Since the company’s inception in 2005, TAO Group has revolutionized global hospitality with their network of lounges and restaurants that infuse fine dining with nightlife. On any given night of the week, lines for Avenue, Marquee, PH-D, Electric Room, and Lavo run down the block, with dozens of well-dressed socialites clamoring for access. Meanwhile, at TAO Group’s restaurants, such as the Kardashian-favorite Beauty & Essex, families and businessmen alike wine-and-dine underneath diamond encrusted chandeliers, fingertips exchanging glasses of Cabernet and Mediterranean-inspired bites.
Last year, the company celebrated its 10th year anniversary with a massive blowout at TAO Las Vegas featuring star-studded performances from Puff Daddy, Lil Kim, Mase, Machine Gun Kelly, Redfoo, Jermaine Dupri, and Busta Rhymes. Nick Cannon emceed the festivities, joining Amber Rose and TAO resident DJ Vice in the booth. With a new lounge that just opened at the Dream in Midtown (the retro-style rumpus room FISHBOWL), the 1-year anniversary of Vandal (the company’s LES cavernous restaurant), and plans to expand their network with a hotel chain, I sat down with the group’s founders, Lou Abin, Jason Strauss, Noah Tepperberg, and Rich Wolf to discuss the creation of TAO and the impact it has had on hospitality.
Rich, how did you and Marc Packer go about starting TAO?
Rich: A few years after we started together, he brought me to a space and said, “You want to do a restaurant here?” And I was like, “I’m so in.” And TAO was born. I had lived in Japan for a year and a half. He asked what kind of restaurant I wanted to do and I said, “Definitely Asian.” That was really how the whole thing started. Marc and I opened TAO New York together. Lou came on board about nine months after we opened and then picked up and moved his whole family out here and spearheaded this project with Jason. Noah and Jason were at the opening party. They came in shortly there after. We met them; they took over the whole place on New Years Eve two months after we opened. So we did a whole bunch of events together and it was a really good synergy between what they brought to the table and what we brought to the table. As we were developing TAO Las Vegas, we sat down with these guys and said that we’d love to partner up and do TAO Vegas together. That’s the short version of what happened.
Jason and Noah, how did you two meet?
Noah: Jason and I were high school kids when we started as promoters. We met Marc and Rich a few years ago at age twenty-five. We were both pretty young and owned a couple small clubs in the Hamptons. But I never really thought about owning big places in Vegas. It was just a side job that turned into a career, sort of organically. We actually opened up a restaurant right after school that failed. We never thought we’d get into that business again, but I think we learned from our mistakes. We worked for a lot of people growing up; a lot of them were unsavory types.
Jason: We learned what not to do.
Noah: During those five years, we opened Marquee in New York. Rich opened Stanton Social. We were all supportive of each other. When they came to us about doing TAO in Vegas, J and I flipped a coin for which one of us would come here. The deal was that someone had to come here for three months and be here to set it up and then after just make regular visits. Jason said, “Alright, I’ll go.” It was August 1st of 2005 [when] he moved here. I remember coming here Labor Day weekend to see how things were going. He was staying at the Turnberry, where he lives now, and I show up on that first day. I flew in really early and I went to the pool and I couldn’t believe it; the waitress comes over and asks, “Would you like ice Mr. Tepperberg? Would you like some water?” I was like, “Sure!” Then the lifeguard comes over and says, “Listen, if you want to swim, let me know.” Then another guy comes over. “Can I get you some towels?” I had never had service like that anywhere. So I asked the host what they did and they told me, “I’m going to be a bartender at TAO when you open.” And then someone else was like, “And I’m going to be security at TAO when you open.” So I left the pool and I go to Jason and asked him if he had hired everyone that worked at the pool. He said, “Actually, yeah. The pool closes next month and they all need jobs.” He hired the whole staff!
Jason: In the beginning, although TAO was really successful in New York, it hadn’t had the creditability in Vegas. A lot of other big nightclubs had failed at the time so we didn’t have that much credibility; we needed to create it all on our own. Obviously, the concept and the menu were a short win once we opened, but before we opened, Lou and I really had to create a buzz ourselves and convince people to come work for us, when this kind of concept had failed many times before.
Lou: It was at a time when each hotel was becoming its own little city. It used to be that people used to bounce around from hotel to hotel to hotel. But as they got bigger and harder to get around, every hotel offered all these different amenities.
So many clubs and restaurants nowadays will open with all this hype and then fizzle out. What’s the key to creating something with longevity?
Lou: Hospitality and caring. To me, it’s very simple.
Rich: That’s the one thing we’ve always focused on, as cliché as it may sound. You can have the biggest celebrities, you can have the greatest DJ, but if the guest doesn’t have a good time, and the don’t have a good experience and feel that warmth and that they’re welcome, they’re not going to want to come back. And that’s something that we pride ourselves on and talk about all the time. It’s all about the guests. It’s all about the guest’s experience.
Noah: A lot of people have a really exposed impression that going to a restaurant that’s perceived as really popular is going to be problematic, that there’s going to be a wait or the food might not be great. Same with a nightclub; going to a hot club is always going to be problematic. They might not get in or something. What we try to do is totally supersede those expectations so that everyone who comes will be like, “Wow, man. There’s three hundred people eating at the same time, my food came so fast, and it was hot and it was good. And the waiter said thank you and then asked if I wanted to go upstairs and I didn’t have to wait and I didn’t get pushed around and the music was good and when I left, they said thank you.” That’s the type of stuff we preach to all our staff and the type of experience that we call the ‘guest experience’ that if you deliver day in and day out, people will keep coming and you will stay hot.
What’s been some of the proudest moments you’ve had?
Jason: The grand opening when I moved out here. For Lou and I, all we heard was, “A nightclub will never work in a conventional hotel. The access is terrible. No locals will ever go. A nightclub can never co-exist with a restaurant. It’s in a mall.” And then to see the opening party and the whole town, the whole country, hear about what we did, and see the place…
Lou: Come alive. To build it piece by piece. 60,000 square feet and you’re putting pieces together on paper. And then to see everything moving and everything working as it should.