How did you start out in the nightlife business?
I was originally working in commercial real estate in New York City. I was representing the owner of the Paramount Hotel at the time, Ian Schrager, and trying to find restaurant and bar concepts for him. I brought him all the latest and greatest from everyone I knew in all the hotspots, but Ian was very picky, and he really wasn’t impressed. He finally said, “Why don’t you just do it yourself?”
Even though I was in the real estate business, I did entertain a lot. I had friends over, put some music on, and burned some incense. I figured if I could design a space that felt like my living room, and I could have control over the music and drinks, I’d give it a shot. So, I created a lounge atmosphere that felt like my apartment. At the beginning, it was pretty quiet with just a few hotel guests. I was confident that I had built something that was beautiful, comfortable, and cozy with a good vibe to it. Word spread really fast and about a week into it 1,000 people were trying to get into The Whiskey and it only held about 100. People were swarming the lobby of the hotel and out on the streets. It got a little out of control, so we had to unfortunately put up ropes to contain the crowds.
When did you realize your success wasn’t a fluke?
I love the creative process and coming up with a concept and design from the music to type of glassware, uniforms, and lighting. I’m involved in every detail. I took that concept and went to Miami to open at The Carlyle in South Beach and turned it into a larger lounge with a few pool tables, larger bar area, and comfortable couches, called The Whiskey on Ocean Drive. It was just at the beginning of the bar scene there in the early 1990s, and it was an immediate success.
I felt like I was a success when other hotel owners started calling and wanting me to do it in their hotels. My first one in L.A. was The Whiskey at Sunset Marquis [which morphed into Bar 1200]. After that was Skybar at Mondrian [now owned by SBE] and Stone Rose Lounge at Sofitel in Beverly Hills [now Riviera 31].
I don’t look at competition and other things that are out there, but I guess I thought that people really liked what I do. Every new place I open is designed for myself, depending on location. They are all a little bit different. If I’m in L.A., what type of place do I want to go to? Is it in a hotel? That is the fun part for me, creating. The success comes, No. 1, with loving what you do, and I always have. At one point, I had 40 places. Also, I loved seeing people have a good time. The success was in the excitement of wanting to do it again and again. It wasn’t about the money. I was fortunate that they all were extremely successful, and I never closed a place, which gives you the confidence to move forward. Even if I wasn’t making the money, I would still want to do it and would still be passionate about it.
What do you take into consideration when you are opening a place in New York versus Los Angeles?
In New York, I had seven or eight places. The difference I noticed in New York was that I wanted to design places for a big after-work crowd and then you want to transform that into a local nightlife type of scene. There is a fine line of attracting a corporate after-work crowd, but you also want the crowd coming out at 10 p.m. and staying until 4 a.m. All of my bars were very comfortable, but the New York ones were a little more elegant, so you did feel comfortable wearing a suit and tie from work or late night in jeans.
In L.A. you don’t really get an after-work crowd. People here work later in the entertainment business and have early dinners. You do get people in the hotels coming down earlier at 5 p.m. for a drink before going out to dinner, then at 10 p.m. they would all come back and not leave until 2 a.m. I wondered what these people did to survive, who were in a café at 3:00 in the afternoon and then at the bar until 2:00 in the morning. I’d see them at my places at night and at all times during the day, too.
How did launching Casamigos come about?
It wasn’t a natural progression for me just because I was in the bar business. The only thing I knew about liquor is people would ask me to carry certain brands. I’d taste it and if I liked it would carry it, but I didn’t know anything about the business or the distribution, and never thought of doing a liquor.
Casamigos came about when George and I were building two homes in Cabo San Lucas on one piece of property. We had an idea—when the homes are done, we should come up with a house tequila that we would make just to serve at home. It was never to start a tequila business but to create something we love. After building our homes there, George and I would go out to different bars or stay in hotels. Every bartender has their favorite tequila. We tried plenty and that’s when we thought we should just make our own, one that is perfect for us to drink. We got in contact with a few distilleries and told them the flavor profile we were looking for with no burn at all. People are used to shooting tequila and chasing it with a lime, but we just wanted one that was smooth that tasted great on the rocks and not have to throw it into a margarita or drink with salt and lime. At the beginning it was funny because the distillers told us, “It’s supposed to have a burn, that’s part of tequila.” It took us two years and 700 bottles of samples later, but we finally got it perfect. George and I drank the entire bottle. We bought a bunch of cases, and when our friends would come and visit us in Cabo, we were always serving Casamigos, which was what we also named the homes.
