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Wed November 14, 2012
1 Guest with Patrick Lyons: The Man Behind the Party
You might not know his name, but chances are, you have been to one of his clubs or restaurants. For the last 30 years, Patrick Lyons — the city's king of nightclubs — has transformed the way Bostonians have fun, and define fun.
In the early 1980’s, a young Patrick Lyons took Boston’s Lansdowne St., an alley in the shadow of Fenway Park, and transformed it into the vibrant club scene it is today. Through the years, as the college kids who frequented his clubs matured, so did Lyons. He shifted his attention from music to food. When Lyons opened his first restaurant Sonsie in the early 90’s, naysayers said it wouldn’t last. What could someone who operates nightclubs know about owning a restaurant? But despite the odds, Sonsie is still thriving in the heart of Boston’s Back Bay. And along the way, Lyons has built a restaurant empire.
Patrick Lyons was Emily Rooney’s One Guest, where he described overcoming the odds, both in his personal and professional life.
One of the most interesting things about you is how self motivated you were. You thought if you didn’t do it yourself, life could have taken a different track.
It was a byproduct of deciding to skip college. You know, it puts a fork in the road and you can go one way or another. If you make the wrong decision on the fork, you can go on a bad track. And if you take a couple more wrong decisions, things can go haywire.
You grew up in Buffalo, and were only around 16 when you graduated high school. Your dad had left the house when you were very, very young.
I actually dabbled with college for about 40 minutes. Community College. I checked in, and decided it wasn’t for me. And just made the decision I was going to work for a living. I worked in a print shop in high school. I guess I was an entrepreneur, and I figured out how to make fake ID’s so I could sneak into places. It’s not something I would advocate for anyone to do. But it worked for me.
I used the fake ID and got a job as a bar back, basically you bring the ice and the glass, take the trash out, and stock the bar. As the matter of fact, bar backs are an important part of any business. Any bar or restaurant, those service people, the first rung on the ladder are the knees of the operation. They are very important people, I learned. And a good way to learn it is to have done it.
I became a bartender, then head bartender, then management trainee. I was shipped off to Detroit to fix a troubled night spot.
What was your gift? How did you realize you were a good manager?
I think it was just fear of the other option. Fear of not doing well. There wasn’t really a safety net that existed. So it’s a good motivator to have no net and to understand that if you slip and fall, it could be a long way down.
When you are young, you are interested in having a good time and a lot of fun. So I suppose for the first few years it was a mixture of fun and making money. I can buy a car. I can rent and apartment. The business is so much fun, meeting girls and seeing celebrities. But you can’t let it rule you. You have to stay on the right side of it. And I did that. I was fortunate. I dodged a lot of bullets when I was young.
And then you were transferred to Boston.
Yes. For my good deeds in Minnesota, where I went after Detroit - to operate a large club in Minneapolis. They made me Rookie of the Year. They said, well, for your reward, we’ll send you to our new place in Boston. I said, "Oh, fantastic. Boston. I’ve never been there, but it sounds like a great place." They said, "It’s really not Boston; it’s like Cape Cod." I said, "well, I’ve heard of Cape Cod. We can make that work."
"Well, it’s actually right in the middle of the two. It’s a little town called Hull on Nantasket Beach."
Population 12,000. And I was sent there and assigned to open a nightclub with a 1400 legal capacity.
What was it like when you first got there?
I drove in and saw a boarded up Paragon Park. It was April. And I thought, oh my God, what have I done. It was a little frightening. But you know, we made it work. The club was called Uncle Sam’s. It was difficult and challenging, but we made it work. And one of the byproducts of my time there was that we closed at 1am, so at 1:15 I would be hightailing it into Boston to this place on Lansdowne Street called 15 Lansdowne - which was to me the greatest nightclub that had ever existed. I loved the place.
I befriended the manager and owners, and they ended up hiring me. When management decided they were selling, my partner and I set out to do what no one really knew back then, what is called a leveraged buyout. We bought the nightclub, and started to move on. We had The Paradise, Stitches Comedy Club, Venus deMilo, Zanzibar, Metro, Spit, Avalon.
