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Featuring swimsuit-clad bartenders, private cabanas and exotic fruits blended into tropical drinks, the newly opened Crown Street bar Hula Hank’s evokes images of a white sand beach in the South Pacific. Resembling a locale beautiful enough to stage a season of “Survivor,” Hula Hank’s opened June 29 as the second of 10 theme-bars owned by Post Road Entertainment, Inc. But while the first Hula Hank’s has met with success in Stamford, Conn., it remains to be seen whether its second incarnation will be as popular. After all, staying alive in the already overcrowded, viciously competitive Crown Street nightclub district can seem as impossible as escaping exile from a reality show island.
So how exactly does a club succeed in an environment as cutthroat as the Elm City?
Step One: Know what you’re up against.
According to Verizon Super Pages, New Haven houses over 20 nightclubs and 16 bars and pubs, offering an unusual abundance of venues for clubgoers to choose from. But for club operators like Dennis Dean, who owns Image Nightclub, New Haven’s small-city population does not offer a large enough consumer base to sustain so many nightlife businesses. Dean would know — Image is scheduled to close its doors Dec. 1.
The “bidding war” over the limited number of customers in New Haven has forced clubs in the area to resort to desperate measures, Dean said. The sheer density of clubs in the city creates a price-slashing frenzy, with establishments fighting for kids who have their pick of nightlife. In addition to the illegal practice of admitting minors, he said his competitors have employed no-cover hours and low-cost drink specials, promotions that attract consumers but could be financially disastrous to a nightclub.
“How do you cover the expenses when you do that?” Dean said. “That’s what happens when there are 14 clubs: the kids become the winners.”
Dean cited the frequent rate of turnovers in the Crown Street area as evidence that the supposed nightclub renaissance in New Haven is in a tenuous state, and he estimates the shelf life of a regular night club spans no more than five years. Hula Hank’s, for example, replaced the now defunct Myst Ultra-Lounge, according to Nicole Green, general manager of Hula Hank’s.
Step Two: Find your niche.
Toad’s is that concert place. Image is that place with the cutting-edge light and sound system. And BAR is that place where you can buy a $1 draft on a Thursday night.
A gimmick. Every club that lives to see another year in New Haven has one. In a packed playing field, a successful New Haven club should give customers a compelling reason to step foot in its doors at least once. A smart club owner chooses to offer something new and exciting — or at least something different — for clubgoers to pounce on.
Robb Bartolomeo said competition was not nearly as fierce when he opened Gotham Citi Cafe in 1996. Still, he saw an opportunity to capitalize on an untapped market and made Gotham, located on Crown and Church streets, one of New Haven’s first exclusively gay nightclubs.
Even so early in its existence, Hula Hank’s has already attempted to stake out a niche for itself, Green said.
“We’re not a typical club; we’re a party bar,” she said. “The entire idea of our locations is to be the anti-nightclub nightclub.”
But standing out in a crowd does not necessarily require unique decor or a specific audience. Dean said Image is exceptional in that it is the only club in New Haven that is willing to close its doors to regular clientele for private bookings, such as events thrown by several Yale organizations. In 2003 alone, its first year of existence, Image had 87 private events, Dean said.
No matter how you do it, the bottom line is that clubs not destined for closure avoid replicating the style of a business down the street. The fundamental business strategy at Hula Hank’s, for example, has always been to differentiate itself from its Crown Street neighbors.
“We’re not doing the same thing that everyone on the block is doing,” Green said. “We want people the next day to be asking, ‘Did you hear what happened at Hank’s last night?’ because that will make people come back.”
Apparently, it’s working, as students like Amara Neng ’06 are returning from Hula Hank’s with wild stories to tell.
“They had a girl on the bar getting stuff licked off her leg — like whipped cream or something,” Neng said of a senior event that was held at Hula Hank’s on Wednesday night. “It was really ridiculous.”
Step Three: Reach a broad audience.
