The Fresh Face of Nightlife: Female and Under 40 a Meet the New Owner/Operators

When asking to speak with a manager or owner at a club, lounge, bar or restaurant these days, some patrons may be surprised that they are earning face time with someone not only younger than expected, but also female. The growing presence of owners, operators and managers who are female and under the age of 40 is nudging the industry in a new direction, shifting management styles and giving patrons a fresh approach to a night out.

Alissa Conte (top), restaurant general manager at Tao in Las Vegas

With more than three decades in the nightlife and restaurant business, Raymond Burton has seen trends come and go and recessions give way to economic growth. Now, as senior food and beverage consultant for North America at InterContinental Hotels Group, he deals with managers and owners from all over the world and throughout the industry. Back in the day, he admits, the idea of employing a female manager was not often considered.

Stephanie Richardson owner of Bailey’s Cafe and Peabody’s Sports Bar & Grille in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., are two of the many women changing the face of nightlife.

“The bar/nightclub business was too rough for them — or that was the prevailing opinion,” he explains. “Most of the owners were individuals who had other ventures operating or had retired, so they were usually older…50-plus. Most of the managers I come across today are in their late 20s and early 30s. All one needs to do is look around at some of the great venues that are up and running and you will see these young entrepreneurs.”

Nightlife is a demanding business, however, with grueling hours and plenty of pressures. So what’s the sudden appeal to the younger set? “I believe that the youth of today do not buy into the idea of working for a company from birth to death,” Burton says. “They want to be the captain of their own ship. They also are looking for and value their free time and quality of life.”

The prospect of taking ownership of a business venture, whether as the actual owner or in top management, and the capability to build in some personal-professional life balance certainly makes the nightlife industry a more appealing place for women than it once was. It gives them the opportunity to have a personal life — perhaps a family — and a successful career, but what does it mean for the industry?

A Way About Her

“Men are definitely the minority in my company,” laughs Rande Gerber, cofounder of the Gerber Group. “Eighty-five percent of our staff is female. We have about 30 women in management, and seven of those are around 40, with the rest being much younger.”

With 31 bars across the world and a brand name synonymous with success and style, no one can deny Gerber’s management team is an all-star lineup. As to his belief that a woman consistently is the “better man for the job,” Gerber offers several reasons.

“The girls that work for us see this as a real job. For many of the men that work for us, it’s more of a temporary gig until they find something in the corporate world. I think most of the women find [this business] to be a great career choice,” he says. “They have the freedom to take off when they need to do so. It’s wild seeing some of them that have been with us for 10 years now, supporting families.”

What’s more, Gerber offers, women are well suited to running a nightlife establishment. “They learn this business quickly,” he explains. “In both customer and employee interactions, they are capable of handling situations more delicately while still getting the point across without being intimidating. To me, that’s the right way of communicating. In overall personality, a female just has a way about her of being delicate while still being strong.”

One such woman in the Gerber organization is Niccole Trzaska. After nearly six years with Gerber, she now is both manager and mixologist for Stone Rose in New York City. Trzaska has opened countless other properties for the group, assisting with training and drink menu design and making television appearances. Her résumé speaks for itself, but it’s even more exceptional considering Trzaska is only 29.

29-year-old Niccole Trzaska brings a touch of style as she manages New York City’s Stone Rose venue for the Gerber Group.

The secret to her rapid rise? She points to the example set by other successful women in the Gerber Group and her outside-the-box thinking.

“I see a lot of loyal women in my company,” Trzaska says. “Being a girl, I feel like I can approach anyone, walk into every situation with an open mind. Plus, going out of the box is easier because I am young and it’s not considered risky to go out of the box.”

Gerber also finds effective use of today’s technology generally comes easier to those who are younger. Effective use of text messaging, e-mail blasts, web sites and other forms of Internet marketing are not acquired job skills as much as they are skills these up-and-coming women execs already possess when joining a team.

“The social networking aspect, that’s a whole different world for someone my age,” admits Gerber. “When you log on, you see your employees active on MySpace and Facebook. They put up pages and actively communicate through those pages. We are finally taking advantage of that world, thanks to our younger employees. I’m glad we have them in the company because I wouldn’t have known how to handle it.”

Management Style Makeover

These new owner/operators also bring a fresh approach to managing their staffs, one that can help this industry continue to evolve into a less “rough” one and perhaps be more appealing to the demanding Gen Y-ers now coming into the workforce.

“They have a completely different view and perspective when it comes to business,” Burton says of the young women he has encountered in nightlife operations. “The old ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ style of management does not exist [for them]. They covet input from their staff and are much more flexible than their male counterparts of old.”

