Over the years, I have interviewed a number of security staff and managers. Their unique perspectives and differing approaches to Nightclub/Bar Security are always incredibly informative. As I considered what to write for this most recent blog post, I realized that I had not yet interviewed someone from the higher levels of management and ownership about the Security process. This time around, it was my great pleasure to interview a gentleman with whom I have not only worked, but who has helped me to re-think a number of things in terms of my own approach to Security. I hope you enjoy reading this interview with Asaf Dimant as much as I enjoyed taking part in it.
Official Title: Managing Partner and Director of Nightlife Operations for TONIC Santa Barbara, Indochine, and Blush Restaurant
How did you get your start in the Industry?
It was a combination of things: for one, I was in my early twenties and I had to get a job while I was in college at UCSB. I was also living in a pretty crazy party house on Del Playa Drive in Isla Vista and I got tired of dealing with the parties at my house. So I got a job as a security guard at a place called Spikes and then moved on to a restaurant and bar called Alex’s Cantina. I did that for a few months and found that I really enjoyed the pace. A friend of mine was working as a bartender and making good money, so I kept tormenting the manager and he finally gave me a shift as a brunch bartender. Shortly thereafter, the owners cleared the bartending staff out and I suddenly went from being the bar-back and Sunday brunch bartender to working downtown Thursday, Friday, and Saturday not knowing what I was doing.
How was that transition?
It was nuts. I was literally searching through my bartender’s bible when people would order drinks. A couple of the guys who mentored me through the bartending process came up to me at one point and threw the book away. It was very much a sink or swim situation. It was becoming a five to six night a week bartender almost literally overnight. But it was exciting. I enjoyed it.
As I worked more, I eventually became the college night bartender and then began to do a little managing. And I started to focus more on the business end of the restaurant industry. Having quick success early on helped push me to want to learn more. And having successful nights as an employee, when things are falling into place, the team is working well, and patrons are enjoying themselves is just a great motivator.
Once graduation came around, I had to make some pretty serious decisions. I had friends who had moved to Silicon Valley during the tech boom and were killing it, and I had a lot of options presented to me. Obviously, in terms of the bar/restaurant/nightclub industry, there are a ton of opportunities in other markets. But at this point, I had several mentors who introduced me to a lot of different aspects of the industry. I started to realize very quickly that there was more to running a bar than just making the nightly money: the behind the scenes politics and relationships that you have to build with the local law enforcement, other owners – and even politicians – are incredibly important.
Once I started to meet the people behind the scenes I had to sit down and kind of take inventory. Relationships have value – I don’t mean monetary – and that value became a deciding factor in me staying here. If I had moved out of town, I would have lost the network, the friendships, the mentorship, that were so important to being successful here. I took that all into account and that is when I decided to stay and start a bartender licensing company with my good friend.
At that point, the passion for the industry really kicked in. I just wanted to know everything. From ID checks to what is in various types of alcohol. It wasn’t just because of the job. I wanted to know the full aspect of what had become an aspect of my life. So using that knowledge, our company was able to reach out to bars and have them hire the individuals that we had certified. I was still working at night at this point, keeping in touch with the downtown network, and that was when the opportunity to open TONIC came about.
How big a jump was it to go from tending bar and managing to owning a venue?
(Laughs) It was life-force sucking. I’d never worked harder on anything in my life. It was overwhelming and became the focal point of everything for a year or two. Even working as a bar manager, there is a whole other level of business knowledge that you never touch. I learned a lot managing, but I didn’t know how to deal with insurance brokers, never dealt with the city politics, never held face-to-face meetings with law enforcement. This new set of relationships and guidelines given to me as an owner really enforced the importance of the security and safety of our patrons.
There are two sides to what we do: you want to provide people with a good time but you also want them to be safe. And handling the duality of that can be very difficult. A lot of owners would rather hand off their operations to other people. And that can lead to a variety of problems. So for us, instead of looking at the authorities as the “bad guy”, we came to see that following their guidelines was actually a way for us to ensure our longevity. It is really easy as a bar owner to say, “Oh, it’s slow tonight go ahead and let that minor and her friends in.” But in the back of your mind – if you’re a conscientious owner – you realize that you are setting a tone for your establishment. If you break one rule, that gives the ability to anyone in the establishment to make the rules up for themselves. Your staff will no longer look at you as a serious operator, they’ll look at you as the guy who’s chasing the money or the girls or whatever.
Would you say that the reverse it true? That sometimes owners will just put the responsibility to their staff and be hands off?
Absolutely. You see it all the time in different kinds of businesses. But in order to manage successfully, you need to create a stream of communication and a hierarchy and a set of rules. You need to get your Head of Security and staff to buy into to what you are doing. They need to be involved in meetings and discussions from day one. This is the only way that you can create the “culture” of your establishment. Vigilance has to come with constant communication. Our managers are really good about having nightly meetings with our security staff. Not just to go over the rules, but also to listen to what the staff has to say.
What aspect of security to find to be most important?
It’s tough to say because everything that they do has an effect on everything else. But ultimately, it is all about customer safety. People come to bars to let their hair down. Unfortunately, they sometimes make bad decisions. It’s our job to create a fun environment for people to release stress and let go for a bit. But it has to be an environment where people feel safe, have a good time, and get home safe. Creating a safe environment isn’t just watching for over-intoxication or breaking up fights. It’s making sure women can be in the bar and feel comfortable. It’s making sure that people aren’t slipping in hallways. It’s all encompassing. Creating the safe environment is key. Throwing the party is what you need to do to make people come back, but if they don’t feel safe they won’t come back, no matter how good the party is.
What are your expectations from your security staff?
Rule number one is make the establishment safe. And then get them to buy into the culture that you are trying to create. It’s important for the Head of Security to look at the club in the bigger picture. That is why you bring him in to the meetings. You need to be able to understand each other’s perspective.
Have you seen a shift in the attitude of/toward security in the past few years?
I think the number one change has been in the form of the pressure from the City to conform to its safety guidelines. By setting guidelines, the City has been able to weed out the business owners who want to buy in and work with them from the ones who were just “fly by night” and after the quick money. The operators that have their stuff together hire professionals and set a tone for everyone else. You could see the switch in operational attitude. If you want longevity, you have to become professional. It may come out of your pocket to have a full security staff on a slow night, but you’ll eat that cost if you want to thrive. So that desire to change has driven a shift in the approach to the product. If you can’t provide people a good time in a safe manner, you won’t last.
How has your partnership with the city and law enforcement been beneficial?
Hopefully, the partnership reaffirmed with them that we have that long-term approach to our business. It’s their job to keep the city and its citizens safe, just like it’s our job to keep our establishment and patrons safe. I think that they appreciate a serious approach to running an establishment. And by default, being serious can help you to have good, in-depth conversations with them about safety on the whole. You want to build a partnership with them. No matter what, they are going to check in on us, but our discussions are built on resolving issues that are good for the town and nightlife in this town as a whole.
At some point, you have to move past “What is best for my establishment?” and get on board with “What’s best for my city?” When you have people on the same page – bar owners and law enforcement working together – you can grow as a town.
What do notice first when you go out to clubs in other cities?
The front door staff. Always. The professionalism of the Doorman is what stands out. They are the first person you encounter. Their approach is key. There is always a “Good guy/Bad guy” at the front door. So it is a matter of how well they each play their parts. When people are smiling, even when they deny you entrance, it sets the tone for everything. After that I just look at the equipment they are using to track their clients. But in terms of vibe and customer experience, it’s how the first door guy greets you.