Lansdowne Street became a Mecca. It’s funny, I travel around the world, and I would run into people in Italy who had come to school in Boston. If you go back into the 80’s and the 90’s, all roads led to and from Lansdowne Street. It was a magnet for international students. Thursday nights were a spectacular dance party every week. And today, there are leaders of nations who did time on Lansdowne Street. They all have fond memories.
You have a story about meeting Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi at Spit.
It was Spit, the punk rock club. This was before there were VCR’s and recording devices. I had gotten snookered a couple of years before in Detroit when someone told me that they were Ted Nugent. I said,"Oh, Ted Nugent. I’ve heard of him." So we hung out, and I treated him like Ted Nugent. Only to find out it wasn’t Ted Nugent.
So I was a little suspicious when someone said that Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi were at the door. At the time, Spit was super hot and the doormen were wearing leather jackets. And I had no idea, because I worked every Saturday night. I had heard of them, but I couldn’t pick them out of a line-up. I sent a colleague to check their ID, and she said, "I can’t check their I.D. It’s them." Dan Aykroyd, was so fantastic, he elected to work the door for half an hour. So he was working the door, and John Belushi came in. They were the real deal, and they were great people.
You ended up actually becoming friends with them...
Yes. We became good friends and been friends forever. We started the House of Blues together in Harvard Square back in 1992. The first House of Blues was that one in Cambridge.
We were involved in the House of Blues construction in New Orleans, Los Angeles, on Sunset Strip - which is where I met my wife - when we were at the House of Blues in Los Angeles. And then Chicago. Then we disengaged with the company. It was taking too much of our time.
Tell me about the transition from nightclubs to restaurants
The nightclub business is a very tricky business. It’s cyclical, it’s finicky, it’s fashionable, and it’s very fast moving. And frankly, looking back, I don’t have any idea how we ever could have stayed on top of that game as long as we did. How much easier is it if you can make a wonderful hamburger and people come back for it?
I found restaurants to be heaven sent. We just decided, getting a little older, getting married, it’s time to segue out of nightclubs. So about 19 years ago we opened Sonsie on Newbury Street. The chef who has been with us since the first night, he’s our partner. We have a terrific management team. And you know, it’s a place that has just been going. It’s never had a level or down year. It’s become an institution. It’s one of the first restaurants that have that open side; they are called ‘Sonsie Doors’.
Since then, we’ve partnered with Lydia Shire, Jasper White, and Ken Oringer. We’re just trying to make some great restaurants. About 10 years ago we also started a boutique-bowling category with Kings. They are sprouting everywhere. We just opened in Chicago, are going to Orlando. We’re delighted we will be going to Burlington, Mass. You know, Kings is great fun. The nightclub for the new millennium, as far as I’m concerned.
You used to take solo trips around the world. You took the woman you eventually married on one.
I realized that without a college education, you are competing with people, and you need to know what is going on in the world. So I always looked outside, and developed a habit of going around the world alone - with no checked bags. Every 2 years. But I skipped Western Europe, because to me, that’s kind of like America.
Where did you go?
You name it. From Mongolia, to Hong Kong, to Vietnam, to all over India, Nepal, Indonesia. Just on and on. Great exotic locations.
Did you get ideas for your clubs and restaurants?
Tons of ideas. Even though I only had a checked bag, I had a credit card. And I used to buy exotic goods and ship containers of things back all the time.
How did the no checked bags work out for your wife Kristina?
It worked out great. We decided to get married about 7/8 of the way through the trip. I proposed at a palace in India. We have two children now. A boy and a girl.
Have you gone around the world with them?
Not yet. But I’ve got to believe that’s on the horizon.
You moved to Italy for a year.
We decided, wouldn’t it be great. I’m sure a lot of people think wouldn’t it be great to go live somewhere. We had a few false starts trying to make it happen. And it was very easy to find a hundred reasons that you can’t do it.
School. Friends. Work. Business. There’s always a reason. And then we just decided as a group - you know what - we’re going to mow over all the opposition points, and we’re just going to do it. So we parachuted into Rome, Italy. 14 giant suitcases. We landed there and three days later, the kids were enrolled in school. It was a terrific, terrific experience. Great family experience.
You have met some incredibly interesting people along the way. Rock star, movie stars, politicians. You don’t seem wowed by it though.
Well, people are people. If they happen to have a big name, or they have developed some fame, that’s fantastic. But the good people are the good people, regardless of how popular, or how many tickets they sell.
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