It’s hard out there for a nightlife impresario. Eight out of 10 nightclubs fail during their first year of operation. And as music and fashion tastes change, even a club that makes it past this key 12-month milestone has to constantly evolve to stay popular and relevant. Which makes what Butter Group co-founders Ronnie Madra and Richie Akiva have accomplished all the more remarkable. The pair have maintained 1OAK, one of the hottest nightclub properties in America, for a whopping 10 years—and it is showing no signs of slowing down.
The original 1OAK (which stands for “One of a kind”) opened in Manhattan’s West Chelsea just before the financial crisis struck, when the evolving neighborhood was the epicenter of nightlife in the city. With guest DJs like Swizz Beatz and such celebs as the Weeknd, Robin Thicke, Bruno Mars, and Justin Bieber appearing, it offered a dark, opulent, high-energy venue for the hottest acts and most beautiful people working today. (Jay-Z brought 1OAK to a higher level of fame by referencing it in his 2013 song Beach is Better.) The club focuses on hip-hop and pop music, though it recently added an EDM night as well. It weathered the economic storm that killed many other high end lifestyle businesses, expanding to Las Vegas in 2012 and Los Angeles in 2014. Another club, Up&Down, opened in Manhattan in 2014.
According to a Butter Group spokeswoman, the 1OAK brand has profited by $250 million since it opened 10 years ago. Last year saw pop-ups at Coachella and Art Basel Miami and in the Maldives for New Year’s Eve, plus nights with the biggest names in music at Up&Down. (Justin Bieber performs there ad hoc; Rihanna felt so comfortable she got behind the bar at one after-party and started serving drinks). Cannes, Dubai, and Paris are frequent satellite party destinations.
Don’t Chase Trends
When EDM music started taking over European clubs, and famous House DJs ignited bidding wars that netted them six-figure paychecks for one-night appearances, Madra and Akiva resisted jumping on the trend. It just didn’t feel authentic to their New York born-and-bred sensibility.
“There was an EDM boom, and everybody jumped on the bandwagon,” Akiva said. “It raised prices, and everyone was fighting over DJs. When that happened, I looked at my partners and said, “We are not going to play that game.” I love house music, but I wasn’t going to get involved in bidding wars. So we started booking artists and rappers and singers. New talent. We stuck to what we knew.”
Practice Genuine Hospitality
According to the Butter team, a great party is a bunch of punks mixed with fashion kids, Europeans, finance guys, artists, uptown girls, and a celebrity or two. It’s a place where everyone, regardless of color or creed, feels welcome, comfortable, and free.
“You treat people a certain way when they walk in,” said Madra. “Not like a celebrity. Not like a musician. Like a guest. You get them a drink. You surround them with other nice people. That’s how they want to feel. They’re not getting this pressure to do something—to take a picture, to perform.”
Brand Before Profit
The goal of the business is to make money—but on a given night, it’s never only about the money. If there are 15 guys at the door who want to buy 30 bottles of alcohol and they’re “just regular guys,” they won’t get in. But 10 “cool hipster skaters” will make the cut, even if they likely won’t buy bottles, Akiva said. It’s about that balance.
Protect Your Intellectual Property Early
This means thinking about your long game. Even before the club opened, Akiva trademarked every possible component of the 1OAK name, even though he didn’t know when, or even if, he’d implement them. He wanted to make sure he had room to expand, to extend his creation.
“Five years, two years—it was all in the plan,” Akiva said. “It was about building a lifestyle. I knew—what do I want to be when I get to that point. I thought of it like, maybe one day we could do clothing, 1OAK alcohol, 1OAK hotels. Music labels, a 1OAK management company, One of a Kind events. Everything to me from Day 1 was a stepping stone.” (They demurred as to what projects capitalizing on this foresight might be coming up next, since “a lot of those deals are in the early stages.”)
Recognize That Details Matter Most
Madra and Akiva are perfectionists. Even though they own the joint, they attend to details if something is off. That could mean busing tables and slinging drinks or adjusting the speakers and augmenting the lighting, the way Akiva did during the Migos performance last week at 1OAK LA.
“I’m standing there and there are three of them on stage, but one of them is not in the light,” Akiva said. “So during the actual performance, I grabbed a floor spotlight and I put it on the banquet so it flashes him up. So now they’re all lit. No one would notice that, in general, but for me it made so much sense.”
It also means paying critical attention to the space itself: Are there dead pockets of sound in weird corners at the back? Is there a bottleneck near the bar? Are people able to walk and dance freely, without feeling trampled? Can pretty people be seen around the room? After all, people are there to see and be seen.
“It’s about a formula,” Akiva said. “It’s how you seat it, how you fill it. It’s literally how you walk in and walk out. Clients should walk in and see the right people in the room—that it is situated in a perfect balance of all the right people and girls—and there is energy through the room, and there are no pockets.”
Generate Goodwill Within Your Industry
Unusual in the cutthroat world of Manhattan nightlife, in which cool-kid tribes form and devolve with fierce regularity, neither Madra nor Akiva badmouth competitors. It makes the duo well respected. What’s more, they are two of the few club owners who routinely visit places they don’t own—both as a way to see what others are doing and to stay relevant—as well as network and support the industry at large.
“We don’t just show up, we bring value,” Madra said. “We never go there to take. It’s respect. You show others respect in the business, and they’ll bring it back to you. If I go to the Blond [at the 11 Howard hotel], I will bring a nice crowd. I’ll buy a table. I’ll spend money. If someone asks me, I’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s a nice spot.’”
“Be helpful,” Madra said, emphasizing team mentality in hiring. “Be polite. Be kind. Help the waitresses. Help the busers. Treat them like they’re human beings.”
And don’t drop names, ever. They don’t brag about who they know, or who was there last night. They don’t need to—those who were cool enough to be there, know. And that’s the important thing.
Madra and Akiva will admit to taking a shot or two, or having a glass of wine, to be sociable. But that’s it: Akiva didn’t drink, ever, until three years ago.
From 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., they’re working. The smallest change in the seating situation, the sound system, the lighting, and the music can mean a noted guest goes from just hanging out to getting up and wanting to perform because he or she wants to have fun. And they have to stay focused in order to notice those things.
“When I’m at Up&Down, I’m in the office,” Akiva said. “I’m looking at everything—how people are being treated, how they are walked in, where they are seated, who is dancing.”
It’s also worth noting that Madra and Akiva have turned into nightlife celebrities in their own right; their presence and personal rolodexes have contributed to make the whole endeavor last. This meant that when 1OAK Vegas and L.A. opened, the two were there early and often for sustained durations of time. They still travel back and forth frequently, to ensure that each outpost feels like their work.
Don’t Get Comfortable
To celebrate the decade anniversary at 1OAK, Madra and Akiva commissioned artist Roy Nachum, who is known for his cover artwork for Rihanna, to redesign the interior space. Nachum has led the design for all 1OAK installations, putting heavy emphasis on combining fashion, art, and culture via elements from African art, Italian architecture, and Minimalism.
It’s part of their move to reset the space; to make it more elegant and cultural—because the minute he stops adjusting, Akiva said, is the minute he loses relevance.
“I never feel safe—that is what keeps me on my toes. It’s essential to keep evolving. We are not just thinking of nightclubs. We are thinking of hospitality in the deeper sense of the word. If I feel safe, I’m out of business in two years.”
Written by Hannah Elliott / Bloomberg