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Owning a bar or nightclub sounds like a dream job but has its challenges

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Daniel Punch and Angela Varnadore, owner and ambassador respectively of M Nightlife Honolulu, keep innovating to ensure their customers come back and bring their friends. 

Photo: Rae Huo

You make your own bitters and brew your own beer. Your iPod playlists get rave reviews from your friends and you know how to throw a party.

Why not profit from your obvious talents?

The lure of owning a bar, nightclub or lounge is strong: no boring 9-to-5 schedule, no dress code (at least not for you), no cubicles. You can play music as loud as you want, enjoy reserved seating every night and take advantage of an open bar.

Sounds like a dream gig. That is, if you don’t consider the high turnover in employees, drunk and belligerent patrons, and bartenders who give out free drinks and dilute what little profit you make.

“From the day you open, it’s downhill,” says Burt Kawasaki, owner of The Villa at Aloha Tower Marketplace and Bonsai at Honolulu’s Waterfront Plaza. “The market is so bad. In Hawaii, there are so many problems, it’s almost not worth it to invest a lot of money into a nightclub because you might not make it back. There’s no sustainability.”

Photo: Rae Huo

The National Restaurant Association says bars and taverns are expected to bring in $19.5 billion in sales in 2013, up from $18.8 billion in 2010. But, like restaurants, most fail within a year of starting and the costs – from acquiring liquor licenses to hiring chefs – can be high.

“When you own a small business, you have to give it your heart and soul,” says Daniel Gray, who has owned a bar and worked in nightclubs and bars for more than 10 years. “If you’re not willing to give it everything you have, then go get a 9-to-5 job. Business owners don’t get days off, holidays or vacations. We do it because we love it, because we are passionate about it and because we believe in it.”

Photo: Rae Huo

Innovation Is Crucial

For nightclubs, it’s important to stand out and change regularly. Too often, venues can sink into mediocrity as dark, dingy spaces with amateur DJs running playlists from their iPhones.

Today’s clubgoers want more, says Christa Wittmier, who’s been blogging about Hawaii’s nightlife since 2004.

She says successful nightclubs bring in the right mix of patrons, effectively use lighting, invest in quality sound systems and take risks with their music selection.

“The clubs that have found that balance are the good ones,” she says, pointing to such as the Ginza Night Club near Ala Moana Center and Addiction Nightclub just outside of Waikiki.

M Nightlife Honolulu strives for uniqueness. The nightclub at the Waterfront Plaza, which celebrated its one-year anniversary in May, is led by nightclub veteran Daniel Punch, who previously managed such places as Pearl Ultralounge and Ocean Club in its heyday, in the early 2000s.

“One of the biggest challenges is keeping it fresh so it doesn’t get stagnant and boring,” Punch says.

The club first opened as The Standard in 2011, then closed for a four-month renovation and reopened as M Nightlife. It recently revamped its happy hour to include sushi and handcrafted cocktails. Four nights a week, there’s live acoustic music. In July, it plans to start coffee service at the Row Bar outside, which it recently acquired. And it won’t hesitate to spend money to get name acts and celebrities to the venue. The club brought in Diplo, a wildly popular LA-based DJ, for its grand opening in May 2012, and provides bottle service and VIP treatment for celebs like Rihanna, Bruno Mars, Kelly Rowland and pro athletes.

“We’re in such an off part of town, people have to come here because they want to come here,” says Angela Varnadore, M’s brand ambassador. “We’ll spend a lot of money on laser lights, décor, talent, everything. We really invest into (the business) and that’s what has made us successful.”

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