Subterranean Success

Thinking small seems an unlikely way to get ahead in the nightclub business. But to hear brothers R.J. and Jerrod Melman talk, the cozy confines of Sub 51, the hip and eclectic reservations-only nightspot they run downstairs from their popular Hub 51 restaurant in Chicago, is a veritable blessing. In truth, that’s just one of several ways the budding hospitality impresarios are marching to their own beat.

“We’re lucky that it’s small,” says 26-year-old Jerrod Melman. Sub 51 occupies just 1,500 square feet, room enough for 12 tables, a DJ booth with a state-of-the-art sound system, a bar and 100-odd guests rocking away Thursday through Saturday. “It makes it that much more exclusive. And that also makes it a place where really great DJs want to come and play, because it’s so small they can really relate to every guest in the place.”

Brothers Jerrod (left) and R.J. Melman follow in their father’s hospitality footsteps, but add their own spark.

“Playing a 100-person room is a lot different from playing a 5,000-person room,” notes R.J. Melman, age 26.

Just past its first anniversary, the Hub 51/Sub 51 tandem is a business and critical success. Trendy 20- and 30-somethings pack the club, with professional athletes and entertainment celebrities often in attendance. Upstairs in the restaurant, the crowd is varied. Chicago doctors, lawyers and advertising execs are lunch and dinner guests, while happy hour sees young professionals sharing sushi in the bar and families often visit for weekend brunch.

Success has something to do with bloodlines as well as hard work, concede the brothers, who follow the footsteps of their famous father, Richard Melman, founder and chairman of Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises (LEYE) in Chicago. Melman pere is the creator of scores of innovative restaurant concepts, ranging from R.J. Grunts, the whimsical, hippie-themed casual eatery still going strong after nearly four decades, to concepts that broke new culinary ground in casual dining, such as the Spanish tapas eatery Café Ba Ba Reeba and the innovative Mexican cuisine spot Hat Dance. “There is no illusion that a lot of the opportunities we have are not because of him,” says Jerrod. Adds R.J., “We’re thankful for the coaching he has given us.” 

The small size of Sub 51, located below Hub 51, gives the nightclub an exclusive vibe.

Thus, it is no surprise that a hospitality attitude pervades Sub 51. “We have the mindset of restaurant people,” says Jerrod, who, like his brother, cut his teeth as a LEYE restaurant manager. “Our inclination is to say ‘yes’ to guests. In a lot of clubs, the tendency is to say ‘no.’ Our staff wants to take care of people and be gracious.”

Still, R.J. and Jerrod agree that the nightclub business is a continual learning experience. Take the concept of bottle service, for example. Initially, it struck them as unnecessary and pricey. Although Sub 51 opened without bottle service, after receiving numerous requests in the first few weeks, the brothers relented and instituted it.

“When you have a room full of 100 people dancing, it’s difficult to get to the bar and order a cocktail, or to order 10 different drinks from your server,” says Jerrod.

Spirits range in price from $225 to $300 by the bottle, with vodka the predominant choice. “What most people look for is priced at $225 to $250,” says R.J. “I think that’s pretty reasonable compared to other clubs around town.”

“We try to do things with the guests in mind,” says Jerrod. “Not that we never make mistakes. But we think about how we would like to be treated when we go out.” NCB


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