The Evolution of SBE’s Sam Nazarian

 Although his home is in Los Angeles, Nazarian can relate to the go-go groove of New York; he talks fast, thinks fast, and is always one step ahead of the stodgy competition.

Photography by Steven b. Ekerovich
Photo Editing by Shin Ono at Pier 59 Digital Art

When Michael Jordan first retired from the Chicago Bulls in 1993, basketball fans across the country and around the globe were fearful that the NBA would be left with a power void. Without Jordan’s superstar status, what would be the allure of the arena? There didn’t seem to be any rookies on the rise that could possibly fill his size-13 shoes; none seemed capable of pulling off athletic feats of Jordon’s caliber with ease. Jordan made it look effortless, but everyone else had to exert himself-what is the fun in watching that?

Then came Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles’ saving grace. He sprung onto the court and immediately made leaps and bounds over his contemporaries, becoming the next great superstar of the NBA, hailed the world over as the greatest basketball player alive. (Many have even questioned who would win in a battle of Jordan in his prime vs. Kobe Bryant of the now.) Upon the entry of Kobe into the Lakers line-up in 2000, basketball fans first breathed a sigh of relief before releasing a roar of gratitude. He gave-and continues to give-fans something to hope for, a reason to watch: Kobe might do something extraordinary on the court at the Staples Center. He might make a move beyond the typical limits of man’s ability. He’s that good.

Elsewhere in the City of Angels, another man is changing the game, albeit in a different industry entirely. Sam Nazarian, the entrepreneur behind SBE, which recently opened the amazing SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills, is stepping into the big shoes left by his industry’s predecessors. While he may only be 33 years old, Nazarian is revolutionizing the hospitality game by breaking the mold and offering a one-stop-shop for seekers of the luxury lifestyle. Under the SBE umbrella is a killer combination of the best in hotel, spa, dining, nightlife, event, and entertainment options. Some of his venues include several Katsuya restaurants; Michael Mina’s first L.A. establishment, XIV; the country’s most exclusive nightclub, Hyde; West Hollywood’s famous The Abbey; Area; Foxtail; and more. Nazarian has infused the city with a new level of sophistication, so much so that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (one of Sam’s good friends) jokingly referred to him as the Ambassador of Los Angeles, and not only because of his businesses. Even after an action-packed day in the business arena, he finds the time to give back. He is an active philanthropist with a special place in his heart for children. Thanks to a recent hefty monetary donation, the Beverly Hills high school he attended now has a basketball court named in his honor.

Although it’s Nazarian’s first hotel property, SLS wowed critics and fans alike upon its opening this past November, showing that the mogul is on the same playing level of the likes of his idols and mentors: Atlantis and One&Only’s Sol Kerzner, the Four Seasons’ Issy Sharp, The Wynn Las Vegas’ Steve Wynn, and the incomparable Donald Trump.

While these four hospitality dynamos are still actively participating in the game (think of it like when Jordan returned and donned a Washington Wizards’ jersey), they all are of a previous generation. Nazarian’s fresh perspective is changing the game entirely. Just as his predecessors introduced new moves to the marketplace (Kerzner’s 62-acre manmade jungle at his South African resort, Wynn’s casino conglomerate on the Vegas Strip, and The Donald’s Trump Tower come to mind), Nazarian’s SLS contains unique aspects that imitators around the globe will be trying to mimic for decades.

Nazarian did model SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills after the legendary properties of his industry’s forefathers, striving to create a hotel that offers the same level of service found in a One&Only or a Four Seasons combined with the energy of an Ian Schrager property. “We are not your father’s Four Seasons,” Nazarian explains from a five-star penthouse overlooking Central Park, perched above the bustling streets of New York City. He is in town on business, having flown in just this morning from London. Although his home is in Los Angeles, Nazarian can relate to the go-go groove of New York; he talks fast, thinks fast, and is always one step ahead of the stodgy competition.

