The New Kings Of New York Nightlife
Eugene Remm, 31, and Mark Birnbaum, 32, don't believe in quitting while they're ahead. As economic disaster swelled in 2007, Tenjune--their swanky, 5,000-square-foot nightclub in Manhattan's Meatpacking District--kept on rocking. On one raucous evening a real estate developer bought $75,000 worth of Perrier-Jouët champagne for the house, then told partygoers to shake up the bottles and coat the room in suds. Tenjune opened in August 2006 and generated $12 million of revenue in 2007, making Remm and Birnbaum's combined 50% stake worth millions of dollars. Says Remm, "Everyone was saying we were one-hit wonders"--meaning they should take their money and run.
Instead, the pair doubled down. Their nightlife empire, EMM Group, now includes restaurants, lounges, a luxury concierge service and a house in Sag Harbor, L.I. used for hosting private parties for VH1 and the cast of Gossip Girl. Headquartered in a sunny loft near Tenjune, EMM, now with 30 head-office employees, had $30 million in sales in the last 12 months. Credit that performance to Birnbaum's aesthetic eye and Remm's attention to detail. A third partner--Michael Hirtenstein, 47, who sold his Westcom Communications, which supplied secure voice and data networks to Wall Street firms, for $270 million in 2005--joined in 2008 and negotiates contracts. "They have their eyes on everything but never look stressed," says MTV Programming President Tony DiSanto, a regular EMM customer. "I see them more as producers than club owners."
Remm, the son of Russian immigrants, had a taste for risk at Long Island's Hofstra University, where he ran a bar and speculated in real estate. During his senior year he bought five houses, putting down a combined $10,000 he had pocketed in tips. ("I was the definition of subprime," he quips.) After graduation Remm joined B.R. Guest Restaurants and ran its lounge, Level V. Birnbaum promoted Manhattan clubs as a high school senior on Long Island; at Ithaca College he ran a 22,000-square-foot nightclub. After hawking insurance and hating it, he started a consultancy aimed at new club owners.
Remm and Birnbaum hooked up after throwing competing birthday parties--both were born on June 10 (hence Tenjune)--and became fast friends. They raised $800,000 from college friends and club clients to open Tenjune just in time for Fashion Week and the MTV Video Music Awards. They threw a book launch party for celebrity stylist June Ambrose, hosted by rapper Sean Combs (a.k.a. P. Diddy). Penelope Cruz, Jay-Z and Beyoncé showed up. Emboldened, Remm and Birnbaum opened a concierge service in 2007 with annual dues of $7,500. That summer they took out a $3.9 million mortgage on an eight-bedroom Sag Harbor mansion, which hosts five blowout events a summer. In the spring of 2009 EMM signed on to run the Chandelier Room in the W Hotel in Hoboken, N.J.
Their biggest bet came on Sept. 15, 2008--the day Lehman Brothers filed Chapter 11--when Remm and Birnbaum plunked down $2 million, their entire savings, to secure a three-floor restaurant and club space a block from Tenjune. It needed renovation, which involved expanding the mezzanine and relocating the furnace room. Expected total cost, including renovations, furniture and permits: $7 million. They raised the other $5 million, mostly from happy Tenjune customers, in eight months. Abe & Arthur's, which serves $88 porterhouse steaks, and its basement club, SL, opened last September. The combo has since done $10 million in sales.
If Tenjune is EMM's blockbuster film, SL is the art house flick--small, intimate and ultracool. The stone walls feature a collage of human X-rays that change color with every fabric-rippling thump of the bass. The markups are adequate to cover the renovation costs. A 1.5-liter bottle of Grey Goose ($57 wholesale) goes for $1,000 at SL. A 6-liter bottle of Ace of Spades champagne is $30,000.
Diversification is crucial. "Robert Downey Jr. won't party at Tenjune, but he'll eat at Abe & Arthur's," says Remm. EMM's special events group opened American Eagle Outfitters' Times Square shop; it handled stage design, music and security, and also produced the video looped on an outdoor Jumbotron. Abe & Arthur's later hosted a dinner for American Eagle execs.
Behind the scenes, this business is a grind. The workday ends at 5 a.m., and Remm and Birnbaum are fielding e-mails by 9 a.m. The two are sticklers about consistency--from the way hosts greet customers and how quickly reservations are confirmed to the scent in each venue. (EMM pumps in a custom perfume through its air ducts.) Employees, who get BlackBerrys, must reply to e-mails within five minutes; they're also encouraged to maintain a healthy diet and slog through daily workouts, involving weights, treadmills and yoga sessions. "There are opportunities to have lots of bad habits," says Remm.
Revenues are broken down, daily, by customer. A 20,000-name spreadsheet--cobbled with help from waitresses, floor managers, publicists and Facebook--tracks minutiae on heavy hitters who drop at least $2,000 a night, including their professions, birthdays, favorite drinks and seating preferences. Each gets a follow-up call to see how the night went and what EMM can improve. "They know what people want and how to look after people," says Karolina Kurkova, the former Victoria's Secret underwear model.
EMM also analyzes the performance of its promoters--freelance pied pipers who march in lookers to fill the clubs. Many joints pay promoters by the volume of patrons they corral. EMM demands a good-looking crowd with high energy and deep pockets. Promoters get $500 for a stylish table of ten. Duds often get docked half their pay.
Remm, Birnbaum and Hirtenstein aren't done yet. They are in the midst of signing leases for three new venues--two restaurants and club. "You've got to stay fresh and keep your name relevant," says Birnbaum. "If I'm not opening the next place that looks amazing, someone is."