Are we surprised that Joshua and Sarissa Schwartz, natives of the City that Never Sleeps, have launched a lounge where guests can chill or boogie till the crack of dawn?
The couple dreamed up Lulu's, a “frivolous, sexy and quirky” live lounge that opens this April at Pan Pacific Hotel, around the fancies of its fictional owner Lulu, a hard-drinking good-time girl born and raised in the Bronx. Classic art deco meets 1960s graffitied underground bar, it's lined with cosy banquetted nooks interspersed with display walls that highlight Lulu's chintzy accessories and kitschy dresser-uppers including coloured wigs.
Lulu's Lounge and the dance club next door, Bang Bang, were created by Joshua and Sarissa in partnership with The Privé Group. The couple worked in some of the hottest nightspots in the States before they made Singapore home in 2011, joining the key team that developed Pangea (remember the "millionaires' club" at Marina Bay Sands that threw epic parties?) and helped in its expansion to New Delhi and Manila.
They later partnered Massive Collective to develop and launch nightspots like rooftop bar Empire, gastrobar Armoury, and restaurants including the popular Balinese ribs joint Naughty Nuri’s. Besides Bang Bang and Lulu's, the couple co-owns Privé Clarke Quay, Employees Only Singapore and – coming in June – Employees Only Hong Kong.
Joshua, who boasts over 25 years of experience in F&B (if his looks don't show it, it's because he got started at age 10), and Sarissa, who went into the nightclub scene (bartending) after graduating from George Washington University with a degree in International Business, tell us how creative juices and business sharps keep them up at night.
How long does an idea take to get off the ground in the nightlife business?
Sarissa: Wow, that’s a tough one - each project is so different and unique that we ensure we consider the different elements of each concept very carefully. Employees Only Singapore took us four years just to find the right space! Excitingly for us, Lulu’s could move very quickly since we already had the perfect space and a strong collaborative partnership with The Privé Group in place. Employees Only Hong Kong, our upcoming venture, is due to open in June, about nine months from when the initial idea began. Everything from real estate availability, pricing, and licensing all directly impact a project opening – and we are perfectionists!
Joshua: That’s a good question. I think sometimes Sarissa gets frustrated with me because I am constantly coming up with new ideas for venues! Most of them have never seen the light of day - but some I have been holding onto for a long time and hope to do eventually! Eventually you need to sit on an idea for a long time and suss out if it is feasible in the market. Not all great ideas turn into great venues.
What’s the fastest you’ve pulled something off?
J: Although it took us four years to find the right space, the quickest buildout I have ever been involved in was Employees Only Singapore which went from getting the keys to opening in 70 days.
S: It was incredible. Josh worked his butt off to accomplish that. We were doing New York levels of revenue on Day 2 – thankfully, it was a smash hit from the beginning.
How do you identify what’s going to be trending in nightlife in the time that it takes to open a new nightspot?
S: We never try to push something on a market it’s not looking for. We always take into consideration where the market is in its current state and what it looks like it will evolve to. We listen very closely, while keeping out the noise. A wise man once said, “Building a place for your friends is the quickest way to go broke!” You have to get out of your inner circle, and look at what the market as a whole really needs.
J: I think a large part is being extremely analytical, which I know doesn’t sound like the most fun answer, but there is a partial formula consisting of what is missing in the market and taking into account how the public will perceive that. The worst mistake you can make is to listen to all the people who tell you “You know what would be great? ______ (insert London or New York brand).” I think you need to study a market and adapt to it while still adding your little personal touches.
Were there any duds along the way?
J: I have been involved in projects that were great products but perhaps in the wrong location or the wrong time. Not everything you do in life is going to be a success but if you are truly open and remove your ego from it, those can be the best lessons.
S: When a creating a concept I always think of what I ideally want, then I make room in my psyche for what it will actually become. You need to let a place bring out its own personality so that it becomes what it truly meant to be. When I know a place isn’t being the best version of itself, it’s hard not to look at yourself as the neglectful parent and wonder, “Where did I go wrong?” But I always evaluate and identify what I could have done better and bring that knowledge with me moving forward.
Moving to Singapore, did you ever wonder — or worry — about the sterile image this nation has/had?
S: Singapore is one of the most exciting places in world in my opinion. Although it’s tougher do execute nightlife here than perceived, if you hit that sweet spot, you’ll encounter some really amazing and interesting people along the way.
J: Coming into Singapore, I knew it was a very cosmopolitan and modern city with an incredibly safe system for starting a business. I think what surprised me most was the hunger for new and exciting venues. There are some amazing and talented people in F&B here and I think it’s a great time to be a part of it.
What are some of your favourite nightspots in Singapore, besides your own?
J: I have a tremendous amount of respect for what the guys at Kilo Lounge do. They defined their brand and really stay true to it. Skinny’s is always a great time and a great opportunity to run into a lot of F&B folks. I also love the guys from 28 Hong Kong Street – they really changed the cocktail industry in Singapore.
S: I have imposed a self-ban on Skinny’s Lounge, an American dive bar and KTV in Boat Quay, because I enjoy it way too much. I leave too late and sing too much. It’s not pretty and I can’t sing, but I do love it.
Where would we likely find you at 9pm on a Monday night?
J: If I’m not boxing at The Ring I’ll be home watching Real Housewives of anywhere, or some other horrible reality TV show with my wife and our poodle.
S: Walking home from Pilates in Robertson Quay to our home on the river. Hahaha, he sold me out on the Housewives!
How many nights a week are you out late for work?
S: If it’s a weekend you’ll find us starting off the night at Employees Only and finishing at Bang Bang and Lulu’s. I go to the office during the week so I’ll usually go to Employees Only for dinner and drinks 1-2 times for a night out with friends.
J: Haha. I always say two nights, maximum, but so far that hasn’t really happened. I do really try to not go above three however.
Tell us about some of the interesting night creatures you’ve met in your line of work.
J: Wow. Luckily coming up in this business in the late '80s and '90s in New York, I have had the opportunity to meet some of the most eccentric and wild characters imaginable. In the days before bottle service became the barrier to nightclub entry, you would see and rub shoulders with all types of creative and wild characters. People used to treat dressing up to go to a nightclub more like theater than they do now.
S: I find it incredibly interesting that a venue can quite literally attract who its target market is. Different types of people really are drawn to different concepts. A Bang Bang regular and Lulu’s regular will be completely different.
Now meet Lulu, the larger-than-life owner of Lulu's Lounge and a colourful figment of Joshua and Sarissa Schwartz's imagination. Read more in the May 2017 issue of L'Officiel Singapore (out soon on newsstands and Magzter).