Just like Schrager, Nazarian got his start in the New York club scene, and the similarities between the two entrepreneurs’ career paths don’t end there. Schrager entered the market with a bang in the 1970s and ’80s with the founding of famed New York City nightclubs Studio 54 and Palladium. Nazarian, son of Qualcomm co-founder Younes Nazarian, made his first marks in the nightlife arena while attending NYU’s business school. He spent his time promoting various club venues, and, despite being born in Tehran and raised in Los Angeles, was able to draw in a crowd every night. He then made the decision to leave NYU to pursue other ventures, and quickly and deftly made himself a small fortune by investing family funds in real estate in Los Angeles, helping transform entire neighborhoods from urban wastelands into luxury destinations. With a history of flipping personal, pricey real estate for hefty profit, he is about to go into escrow on a new Beverly Hills estate, and has plans to land another private jet soon. One could surmise that business is good for the former club kid, who is in the midst of building a lifestyle brand that stretches around the globe.

“There was never a big strategy, but I found in business, you have to be a student of trends,” he asserts. Upon his return to L.A., he founded SBE (short for Sammy Boy Entertainment, Nazarian’s nickname in his early 20s). The locales owned and operated by SBE were declared to be the hautest venues in Los Angeles, the stomping grounds for Hollywood insiders and A-list starlets. Really, they catered to the type of person Nazarian was at the time of their founding-young, wealthy, and highly interested in the scene. The venues employed state-of-the-art technologies that tracked the clientele; if a gentleman dropped $5,000 at one SBE hotspot, he could rest assured that at any of the brand’s other locations, his preferences would be noted and catered to. Los Angeles’ most powerful individuals-the wealthy and the celebrity alike-responded in droves, bringing Nazarian into their fold. The clubs and lounges provided a playground for Nazarian and his contemporaries. As tends to be the case, he grew up, as did his rich and famous clients…and his brand followed suit.

SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills and the rest of the current SBE portfolio is the result of that evolution. Nazarian is now a world-renowned mogul, a man not to be trifled with. His restaurant, XIV by Michael Mina, has developed into the go-to place for power dinners, being compared to New York’s Four Seasons Restaurant. On any given day, one will find the likes of Steve Wynn and Lionel Richie nibbling on the contemporary American dishes alongside an eclectic mix of power players from the town’s top industries, making the types of deals that can make or break a person’s career.

Through a decade of growing SBE into an industry powerhouse, Nazarian garnered the leadership skills necessary to successfully handpick and direct a dream team of likeminded entrepreneurs. Each of his partners at SLS is an expert at their position. For the design of the property, Nazarian chose none other than Philippe Starck, who has a few championships of his own under his belt, including the Grand Prix for Industrial Design, considered the Oscar of the design world. Spanish Chef José Andrés was selected to create the culinary program. Like Starck, Andrés is certainly worthy of Nazarian’s pick: he was awarded the James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef, Mid-Atlantic Region,” yet another industry-topping accolade, and in 2007, he was inducted into the Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America.”   Starwood was selected to fly its flag at SLS as part of The Luxury Collection Hotels & Resorts, an assortment of top properties around the globe, many of which have received nods from various publications for being the best of the best in a variety of categories. A slew of top names was brought onboard to help run the back-of-house at SLS, including Theresa Fatino, SBE chief creative officer, who previously spent years directing the happenings at Starwood.

Throughout SBE’s portfolio, Nazarian only works with the best. “It’s all about the team,” Nazarian explains. “It’s about maturing the team and maturing with the team.” This includes everyone from famed Chef Michael Mina to Brent Bolthouse, the nightlife maven behind the best parties in L.A. for the past two decades. Bolthouse Productions merged with SBE when Nazarian bought a controlling stake in the company in 2005, and now Bolthouse is behind the booming nightlife aspects of SBE. Even the I.T. guy was recruited from the best-Steve LaBrie formerly ran productions for the House of Blues for years before being brought into the SBE family, and his team works tirelessly on updating the newest clientele tracking systems to ensure guests’ preferences are noted at all SBE properties.

Securing the all-star names was not a simple task. Take, for example, Philippe Starck, who flat out laughed when Nazarian approached him more than six years ago. “It took me a year just to get him on the phone,” he recalls. “His agent in New York finally got us together, but he wouldn’t come to L.A., he would send his guys out.” The humble and steadfast Nazarian persisted, and eventually persevered. In 2005, Starck signed an exclusive agreement with SBE for the design of its restaurants and lounges, which was amended to include hospitality properties in 2006. That deal put Nazarian on the map, propelling him to the forefront of the fickle industry-he will forever be known as the guy that took Starck away from Schrager. This one move secured his reputation as an innovator and earned him the respect of the world’s most prestigious businessmen and institutions. Nazarian is often invited to speak about his experiences at conferences and sit on panels at renowned universities. Just next month, Nazarian will be addressing a gathering at Harvard Medical School. “The first four years, the biggest problem I had was people wondering what would happen if I decided not to work,” he recalls. “But now we’ve proven that we take this very seriously.”

