Nightlife Hall of Famer Michael McGrail’s Long Run
September is generally an off month in clubland with its change in weather, end of summer blues, Jewish holidays, flu season, sporting events and lack of tourism...seriously who travels in September?
September is the calm before the storm of mid-October through New Year’s. Therefore, clubs and bars hustling to open before the high holiday season. It allows them to be the new kid on the block right before corporate party planners decide where to book their holiday parties.
This however isn’t an issue for Michael McGrail and his beloved G Lounge – the gay hot spot in the heart of Chelsea in New York or Here Lounge in Los Angeles. Last week, G Lounge celebrated its 16th anniversary with a gala party while Here has also been solid for twelve years. Long runs in nightlife aren’t by accident. It takes a great deal of effort, guts and experience to survive. Luckily, McGrail was kind enough to share his secrets of success with us.
Nightclub & Bar (NCB): You have just celebrated 16 years at G Lounge in NYC. You also own Here in LA. What is behind the longevity?
Michael McGrail: I am based in New York and run G Lounge, while Pat Rogers goes back and forth and Robert Barbero lives in LA and runs the business there. Eighteen years ago we started looking an appropriate venue to work on together. It wasn’t easy for our real estate agent as we knew what we wanted and were very specific, not too big and it had to be between 7th and 8th Avenues and 16th and 23rd Streets. We had done a lot of research and came up with this concept as I had worked in hotels and they always had nice lounges and realized what the gay bar scene was missing was a nice bar. At that time no one had invested in a quality environment for the gay community. Our longevity on both coasts comes from reviewing our customers’ needs, which are always changing, and continuing to offer what they want.
NCB: Do the fundamental things still apply as time goes by and just have to be sugar coated with the latest flavors?
McGrail: Fundamentals are necessary to run any business; flavors work for yoghurt. What I have learned through my hotel experience, on a larger scale with a huge staff, is that I had to be both a boss but also be accepted by the staff too. Getting involved, asking personal questions about their interests, and their lives, it is important that I get to know them. That is a key to having a happy staff and also to be successful in business. I have been surprised over the years, and moved, by the personal interactions with both the staff and the clients.
NCB: You opened in Chelsea and rode the wave of the great Chelsea ‘gayhood’. Now many of your patrons have moved to hell’s kitchen chasing cheaper rents and newer digs. Do you have plans to move or will you adjust your format? You signed a 20-year lease in 1996. That seemed like a forever at the time I’m sure, but now it’s tomorrow.
McGrail: Times have changed and staying current and continuing to draw the crowds is not always easy. While promoters can rent out a rooftop or other spaces, they don’t have a lease. We can’t move, nor do we want to. Diversity is key too; I don’t want everyone to look the same. G Lounge’s staff has all types of looks. I have been fortunate to have very little turnover with my staff, and it truly is a family affair.
Rents have increased in Chelsea making renting prohibitive for both the new generation as well as businesses. We have stayed a local favorite, but we also realize now that we also needed to be a destination location. G Lounge has continued to draw clients because we stay current and we offer great service, great music, and a great staff. Many of our workers started 16 years ago, and we have clients who have been coming just as long. The staff is personable, friendly, and they like their jobs, something that will never go out of style. Right now though rents are less expensive in Hell’s Kitchen than Chelsea, I know a local bar is always appreciated, especially when there are only a few left in Chelsea. However, I have yet to decide to renew the lease or not though.
NCB: You were elected to Next Magazines Nightclub Hall of Fame. What have you accomplished for this honor?
McGrail: I am very proud of the family I have created at G Lounge, both with my employees and my clients, many of whom bring their mothers or sisters into meet me. I am humbled to have been elected into the Nightclub Hall of Fame. My accomplishment speaks for itself, having opened the first gay owned and operated, upscale, respectable bar/lounge in New York City. When I became of legal age, there was only one gay bar in Yonkers; it was dark, and it smelled like stale beer, cigarettes and who knows what else. I wanted to open a bar that I could feel proud of and comfortable at.
NCB: Tell us about David Paul Kay's work.
McGrail: I was introduced by my friend Eric Pietrangalore to the artist David Paul Kay, who is known for his Neo Cubism style. I let him loose to create a one of a kind, original enamel hand painted piece of art on 5,000 square plus feet of canvas. We had recently refreshed a lot of things in the space and I had this idea for an art installation. I’ve always loved street art and so we decided to let Kay canvas the entire space and make one original piece of art. It took him a month, 5 hours a day, working all by himself – sometimes during the day when we were closed and sometimes with customers watching while we were open. It started a real buzz and spread by word-of-mouth. Once it was finished we made sure it was lit well so the art really pops. It's a beautiful piece; I’m not sure if it will ever come down but for now I’m enjoying it. I met David hoping he’d be inspired to do an art piece on the wall, but instead he envisioned to go beyond my wildest imagination, and I had faith he could achieve it. I would like to give credit to Eric, because without him this would not have happened.
NCB: The world has changed since 1997. What has the progression towards equality meant to your business?
McGrail: Our motto is that we can’t control what everyone else does, but we can do the best we can do. That includes having the best prices, customer service, and a staff who are welcoming, professional and like coming to work! The one thing that has remained constant is that men meet men. Now they get married.
NCB: What keeps you motivated?
McGrail: My husband of 25 years, Michael John Kay, and the families of my employees who are dependent on me. They mean the world to me.
NCB: Do you think after 16 years it’s still a learning process?
McGrail: I have to say, the older I get, the less I know.