Reviving NYC Nightlife: Park South Hospitality - Elite Daily

by Ryan Babikian

NYC nightlife has changed. It has culminated to a peak of supposed "Exclusivity" and "Eliteness". In reality, however, this is just a bubble - an industry trend - that shifts with the demands of the market. After all, nightlife is nothing more than a business.

And with any industry, there are market leaders, market followers, and game changers. Park South Hospitality is the latter - a disruptive competitor - challenging the current status of nightlife in New York, head on.

PSH is innovating what has become the norm of bars and clubs, and perhaps, is even paving the way for ones to come in the future. Forgoing the clipboards at the red-velvet roped door, the insanely-expensive table minimums, and the like, Park South Hospitality has established itself as a company that makes NYC nightlife fun again.

From the Wall Street Execs taking out their clients, to the working class at happy hour, and - of course - the diverse crowd that comprises what you see in Meatpacking, PSH is the only company that can create a venue that pleases everyone.

And Park South Hospitality has attained much success at doing this. In New York, PSH brings you The Volstead, The Caulfield, and PS 450; and for those in Jersey, PSH offers Red and The Downtown in Red Bank. At the core of this game changer are the two founders of the operation: Matt Wagman and Dan Lynch.

Elite Daily had the chance to sit down with Matt Wagman, who focuses on all Front of House operations in every venue of PSH. Within this interview,Wagman provides lessons for success, pointers for entrepreneurship, and his take on the current state of nightlife in NYC.

Who are the faces behind Park South Hospitality and can you tell us a little about yourselves?

Dan Lynch and I are the founders of Park South Hospitality.  Dan lives in New Jersey with his family and works out of our office down there, where we have two properties, red, and The Downtown.  I live in Manhattan with my wife and two kids.  Dan focuses on all of the financial aspects of the business, I’m more involved in the FOH operations.

What is the founding story of Park South Hospitality?

We met when we were both working in finance, on the same trading floor for a Japanese bank.  Even though we were both still relatively young in our careers, neither of us felt like Wall Street was going to be our long-term aspiration. We had both been dabbling in real estate on the side and thought we’d try to buy a small building and put a bar in it. I had recently run into a college friend that was running a bar downtown that wanted to get involved with us. We never did buy the building but we found a location that we thought would be great and the Vig Bar was born on the corner of Spring and Elizabeth.

Given all your unique backgrounds, what made you choose this industry to launch your venture?

Honestly, I think we were somewhat young and like most people thought “A bar, how hard can it be?”  In my career on Wall Street, I was a salesman, which meant taking clients out all the time. This made me something of an uber-consumer of restaurants and nightlife. When we decided to open our own spot, I tried to utilize what I liked best in my experiences as a customer.  We also thought that with our business backgrounds we could hopefully run it smarter than some other small business.

What made you guys leave the comfort of the corporate world for a risky venture such as this?

I think Wall street is one of those places that starts out exciting, and then typically at somewhere around the five year mark you either feel like “Man, this is great!” or “I wonder what else there is out there?” Some guys that feel that way stay and keep wondering, I was one of the ones that left.  I was young, single, didn’t need much to live on and had a ridiculously optimistic view on life.

What’s your take on nightlife in NYC currently? And where do you think its headed?

I think nightlife in NYC got to a point in 2008 where it took itself way too seriously and the exclusivity was a symptom of this. There will always be a place for the Provocateurs and the Lavos of the world, but when every new spot opening up wants to be like them, then suddenly the landscape is full of nothing but velvet ropes and girls with clipboards in $900 shoes standing behind them. I think that’s why there’s been such a surge in upscale bars.  People still want a beautiful design and a great experience… they just don’t want all the anxiety that comes with the door at the “exclusive” clubs.

Has PSH come up with the cure to this problem?

When we opened PS450 in 2005 the economy was humming and every new spot was vying to be more exclusive than the last. We decided to go in the opposite direction. Even though we had a lot of the same DJs that were playing at all the hot venues in Meatpacking at the time, we went with a “no velvet rope” door and allowed people to reserve tables without requiring bottle service or a minimum spend.  The response was overwhelming.

Again, given your unique backgrounds, Park South Hospitality’s management is very multi-talented. How does this add value to the company?

I think that because of our backgrounds in finance we pay more attention to the financial aspects of this business.  We look at our costs structures very carefully and are constantly looking for ways to be more efficient and economical. Like an old operator told me years ago, “It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep.”

With any startup, there are naturally some tough obstacles and boundaries that need to be overcome. What was the most difficult challenge Park South Hospitality faced?

Our main obstacle was that we had no idea what we were doing.  Our first bar (The Vig Bar) came in 100% over budget.  But, the experience we gained through that design and build period meant our next bar cost half as much to build and our design became smarter. There are many more obstacles today than there were ten years ago.  Sky high rents, higher insurance costs, and every city agency coming through the door every month - which results in some type of fine - no matter how tight the operation is… just to name a few.

What was that point like when you knew Park South Hospitality was going to be successful?

I think it was when we opened PS450.  It wasn’t just the amount of business we were doing: it was the type of business we were doing.  We were used to the Downtown way of things, which meant nothing significant happening until 10PM. But all of a sudden at PS450, we had a line to get in at 6PM on a Thursday, and rocking straight through until close.  We were even packed at lunch, just based upon the strength of our food.  We also started booking more corporate events than we had ever done before.

Can you give some advice to our ambitious readers about those imperative first steps that need to be taken initially to launch a successful venture of any kind?

You’ve got to consider why your idea won’t work.  Everyone talks about how great it is, how it can’t miss, etc.  What you really need to do is think about why it could fail, and then address those factors head on. Believe me, for a long time I was in the “this is going to be great” mindset, and most times it worked out for me.  But the longer I do this, the more critical my thinking has become because I’ve also had enough misses to know how painful that is.

In general, what do you think are the top 3 tips for success for an entrepreneur?

1)  You’ve got be prepared to work.  Hard.  And then work harder than that.  It won’t be part time, it won’t be on the side, it’s going to be 80-100 hours a week in the beginning if you’re going to be successful. 2)  No, that guy is not going to run it for you when you’re not there.  He may stand there with a title, but unless he’s a partner and has as much as stake as you, no one will run your business with the laser-like focus and attention to detail that you will bring to it. 3)  Be flexible.  This does not mean constantly changing your game plan or your goals, but keep some flexibility in how you get there.  Remember - once you open the doors - the public is going to show you what they like and what they don’t like about your product. Don’t fall in love with your own ideas so much that you can’t hear what your customers are saying.  Understand that there’s an excellent chance you’re going to be doing some tweaking.

Park South Hospitality has already grown extraordinarily. Where do you see Park South Hospitality 5, 10, 15 years from now?

That’s tough to say, as the last four years have been challenging to the point where we’ve had to change some projections.  All I can say is that 15 years from now PSH will still be synonymous with fun, accessible nightlife.

What distinguishes Park South Hospitality from its competition?

I’d like to think that for a non-fine dining company, we spend an awful lot of time thinking about and working on service.  My belief is that no matter what the setting - dive bar or Four Star – authentic hospitality is what sets you apart.

What industry would you like to see Park South Hospitality break into?

The Hotel business is something we’re focused on at the moment.  I think becoming the F&B operator in the right hotel could be a great fit for us.

Are there any other cities you’d like to see your brand in?

I used to think about other potential cities a lot, but the truth is Park South Hospitality is in the best place to be right now, with venues all over New York and New Jersey. And after all, New York is so expansive and has so much to offer that focusing on an operation in another city would mean sacrificing our focus on the extraordinary opportunity in our own backyard.

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