The first project Starck tackled for SBE was the design of Katsuya restaurant in Brentwood, which helped propel the renowned chef to the next level. “When I met Katsuya, he had the biggest following,” Nazarian explains, “but he only had two little locations in the Valley. We like to bet on people that we think have the ability to transcend onto much bigger platforms. Katsuya in his own world was an amazing, world-recognized chef. We felt that by putting Philippe Starck, Katsuya, and SBE together, all in one building, that would be the dream team in Japanese food.” The team came together and prospered; SBE now has three Katsuya locations in Los Angeles, with a fourth to open in June: Katsuya Downtown at L.A. Live.

Nazarian cites Nobu as his model for the Katsuya expansion. “In every one of our business lines, we picked what we felt was our competition,” he says. “Then we brought it up to our generation.” This is a term he keeps repeating: his generation. He says the business sense is part of his DNA-as a family, the Nazarians have taken four companies public. While he could have opted for a life of leisure, instead Nazarian has made it his mission to update the status quo.

To do so, Nazarian knew he had to rethink the way boutique hotels are being run around the globe. Since the introduction to the luxury marketplace by Schrager in 1984, the boutique concept has evolved into an impersonal place where weary travelers collide with savvy locals, not always for the betterment of either set of customers.

Nazarian’s move was to one-up the “hotel-lobby-as-hangout” credo by having SLS feature the first-of-its-kind Dual Lobby concept, with one lobby catering exclusively to hotel guests. “I realized that as more restaurants and lounges have crowded lobbies, the hotel guest was getting pushed farther and farther down the totem pole,” Nazarian explains. “With a private entrance, the SLS guest gets all the amenities, all the service that this level of guest requires and deserves.” Nearby, the public lobby leads to The Bazaar by José Andrés, a lively dining and retail environment that recently received an extremely rare four-star review in the L.A. Times.

The Bazaar combines Starck’s designs with the culinary musings of Chef Andrés and the retail know-how of Murray Moss and Franklin Getchell. The dining concepts provide ample reason for Angelenos and travelers alike to head to The Bazaar. The space features Bar Centro for cocktails; Rojo y Blanca for tapas; the Patisserie for sweets, with roaming carts carrying edible delights; and Saam, a unique fine-dining private restaurant within The Bazaar. These culinary havens operate alongside a “shop without walls” concept created by Moss.

Elsewhere on the property, the Ciel Spa at SLS entices travelers and visitors, while Trés restaurant is reserved exclusively for hotel patrons. The rooms feature the innovative designs of Starck, who created a collection of high-end furniture exclusively for SLS. The reaction has been tremendous. “SLS has been open for five months,” Nazarian exclaims, “and we are one of the most occupied hotels in L.A. The Bazaar is the No. 1 grossing restaurant in L.A., and we opened in the worst economy.” In March, Condé Nast Traveler put SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills on its 2009 Hot List in the hotel, restaurant, and spa categories.

The success is a testament to both the model and the brand as a whole. Nazarian knows he is onto something good, and expansion plans are in the works. Construction is under way on SLS Miami, which will be in the old Ritz Plaza building, right next to the Delano in South Beach. This is in addition to the Sahara Casino Resort in Las Vegas, which is in predevelopment in preparation of being rebranded as an SLS, thanks in part to the help of Nazarian’s Vegas partners, including Terry Fancher of Stockbridge. He also has his eye on properties in London, New York, Chicago, Newport Beach, and another strip-front property in Vegas, and is in the midst of securing a round of investments to help make these deals a reality.

The SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills provides the ideal flagship model that these other properties will follow. With SBE’s proven track record of succeeding where and when others fail, it won’t be long before the next generation of five-star hotels-thanks to the vision and business acumen of this new-generation hotelier-is opening doors in cities around the globe. SLS Hotel at Beverly Hills is just the beginning; bigger and better things are sure to come from Sam Nazarian’s court.