Success Story: Follow Jimmy Bernstein to the Moon

Jimmy Bernstein delivers his inspiring keynote at the 2016 Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas

If it hadn’t been for a visit to a piano bar, our industry may never have seen the 25-year-and-still-going success story that is Howl at the Moon. One could argue that if Jimmy Bernstein’s family hadn’t been in the restaurant industry we wouldn’t have Howl at the Moon, a high-energy music venue chain with no programming and no identical evenings.

In 1967, Jimmy was in college pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering. He graduated and landed a job designing jet engines for GE. However, he had also been working in the restaurant industry on the weekends and found that he enjoyed that work much more. His father had made him a deal: work for 2 years in the aerospace industry. Jimmy obliged, finding himself earning recognition from GE for his aerospace creations, but he quit after the agreed upon two years. A deal, after all, is a deal.

For the next 13 years Jimmy developed his family’s restaurant business, and he was good at it. One evening he discovered a piano bar and fell in love with nightlife. He leased a space for his first nightclub in Cincinnati, Ohio and opened in August of 1990, essentially insolvent. The future seemed uncertain but Jimmy opened to incredible success. There were huge lines outside of his club for months and he was able to pay off all of his bills in a short amount of time.

Jimmy was told two things when he opened his first Howl at the Moon. First, he was told that his nightclub wouldn’t last long. And second, he was told by two psychiatrists that his concept delivered better therapy than they did. It seems he chose to ignore the naysayers and embrace the praise he received because he explored a second location.

The second location, Cleveland, Ohio, was so underfunded that Jimmy couldn’t afford an exterior sign. That didn’t seem to matter, as people still managed to find him and stream into the doors of the second HATM venue. Not only that, the location scored the cover of Cleveland Magazine. “Are you ready to Howl at the Moon?” asked the magazine, and the community answered with a resounding “Yes!”

Over time, Jimmy found had the opportunity to open his third HATM in Orlando, Florida. This time, the entrepreneur attempted to secure a loan for the location. He was denied the loan but signed the lease anyway, believing in his concept, abilities, and the people. The Orlando location launched to wild success beyond even Jimmy’s expectations.

Perseverance, a positive attitude, belief in the concept, and the success of his first 3 nightclubs propelled Jimmy forward. Over the course of roughly 9 years Jimmy opened another 7 locations, never receiving any funding to do so. Banks and others in the industry may not have thought HATM would work (even though it worked time and time again) but Jimmy’s faith in his concept never wavered. And in 2002 someone else in the industry took notice of Jimmy and Howl, and knew the concept was solid. This person had a failing restaurant in Chicago and asked Jimmy to convert it into a HATM nightclub; Jimmy would provide the concept, the restaurant owner would provide the capital.

Of course, the Chicago HATM opened to great success. And, of course, the restaurant owner who had funded the location wanted to open more venues. Jimmy, though, he wanted to just have fun with the current locations. Eventually Jimmy agreed to Howl at the Moon located in Seattle, Washington, and it opened in 2006. Seattle would prove to be his first poor performance, and it bothered Jimmy. His partner saw the first failure differently.

"Forget about Seattle,” he said to Jimmy. “When are we going to open the next Howl at the Moon?"

Jimmy answered by being the only nightclub concept to have space on all 4 Norwegian Cruise Line ships. He answered by realizing his long-term goal and opening Howl at the Moon in New York City. He answered by opening a total of 28 locations not including cruise ships, 17 of which are still in operation. Jimmy answered his partner by opening a new bowling concept – Splitsville Luxury Lanes – that’s doing so well that plans to open a second location are already in motion. And he answered with Howl 2-Go, an off-premise concept for weddings, corporate events, and more.

Some may dismiss Jimmy’s success (if that’s even possible) as luck. Others may call opening venues while underfunded reckless. But the industry owners and operators who have faced challenges and emerged victorious know that Jimmy saw the risks, pursued his dream, and instead of asking, “But what if I fail?” he asked, “But what if I succeed?” Jimmy says that he learned a lot over the course of 25-plus years in the industry. He learned that real entrepreneurs do what it takes to get what they want, that they’re confident their ideas will work and they need to be comfortable taking risks. In Seattle, Jimmy learned to fail, realizing that nobody can truly appreciate the taste of success without experiencing the bitterness of failure. And while Jimmy learned that the best way to improve a venue is to spend time observing everything going on inside of it, he also learned that maintaining balance in life is critical to success (he’s celebrating his 43rd wedding anniversary to his wife Barbara in June of this year). Jimmy found that becoming complacent leads to failure – an entrepreneur seeks success each day. Find the right partners, and develop relationships with vendors and recognize their role in your success. Perhaps the most important lesson Jimmy took to heart from the beginning is to operate with high integrity, honesty and ethics. Finally, you should use your passion to inspire others. I would say that Jimmy teaches that last lesson every day of his life.

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