addition to 50 percent off the late-night menu, drink specials dropped to as low as $2. Customers today can get their hip-hop music with Heinekens and hamachi rolls. The karaoke machine continues to play in the other dining room.

Midnight Owls: By 11:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Big City Diner rocks with Top 40 tunes.

The result: a 30 percent increase in weekend traffic. “You have to go with what’s popular now,” Nagayama says. “The new generation wants to be able to be seen in a very crowded place. They don’t mind paying top dollars for drink and food but want to be seen.”

As more and more eateries transform into nightclubs, Hawaii residents now have a smorgasbord of options. The key to success, say restaurant managers, is to target specific niches. A spruced-up image also doesn’t hurt.

While good food and service continue to be most important, restaurants nationwide also are placing increased emphasis on decorations and design. According to the National Restaurant Association, eateries with per-person dinner checks of less than $20 spend an average of $1,000 per seat for design and décor. The per-seat average for restaurants with per-person dinner checks of $50 or more is $3,000 per seat.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world for Hawaii’s 2,700-plus restaurants, especially as they compete for the same late-night market share. Auntie Pasto’s, the Italian restaurant on Kapahulu Avenue, clears its dining room for deejay music on Fridays and Saturdays, while Café Sistina on South King Street caters to Latin dancers. Big City Diner in Kaimuki has had deejays spin for the past year.

Then there are the ritzier restaurants, where the party scene is pretentious. These aren’t warehouse-turned nightclubs, nor are they small eateries that play live music on weekends. These are classier institutions, such as the Wonder Lounge at the W Honolulu in Waikiki, or the Spy Club at John Dominis Restaurant on Kapahulu. The Spy Club is a Fridays-only event that has had unstoppable success since its launch in April.

“We know that the W was very successful with this, and that gave us the idea to duplicate what they are doing,” says Al Yim, general manager of John Dominis, the 22-year-old restaurant famous for its glass-encased dining room and seafood menu. On any given Friday night, as many as 700 club goers are at the Spy Club, thanks to Soho Enterprise and Leisure Tech, which were hired to handle all club activities. Deejays from the U.S. mainland also will be making guest appearances, Yim says. “You have to stay current with the music, make sure our valets can accommodate the parking situation, have security. Just stay on top of all the new things.”

He admits business has improved since John Dominis’ managers decided to transform the restaurant into a club on weekends. However, there are disadvantages: “One of the biggest drawbacks is the wear and tear of the restaurant,” he says. “To have that many people come through dancing and drinking, the clean-up is definitely a chore for us.”

John Dominis’ crew doesn’t finish until the last shot glass is clean and the tables are put in their original positions. Sometimes, the clean-up party isn’t done until 9 a.m. the following morning. But the efforts are well worth the revenues. “There’s definitely competition, but every week we try to do even better,” Yim says. “You can’t just sit back.”

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Hawaii Business,September