This flexible philosophy is in full force at Bailey’s Café in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. There, owner Stephanie Richardson, 36, caters to a mixed demographic, ages 20 to 40, with live entertainment and food-and-beverage offerings seven nights a week. Additionally, Richardson heads up Peabody’s Sports Bar & Grille. The 4,000-square-foot bar and restaurant, remodeled this summer, targets sports fans but caters to families and patrons of all ages. Richardson decorated each of the rooms into themed rooms for various sports, and a nine-hole mini golf course will be a highlight of the back patio upon its completion this fall.

“I have my master’s [degree] in education and a B.A. in psychology,” Richardson says. “I think of being a boss and an owner like [having] a classroom, but instead of students I have employees. I am a 100-percent hands-on owner. My employees work with me, not for me, and as a woman and a mom, I look at my kids and think about what type of employer I would want for them. It gives me empathy when I consider  [that] everyone I employ is someone’s kid.”

To show her appreciation for jobs well done, Richardson takes her staff to the Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show in Las Vegas, all expenses covered, and offers monthly staff incentives for those delivering high sales.

Educational Appeal

While Richardson has sought out higher education through her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the industry does hold appeal for many women who view it as a place where they can learn and grow on the job. “The Gerber Group is family owned and operated so it’s close knit,” offers Trzaska. “You learn from the best operating managers. The only education I have ever had was in-the-field knowledge. As a mixologist and a manager, this job has offered me the opportunity to go to distilleries to see how the product is made and learn from the people who created it.”

That on-the-job training is invaluable. Although Alissa Conte holds a degree in hospitality and management, “I definitely think it’s an industry that doesn’t require a degree,” says the 34-year-old restaurant general manager of Tao in Las Vegas. “Especially now, moving into the GM position and dealing with certain situations, I realize I didn’t learn to handle those [scenarios] in school.”

Under the same roof as Tao restaurant is the famed 10,000-square-foot nightclub, and Tao Beach brings the magic outdoors. Tao is the highest-grossing food-and-beverage operation in the U.S., with an estimated $67 million in revenue in 2008, and it ranks first on the 2009 Nightclub & Bar Top 100.

“People who haven’t gone to university can excel in this industry,” she continues. “I would love to be a director of operations for multiple restaurants some day. Here at Tao I am constantly challenging myself, and I know that the skills I would need to run multiple venues I could learn right here.”

Not Always Easy
Thirty-eight-year-old Shireen Herrington has been a manager at STATS sports bar in Atlanta since it opened in November 2007. While the sports bar arena is still a bit of a final frontier for young women in operations, Herrington is proving that a feminine touch works wonders in the world of high-contact, competitive sports.

“Knowing I would have a predominantly male clientele, I initially thought people would have a lower respect level for me as a female, but I think it has put me ahead. When guests get a bit rowdy, having a female come to the table seems to calm things down a bit,” she says.

But dealing with problems is only half the battle for Herrington, who came into the position knowing very little about sports. The venue occupies 30,000 square feet and can seat more than 1,000. To keep up with what games to play when and who’s who on the VIP list, Herrington does her research.

“I started going to sports bars, reading the sports page every day, going online to visit travel sites off the beaten path and networking with other sports professionals. And we have a good relationship with the Hawks and Braves teams here in Atlanta,” she says. “I knew a lot about the major sports, but to really see the difference in the teams and the players and the coaches and to have that face recognition when they come in, it’s been a challenge. But it’s a challenge I think any prepared woman can face.”

She’s faced it well, and her management of the business and the guests is apparently earning points with both: STATS cleared $5.3 million in total sales last year.

While women are making their mark as owners and operators, these ladies still face a few more challenges than their male counterparts.

“Certainly in Vegas there is a sex angle to partying. You can’t be a big feminist here in this industry. At the end of the day, we have to hire some people that have a certain look. We are talking about [hiring] people — men and women — based on their looks. You can’t get offended, and I don’t,” Conte says.

Trzaska says some old-school sentiments still exist all over the country, but they can be overcome.

“I think we are still a bit of a rare breed as far as immediate respect levels are concerned,” Trzaska says of women in top management and ownership positions.  “People come up and say, ‘Where is the manager? I want to talk to him.’ Sometimes it’s a little hard for people to be approached by me when they have a complaint. Some people don’t take me seriously until I speak to them. But I think graciousness helps. I pay a little extra attention to compensate for predisposed opinions people may have.” NCB


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