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

(page 3 of 4)

Photo: Rae Huo

Higher Expectations

The bar and nightclub industry has changed and forced owners to operate differently. No longer are customers satisfied with hot wings and pretzels. Now you can sometimes find menus that seem more at home in gastropubs than Irish pubs.

“With Ocean’s, we could get away with basic bar food,” Punch says. “But with new, smaller places opening up, people are expecting food that looks beautiful and (bars and clubs) weren’t giving them that.”

So Punch says he focuses M Nightlife on a high level of service and food, which attracts a more selective clientele. “That business professional coming after work isn’t going somewhere that doesn’t have a great menu or great drinks,” Varnadore says. “We want them to come here and continue to come here.”

Another change has been the Hawaii Smoke-Free Law, which was enacted in November 2006. Bars and restaurants could not allow patrons to smoke in enclosed areas or within 20 feet of doorways, windows and ventilation intakes.

Bill Comerford, who operates four bars in Honolulu and is the spokesman for the Hawaii Bar Owners Association, says the law puts customers into the street and out of the control of bar owners.

“(Advocates) say the smoking law doesn’t have an effect on bars, but it does,” Comerford says. “When you put customers outside, it’s detrimental to your business.”

For a start, smoking customers might not come back into the bar, which hurts sales. And intoxicated patrons could be smoking on public property, outside the jurisdiction of business owners, he says.

“Once they’re not on our property, we can’t control them,” Comerford says. “They should allow some leeway for bars.”

Christian Self works his magic behind the bar at thirtyninehotel in Chinatown.

Photo: Rae Huo

Chinatown is Ground Zero

Location is critical for any business, but especially so for bars and nightclubs. You can’t be in an area where neighbors may complain about the late hours and noise, and the area should already draw people, especially if your bar is new and unknown.

Those factors, plus cheaper rents, helped make Chinatown popular with bars, clubs and lounges. Daniel Gray was attracted to Chinatown, but found it was lacking what he calls a “legitimate nightclub experience,” so, in 2009, he invested about $120,000 and opened SoHo Mixed Media Bar on Pauahi Street, modeled after the chill artistic bars and lounges he patronized while living in New York City for six months.

“Chinatown was always this sort of cliquey place for hipsters and other underground counter-cultures, and I think that intimidated a lot of the mainstream crowd,” says Gray, 31. “My ultimate vision was to take the beauty of the Chinatown nightlife scene and get new people exposed to it.”

SoHo had a great four-year run that garnered loyal patrons who loved the venue’s unique charm, with cutting-edge fashion shows, interactive art events and popular ’80s dance parties.

Though SoHo closed this year – “The business was doing well, but I just wasn’t as passionate about it as I was when I opened it” – Gray says it left its mark on Chinatown.

“Hundreds of people have come to Chinatown for the first time because of SoHo, and a lot of these people are now regulars of all the Chinatown bars, restaurants and other businesses,” says Gray, who says he’s working on another project. “I felt that I could contribute to Chinatown by bringing a different demographic of party-goers, and I think I’ve succeeded in doing that.”

Gelareh Khoie is another Chinatown innovator. She opened thirtyninehotel on the second floor of an old building on Hotel Street in July 2004, eight days after she got the key to the space and before she could build out bathrooms or obtain a liquor license. (She got those the following year.)

thirtyninehotel has become a mainstay in Chinatown, hosting fashion and art shows, music events, poetry readings, fundraisers, a chamber music performance and a killer happy hour that was recently upgraded (see next page). It’s the kind of unique, artsy venue that works well in this equally eclectic neighborhood.

“I think the reason thirtyninehotel is still relevant and popular is because we stayed true to our vision of art and music,” says Khoie, 41.

She calls the venue a “community-oriented multimedia space,” not a nightclub or bar, despite its impressive menu of classic and signature cocktails and craft beers and a coveted bartender named Christian Self.

“I never set out to ‘have a bar,’ ” Khoie says. “It just evolved into that. My vision was to create a space where artists and musicians could collaborate on projects and express themselves. … What thirtyninehotel is today is beyond belief.”

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