You are always involved with the design process—even the label of the Casamigos bottle. What design projects are in the works right now?
I love every aspect of design, from bottles and labels to restaurants, homes, and clothing. I design the homes [and flip them] for fun. It’s not a business for me, but there is usually someone who is just happy to move in. When I do the construction, renovations, and decorate, all they need to do is bring their toothbrush. If I get bored, I need to create. I design all our [personal] homes along with Cindy—we have similar tastes.
Your passion project, Café Habana Malibu, is in your own backyard. How has the restaurant continued to support the local community during the COVID-19 pandemic?
We have kept Café Habana open during COVID. The reason we opened Café Habana is because we live in Malibu and my family and friends all wanted me to open a restaurant nearby. We’ve had it for 10 years now. It’s the local place where everyone goes.
We feed the homeless, and we always donate food to different charity organizations and events. It’s something we always liked to do even before COVID. I think a lot of restaurants do that, and if they don’t, they should. We are fortunate that we can help out.
Are you involved in the menu selection as well?
Yes, and I have tastings with Cindy and the kids and they give their opinion of what they like. Because it’s Malibu we use everything organic—fresh vegetables, organic beef. It’s healthy, not overly complicated. We get the same people coming back three to five times per week for lunch or dinner. And we have at least five meals a week there—and we sell a lot of Casamigos! It’s fun with the family and all of our friends who live in Malibu.
What are your concerns for the hospitality industry moving forward?
I’ve been very fortunate that we have stayed steady and not closed. My concern is there are so many restaurants that maybe don’t have outdoor areas. The restaurant business is so difficult on a good day, the margins are quite low, so it’s going to be very difficult for some of them to reopen and it’s sad. In some cases, the owner is the chef, so for them to reopen and survive is going to be very difficult. I have friends that are not going to reopen and don’t know what they are going to do. They don’t want to go back into the business. There are some great restaurants and restaurateurs, but it’s been a very difficult time.
What would you like people to do to help restaurants and bars?
We live in L.A. and can expand outdoors because we have nice weather all year, but you can’t do that year-round in Chicago or New York. Try and support your local mom-and-pop shops and restaurants—those are the ones that are struggling the most, even with PPP loans, which I did not apply for, just to be clear. Fortunately, I have the means to support my restaurant, personally. For the ones that remain open, just go and try to support them. Order and sit outside or order to go.
RANDE GERBER’S FAVORITE RESTAURANTS FOR BREAKFAST, LUNCH, AND DINNER ON BOTH COASTS.
For a breakfast meeting: Nate ’n Al’s. I’m a partner with Mike Meldman and Irving and Shelli Azoff. We wanted to save an institution. They were going to go out of business, and we couldn’t let that happen. I typically go with the scrambled eggs, pancakes, toasted bagel with cream cheese and lox—all in one order! That is why I try not to have too many meetings there.
The Fountain at The Beverly Hills Hotel is also good for breakfast. They have good pancakes, and they have nice people that work there.
I’m usually in Malibu for lunch at Café Habana. My go-to is the carne asada, fish tacos, corn, chicken burritos. Once or twice a week, Cindy and I order the kale and manchego salad with salmon.
For a nice dinner, I like Craig’s and usually order the chicken parmesan, or Giorgio Baldi for salad and pasta. Nobu Malibu is like our local cafeteria here and also Bui Sushi or Malibu Seafood for local, great fish. There are so many great restaurants in Malibu.
We live downtown in the Village so we go to Lure, Pastis, Perry St, and anything by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. For lunch, ABC Kitchen or Balthazar. Sadelle’s deli in Soho is great for breakfast.
As for nightlife, I’m happy to just go out and have a nice dinner with some friends and family and call it a night after that. I typically don’t go out after dinner anymore.