No Strangers to Success: How The Strangers Club Came to Be

A vintage postcard depicting the Strangers' Club in Colón, Panama.

Settle in, because I’m going to walk you through an exercise and tell you a story. First, the exercise.

Take a look at these four values:

  1. The development of acquaintance as an opportunity for service;
  2. High ethical standards in business and professions, the recognition of the worthiness of all useful occupations, and the dignifying of each [person’s] occupation as an opportunity to serve society;
  3. The application of the ideal of service in each [person’s] personal, business, and community life;
  4. The advancement of international understanding, goodwill, and peace through a world fellowship of business and professional persons united in the ideal of service.

Now take a look at these questions:

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  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Consider how the values relate to our business, that being the service or hospitality industry. I think we can agree that they line up with how anyone with a role in a bar, nightclub or restaurant should approach serving their guests. Likewise, those values hold true for building working relationships with distributors, suppliers, brand reps, local government, and law enforcement.

Next, reflect on those questions. Consider how they relate to your interactions with your employees or, if you’re the employee, management where you work. Do you see their value in terms of speaking with guests, managers, suppliers, and the other people with whom you interact while doing your job?

I didn’t come up with that list of values, nor did I think up those questions. Each of those values is one of the core tenets of Rotary International, and the questions are part of Rotary International’s Rotary 4-Way Test, considered the standard for ethics in terms of business management. Rotary International is a service organization that exists to bring about goodwill, peace, and high ethical standards in all vocations by bringing together businesses and professionals of all creeds, colors, genders, races and political views.

The primary slogan of Rotary International is, “Service above self.” The secondary slogan is, “One profits most who serves best.” You may think you know exactly where I’m going with this: that the primary objective for those working in this industry must be to serve selflessly. And sure, that’s one point I’m making.

But where I’m really headed is a story. It’s partly the story of the Strangers’ Club in Panama, a social gathering place that used to be located in the city of Colón. And it’s also the story of the 8 investors of The Strangers Club being built out right now in Panama City.

Gabriel Carney and Ivan Radulovic of Macao Trading Company, and Bratislav GlisicSteve SchneiderUlysses Vidal, and Mitar Prentic of the tight-knit and incredibly successful Employees Only family, along with their Panamanian partners Carlos Esquivel and Celia Cañizales G., are opening a bar in Panama City. Where they found the time for this project is anyone’s guess. Between them they have not only the Macao Trading Company and PILSA Fine Rums to operate but also the original Employees OnlyEmployees Only Singapore (the Mighty Schneidey’s current major gig which opened several months ago in 2016) and Employees Only Miami (which is barely a week old). Add to that a plan for Employees Only in Austin, TX, and the implications of the responsibility of opening a bar in Panama City are staggering. And that says nothing of the challenges they face in terms of what is expected from them when they take on any project.

It’s the responsibility and the expectations this team is facing that caused me to think that this family of investors must be freaking out. Heavy lies the crown, after all. But when I spoke to a handful of the investors they seemed completely relaxed. I can only deduce that years of doing combat behind one of the most famous bars in the world, pushing thousands of cocktails across that bar towards a rabid customer base, and serving thousands of different personalities with a welcoming smile has imbued the bartenders who are investing with a sense of unshakeable calm.

The Strangers Club in Panama City is not going to be a clone of the Strangers’ Club that once resided in Colón. Carney came across the name, some pictures (almost exclusively of the exterior), and a bit of its history while doing research for this project. While kicking around names, Carney ran it past Esquivel and that was it – the Panamanian partners leapt at the chance to pay homage to what was once an iconic gathering place. When this opportunity came up the troops were gathered, the project was discussed, and those who wanted to invest and realize this bar were invited to do so. No hard sales pitch, no high-pressure tactics, no obligation to participate.

According to Carney and Radulovic, hospitality as we know it in the United States doesn’t quite exist in Panama City. That’s surprising when you consider how many Americans have retired there, and how many other expats call Panama City home. (Fun fact: Panamanian currency is called the Balboa and is equal to one United States Dollar, which has circulated there legally since 1904.) When I perhaps foolishly asked if they thought that the locals would receive them and their level of hospitality well given that it isn’t the norm, Carney and Radulovic laughed and said everyone wants to be treated well. I can’t argue with that.

What’s also inarguable is the value of the advice Carney and Radulovic were happy to give when asked about operating multiple venues. Forget the fact that The Strangers Club is opening in a different country – this is sage advice whether you’re opening your second location in the same city or state or your fifth venue located across the globe:

  • Work with people you can trust;
  • Build that trust by coming together as a family;
  • Come together as a family by creating a healthy and supportive culture in your business;
  • Create that culture by hiring the right people.

The nuts and bolts of permits, licenses, property, build outs, supplies… Those can be handled by those with know-how, patience and capital. The lifeblood of a bar, the living, breathing entity of the brand, that comes from energy, culture and a commitment to service. Oh – if you’re dreaming of opening one bar, never mind two or more, the crew has this advice to offer: Save your money!

I’ll leave you with this, a quote from an article published in the June, 1927, issue of The Rotarian, the magazine still published to this day by Rotary International. I.B. Sutton briefly addressed the Strangers’ Club in volume 30, number 6 of The Rotarian in an article entitled “Rotary in South America,” and he had this to say about it:

“The members meet, however, in Colón, Panama, at the Strangers’ Club, a delightful social center and picturesque spot on the edge of Limon Bay. Here I found a splendid opportunity for wide acquaintance and happy fellowship, as Rotarians from all parts of the world are constantly passing through the Canal.”

I believe that we can expect the same and more from The Strangers Club when the doors open this spring.

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