SBE Goes Global with Sam Nazarian
by michael ventre
Sam Nazarian admits it: “I need a hobby,” he confessed one recent Saturday morning in the elevator of The Redbury, his discreetly hip hotel at Hollywood and Vine. Wearing a white dress shirt and dark tie with jeans and reddish lace-up dress shoes, the imposing 6-foot-4 Iranian-American hospitality impresario is poised to segue from interview to photo shoot to jet to wherever his sadistic schedule demands he appear next.
In one hand he keeps a tight grip on his mobile phone and a pack of Natural American Spirit smokes. When he reaches the second floor, he uses the other to point out that a few frames hung on a wall are slightly askew; he calmly asks two employees if they’ll make sure that’s corrected.
Nazarian, 37, is no overlord manipulating a Los Angeles–based business empire from a distant perch. He is an oxfords-on-the-ground details man, shuttling from one appointment to the next in a blur; passionate Sam and harried Sam go toe to toe, with no end in sight to their battle. Maybe golf clubs, a fishing rod, an electric guitar, or a model airplane could indeed distract him momentarily. Just don’t bet on it.
Nazarian’s world these days is a maelstrom of meetings, blueprints, cell phone calls, and flights. In January, he added The Emerson Theatre to his 12-club West Coast empire, offering a burlesque-and-debauched Boardwalk Empire allure that attracts Hollywood night birds like Paris Hilton and Vin Diesel with choreographed shows mixed with live DJs and impeccable VIP service. It turns out that the location, on Hollywood Boulevard near La Brea, has long held a place in his heart.
“Emerson has a great story for me personally,” he explains, “because it used to be called Garden of Eden, and that’s a place where we used to go when I was in my early 20s, and it probably was one of the best clubs in LA for many, many years.”
Noting that “DJs have become the Celine Dions; they’ve become the show,” SBE in February also reopened Vanguard, an East Hollywood warehouse space with artsy-cum-gritty stylistic touches, where premier spinners can ply their trade in front of a large but still fairly intimate assemblage of 1,500 or so.
In his relentless juggling of plates and cocktail glasses, Nazarian is also busy extending brands. Katsuya by Starck is already in seven locations, including L.A. Live and Hollywood, and SBE has a deal to open 17 more throughout the Middle East in the next five years. There is also SLS Hotels (with a pending deal to open in China) and Hyde Lounge. Nazarian has teamed with luminaries like designer Philippe Starck and chefs Katsuya Uechi, José Andrés, and Michael Mina to incorporate fiercely independent visions into the SBE zeitgeist.
Of course, Nazarian’s fingerprints have been all over LA—and other towns—for years. His SBE (Sammy Boy Entertainment) banner is affixed to 67 properties and has more than 5,000 employees. It has 14 liquor licenses in Hollywood alone. If you were inclined to binge on SBE on any given day in LA, you could breakfast at The Redbury, have lunch at an Umami Burger, do dinner at a Katsuya by Starck, dance at Greystone Manor Supperclub, grab a nightcap at Hyde Lounge, and maybe even check into the SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills to crash.
That scenario isn’t a happy accident. It’s part of Nazarian’s grand plan, a study in synergy designed to introduce patrons to a culture in which all facets of entertainment and hospitality are operating in concert—and then keep them so giddily ensconced that they’ll never want to leave it.
“How do you take a building like The Redbury, or now an SLS Hotel in Miami or Vegas [groundbreaking recently took place on the rehab of the Strip’s famed Sahara]… How do you have these worlds come together so John Doe as a customer—whether he’s a restaurant customer or a nightclub customer or a bar customer or an events customer or a hotel customer—[is accommodated in all these categories]? We have to make the experience great. That was the idea 10 years ago. We just had our 10-year anniversary.”
Tim Leiweke, former president and CEO of AEG, counts himself both as a business partner and friend of Nazarian. Katsuya by Starck was one of the first businesses to open in L.A. Live, and there is now a Hyde Lounge inside Staples Center. “Sam is very entrepreneurial. Very driven,” Leiweke says. “He’s as well versed in marketing as he is in finance, as he is in social media, as he is in PR, as he is in the restaurant and bar business. What I enjoy most about him is, for someone as young as he is and who has been through a lot, he has taken those lessons in and continues to develop as an astute and entrepreneurial businessman.”
The schooling began in earnest at age 22, when Nazarian hustled to obtain the first third-party license to Nextel’s walkie-talkie business. “I was programming Nextel phones myself,” he says. “You buy five at a time for, like, truckers or your delivery guys, and I’d be sitting outside in my Range Rover programming this one and not only selling them but activating them and training.”
Really, it began before that, when his family moved to LA from Tehran around the time of the 1979 revolution, and six relatives lived in two motel rooms until Nazarian’s father could rebuild the fortune he lost in Iran. Now the family business is thriving, with Nazarian as the frontman.
A former basketball player, Nazarian gives Los Angeles an assist for what now appears to be a slam-dunk, yet was anything but at the start. “You’d go to New York and tell them you’re from LA,” he recalls, “and they’d laugh at you and say, ‘Oh, you guys got to stop serving liquor at 2 AM,’ versus New York, Miami, Chicago, Vegas. I felt like SBE got kind of brushed away to the side like, ‘Yeah, a guy comes from a wealthy family; he’s gonna do a couple of clubs and a couple of restaurants.’ Now 10 years later, the music out of LA, the culinary aspects, the homegrown chefs, Downtown LA, Hollywood are much more relevant today than Manhattan, much more relevant today than Miami. In essence what we’re doing is selling the LA brand around the world.”
Of course, there are drawbacks. “I’ve never seen him relax,” Leiweke notes.
Even Nazarian agrees that the grind of trying to stay two steps ahead of what’s trending is a major challenge. “It’s exhausting.”
Would somebody please get this man a hobby?
PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRAD SWONETZ (NAZARIAN); RYAN FORBES/AVABLO (THE EMERSON)
Cover shoot: September 2014 issue of Los Angeles Confidential magazine.