Let’s face it: The coolest part about Studio 54 is that both Cher and Norman Mailer counted themselves as regulars (so did Ron Jeremy, the “clown prince of porn,” but that’s another story altogether.) Nabbing the label of iconic means covering all your bases, and nobody knows that better than Bryan Phelps, owner of Toad’s.
The trick, Phelps said, is to target diverse audiences, while staying true to the business’s niche.
“The bands and the concerts we have are all different draws,” Phelps said. “One night we’ll have The Decemberists, and the night before we’ll put on Ghostface, who will have his own draw, and Tegan and Sara will have their own little thing, which will be totally separate as well.”
So maybe it’s not so much about trying to get Sylvester Stallone to grind with Elton John as it is offering a Tuesday night boxing match and a Wednesday night piano concert.
BAR takes that advice to heart by creating different physical spaces for different customers’ preferences. With six different venues, each with its own feel, under the same roof, “from pierced faces to briefcases and amplifiers to pacifiers, BAR is a place for all,” according to its Web site.
While Hula Hank’s has made its standard policy, according to Green, to “appeal across the board to everyone — not just the 21-year-old or the 45-year-old,” it plans on drawing different audiences at different times of day. It’s counting on its corporate clientele to populate the happy hours early in the evening right after work and the newly arrived college contingent to fill in the late-night gaps.
Step Four: Keep it fresh.
A saturated marketplace is a fickle marketplace, says BAR general manager Danielle Ginnetti, and the trick, when you know your customers have other places to go, is evolution.
“How to stay viable is to never stay stagnant — never, never,” Ginnetti said. BAR opened as a “fairly standard” bar and nightclub in 1992, and by 1996 it had become a brewery, pub and pizzeria.
Gotham Citi originally envisioned itself as the Bourbon Parade of New Haven, but the owners had to be flexible with a surprising new development.
“Straight people liked coming into the club,” owner Bartolomeo said. “So we started a night for straight people.”
Image owner Dean, too, thinks keeping it fresh is the way to go: “Every week you do something different, skirt flirt, a foam party, a luau party.” But there are some things that are a little tougher to turn over.
Image, the self-professed “most gorgeous club in New Haven,” has waterfalls, in-house cinevision and the most expensive lighting design in Connecticut, making changing up the atmosphere a little tricky.
In the end, given that you’ve got your entire 401(k) poured into a stellar sound system, you may just have to cross your fingers and bank on a little bit of customer loyalty, Dean says.
“I just hope the Yale kids that we’ve been catering to for two and a half years use the opportunity to book all their events that we did last year and the year before,” Dean said. “Because after us, where do they go? Their cafeteria?”
Step Five: Franchise
Post Road Entertainment, the firm tha
t owns Hula Hank’s and its nine sister locations, is a fan of the classic adage, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” By opening Hula Hank’s and the rest of its siblings over the same summer, the company is making sure that its fortunes do not rest solely on the fate of its New Haven location.
Similarly, after two false starts in West Palm Beach, Fla. and Waterbury, Conn., Phelps is about to break ground on another iteration of the Lily Pad in Trenton, N.J.; a similar venue in Richmond, Va. is in the works. By linking the Trenton, Richmond and New Haven clubs with Toad’s booker Jack Rich’s other clubs in Boston and Providence, R.I., Phelps is hoping to create an entire circuit for wannabe stars, who can play five venues with one phone call and a few three-hour pilgrimages.
Lesson? Don’t put all your clubs in New Haven.
In the end, sticking out the New Haven nightlife scene is as much a question of luck as anything. Toad’s Place became legendary in part because the Rolling Stones picked it to open their 1989 tour, and Sheryl Crow and Jewel opened there when they were “looking for a break” (though Phelps insists he “had a feeling something was going to happen” for Jewel).
So Phelps doesn’t have much advice to give to the new kids on the block.
“Stay out,” he finally said. “We don’t want anybody else in the city of New Haven. We already have enough places.”