What do you do when you own three of the hottest gay spots in Manhattan? If you’re Bob Pontarelli, who owns Barracuda, Elmo, and Industry, the answer would be to keep your focus on the prize.
“I don’t worry about that at all,” says Pontarelli, on what’s going to be the next “It” spot. Quite the opposite: “When you’re the ‘It’ thing and you’re a big club, you don’t look to connect to your customer. You’re just kind of slamming things out. We hire people who try and connect with the customer.”
Connecting with the customer has been what Pontarelli and his business partner, Stephen Heighton, who died last year, have been doing since they opened Crowbar back in the ‘80s. Anyone who was around New York then knows what a hotspot that was, and 18 years ago, the partners opened up Barracuda, in Chelsea, which at the time was New York’s first gay lounge. Twelve years ago, the guys started Elmo, on then-gay-undeveloped Seventh Avenue, in Chelsea, and less than two years ago, they headed to Hell’s Kitchen and created Industry, a gay club that’s hotter than New York in the middle of a global warming heat wave.
“We learned about restaurants, we learned about clubs,” says Pontarelli, whose background was as director of the American Ballet Theatre. “The theater community is so involved with Hell’s Kitchen that it blends over, more than Chelsea. With Industry, we hadn’t intended on doing anything new. We discovered the space first, and said, Oh my God, this is an amazing space. It just kind of presented itself.”
They also put their own butts on the line. “We conceived them, designed them, owned them, all with our own money,” says Pontarelli on each space. “We don’t have promoters. From programming to wallpaper, it’s our thing. It’s high risk, high loss.”
In the time I’m writing this, another club or restaurant or bar is probably headed for extinction, and I had to ask Pontarelli what his secret is. He seemed puzzled by the question, as he’s a guy who’s just doing what he loves, and doing it quite well. “Being very serious about your business, but not taking yourself too seriously,” is how he finally answers the question. “We’ve always focused on being fun. That’s what keeps us fresh.”
He continues: “Barracuda changes its look every six months, but we never change who we are. We’re very clear about what each of the businesses are. We stick to our guns. We know what people want from us. We try not to blink when things change. Elmo on Sunday brunch is just flat-out fun.”
Chelsea, too, has changed, and Barracuda and Elmo have gone with the flow. “Barracuda is among the bars that have somehow maintained a diehard gay clientele. With Elmo, the customer base has changed, but the gay vibe is so prevalent there, with the staff, the DJ’s. The straight people who come there know it’s unlike other restaurants in the area. It hasn’t changed the soul of the restaurant. It’s still like a gay club house and like the gay epicenter in Chelsea. Show up at Pride and you’ll see how wild it is.
Which leads to the obvious question: What will Pride be like at these three establishments.
Says Pontarelli: “One of the things that I find in bars is that Pride is so intense, and so much fun, and so kind of ‘balls-out I want to party,’ what we’ve found is that if we stop that in the middle of the night and do a show, it kills the energy. It can put a damper on it. What we’ll do is what we’ll do. The DJ’s, the decorations, the lights.” What he won’t do is charge anyone to get in. “We never charge admission,” Pontarelli says. “We have never charged a cover at anyone of these places.”
And that is something to be quite proud of.