Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Malfeasance, Meltdowns, and Maneuvering at The Monocle

A young, handsome California investor. In-house talent from Chicago. Movie stars flown in from the coasts. Flawless (and expensive) branding and marketing campaign. Generous compensation packages. A half-million dollar West End residence for performers.

The Monocle launched last year, and LGBT St. Louis had never seen such an opulent entrance. Investors and staff aimed to give the city an upscale nightlife option, with finely crafted cocktails and world-class entertainment, and then with the St. Louis venue as the flagship, they envisioned launching in select cities nationwide.

The community, not known for quickly embracing outsiders or change, stayed true to form. There was grumbling about the price of cocktails (Monocle’s rail cocktails are call at competing bars), and controversy soon erupted when a bartender held over from the prior establishment was dismissed for his resistance to the signature craft cocktails, instead suggesting patrons stick with quickly sloshed together standards like rum and coke. When he was let go he claimed the bar was ageist - a rumor that quickly gained traction. To top it off a notoriously dishonest drag queen up the block kept claiming there was a $30 cover, which was also bad for business.

But the Monocle was so well funded, the story went, that they could sustain major losses in the first year without worry.

Then the checks began to bounce, leading to embezzlement accusations and legal maneuvering.

The Idea Man

2015 started strong for Kyle Hustedt, proprietor of Chicago’s “The Cabaret Project” theatre company.  First he appeared in a Super Bowl commercial with Jennifer Hudson (0:17) and then received an unexpected business proposition from a former associate he hadn’t seen in ages.

Three years earlier he’d written a business plan for his dream establishment, and a friend showed it to a man I’ll call “Investor X.” Now Investor X was interested in making his dream come true.

Kyle had never even set foot in St. Louis before he flew in to check out the space and get a feel for the community. When he returned to Chicago he told his friend, mentor, and fellow performer Amy Armstrong that he needed to follow his dream, and much to his surprise she offered to join him.
They packed up their lives and relocated to the plush West End residence purchased for in-house and traveling entertainers.

All Hail Harrison & Jolene GOTCHA

Harrison Roberts was one of the most well-known and well-liked bar managers in town when he was approached with what seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime: more money, a calmer bar with better hours, and a small ownership stake. The father of newborn twins thought it was the right decision for his family.

Jolene felt she finally found her niche at the Monocle, except for one coworker who, according to Harrison, “hates her with the intensity of a thousand suns.” The coworker had a short fuse and regularly exploded about everyday issues like dropping a glass or getting locked out. Jolene was able to navigate around him, for the most part, and really enjoyed her job.

About seven partners own the Monocle and all have ironclad nondisclosure clauses, so nobody would go on record, although several met with me – including one clandestine meeting at the closed bar on a Sunday. Video showed we missed being discovered by one of the other partners by ten minutes – and we were discovered by Kyle.

Since she was just an employee, Jolene offered on-the-record insights. According to her, and contrary to the founding documents, Investor X never actually invested anything – and he spent money on personal expenses like mad. It all came to light when he went missing for a few days and Harrison had to figure out how to do payroll. Not only was there no money in the reserve account, the business was about $60k in the red.

“It was like a family member was dying and we called the family in. Even one manager that had left us previously. There were so many tears. Finally we were paid and promised it wouldn't happen again. The next check came almost on time. Then it all fell apart.” – Jolene recalled.

Harrison felt he was out of time, and the best thing to do was cut his losses and move on. He was followed soon after by Kyle, who returned to Chicago in financial ruin.

Gallows Humor

The plan as I understand it is to get Investor X out, and replace him with an investor-in-waiting. Meanwhile employees haven’t been paid in weeks, and gallows humor has set in. One regular customer only had one olive in his martini and said, “Wow, you really are cutting back!” and famed pianist Ron Bryant reportedly grabbed a couple of Monocle gift cards and exclaimed, “Better use ‘em quick folks!”

Holding On

“I would say as a conclusion this situation has caused Kyle to move back to Chicago to find work and Harrison to quit, leaving James [Dunse] to run the place. Working night and day diligently trying to find a solution. James left a career to come here. Not only that, but a part time job of eleven years at Just John. We all believed in this place so much. That's why we can't seem to let go,” said Jolene.

Kyle still has his ownership stake, and still believes in the venue – especially his beloved Emerald Room, which is the theatre portion of the club. “Not only is there nothing like it in St. Louis, many performers have said there’s nothing like it in the country. It’s the attention to detail, the upgraded lighting and sound system, that has entertainers saying they wish they had a space like it in New York or Los Angeles.”

Should the partners get their legal issues ironed out, maybe St. Louis would finally embrace The Monocle. After all, many didn’t like them because they “thought they were better than everyone” with their expensive drinks and shows that cost money to see. They were outsiders, but they’ve now been initiated, been run through the rumor mill, have had their dirty laundry aired, and have been taken down a peg. The St. Louis LGBT community can’t forgive pretension, but look around the Grove. God knows we can forgive anything else.

The entire saga has given The Monocle the one critical ingredient needed to be one of us: character. 

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