On Point With: Ted Arenas

Once an owner of yesteryear’s famed Manhattan hotspot Bar-tini, veteran nightlifer Ted Arenas has now co-owned HK’s wildly successful Rise Bar since 2014. Below, Ted shares the joys of running a legacy queer venue, the sorrows of dealing with combative communities and Covid regulations, a recent franchise venture that was possibly thwarted by homophobia, and his team’s current quest to expand Rise (and how we can help the cause).

Thotyssey: Hi Ted! How was New Years at Rise Bar?

Ted Arenas: A little bit lackluster, to say the least. You know, we stayed open until 10pm–the restrictions prevented us from closing at 12:30 [or later]; so basically, we closed and went home. I was home by 10:15, and watched the ball drop!

And there wasn’t even really much of a ball drop to watch! In general, this 10pm closing (instead of midnight) must make for a huge loss of business on even an average night.

It’s major, because we don’t get most of our customers until eight. Eight to twelve is basically our [prime business] day, and that’s being cut in half.

Lost revenue aside, trying to keep up with these ever-changing policies regarding operation hours and accommodations in lockdown at the risk of fines and closure must be a massive task in itself.

It’s physically and mentally draining. When we first ended up getting these regulations… [the city would] put them out on Friday or Saturday after six, to be to be implemented [immediately]… and you didn’t have anywhere to call. It was very frustrating. And I can tell you that the SLA were out patrolling to make sure people were following the guidelines that we’d gotten today from the night before. There is no leeway to be able to train your staff, and no way to ask for guidance on how to do that. So it was very frustrating.

But that was much earlier on. The governor has gotten a little better about giving notice. Now they’ll give us three days to adjust [to new policies], which is something they didn’t give us the courtesy of in the beginning.

Do you feel that organizations like the Office of Nightlife have been helpful for you at all?

I love the Office of Nightlife, and also Andrew Rigie from the Hospitality Alliance. They have been fighting since the beginning for restaurants and bars to have outdoor dining. I remember when we first opened, [Cuomo and the City] weren’t allowing any tents outside–but because of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, they made a rule that we could actually do that. We are all at the mercy of Cuomo, but they try to do as much as they can.

It’s still a very challenging situation.

Right now, we just feel like we are being penalized for being in New York City. A lot of businesses in the city are filing class action lawsuits, suing Cuomo and de Blasio. New York City–in particular, the Hell’s Kitchen area–has [one of] the lowest infection rates in all of the state. It’s frustrating–when I went back to my hometown, they were open indoors at 25% capacity, and their infection rate was higher than New York City.

Where’s your hometown?

Webster, which is literally like ten minutes outside of Rochester. Everything was open for 25% capacity.

All New York neighborhoods outside the City, even our close neighbors like Westchester and Long Island, are blessed with much more lenient guidelines as far as indoor capacity and closing times. That’s got to be very disheartening.

Especially now, because we’re in 30 degree weather, I mean, Rise has gotten really creative with hot drinks, and we put our heaters out. We built a permanent structure outside, and we are keeping it together. But now we only get the [patrons] that are brave enough or crazy enough to weather the cold temperatures. This is the time when we need the most support from the city, and it seems like we are getting the least.

One thing that I imagine must really sting, as a queer business owner following all the rules and doing everything it takes to get through this: seeing these circuit queens en masse at super spreader events in Puerto Vallarta and Rio. Tons of guys are packed in spaces, unmasked and without a care in the world regarding infection… and likely bringing the Covid right back here to New York and preventing us from reopening sooner.

Yes, it is very, very frustrating. But I think the reason why it’s happening is, obviously, there’s a lot of fatigue going on. And I think there’s a lot of resentment toward our government: every other state that you go in, there are some regulations [for businesses to remain open], and there’s sort of outlet. Right now there’s a 75% infections rate from people [congregating in groups] at home, while the infection rate for a restaurant or bar is 1.5%. When you cut down people’s ability to go inside to drink or eat, and you’re intentionally forcing people to go to parties at their house in New York–it’s going to further spread. If the city is not informed about [these private gatherings], the people that are having the parties are going to spread the virus the exact same way [as crowded bars or restaurants would].

I don’t agree with the big circuit parties happening now, but I also understand the LGBTQ community’s need–especially around the holidays, when they do not have family. The only outlet to interact with their chosen family is going out. I don’t condone what they’re doing, and I put more blame on the promoters that are actually [creating these events] with the intent of making a profit off of making people sick.

You’ve co-owned Rise Bar with John Blair and Betto Sutter since its 2015 opening. Covid aside, how has the business of bar ownership changed since then?

The city has gotten much less business friendly; I think the regulations from the community board are a little bit more anti-bar than they used to be. In today’s climate, it’s very rare for community boards to give 4am closing hours… they prefer 2am. The co-op buildings seem to have a lot of power with their influence. I think they envision a city where bars are closed by midnight.

It seems so counterproductive for city residents to feel this way regarding nightlife spaces. Bars and nightclubs generate so much income, and attract young consumers. HK is thriving because of gay money!

Very recently, we went to go get approval for Spot Bar [a proposed new property in a vacant space on 44th St and 10th Ave]. The community board told us we were good operators, but we should find a space that was [already] licensed. And then incidentally enough, the Irish pub next door to that space closed after 14 years; they had a 4am closing [license]. Maybe two months before, we went to try to get approval at that space, but there was a straight venue that wanted to get in and play live music and be open for seven days a week. The community board approved it with no objections, but then that deal fell through. We asked Manhattan Plaza Tenants Association president Aleta LaFargue (currently running for city council) weeks before the CB4 meeting if we could have the opportunity to present to their tenants, and she flat out told us no. She made a comment a the previous board meeting that she would rather see another establishment that will serve a different demographic than that served by Spot Bar. Some of the residents in the building went to the community board saying that they were not excited about Covid parties, and that they were worried about children in the neighborhood. [For more information on the Spot Bar struggle, read this.]

So there’s definitely some hidden homophobia that people mask, and try to pretend they’re for the community. But really, they are pushing their own agenda to not open any new gay businesses. I just didn’t like the way that it was handled. It would be one thing if they would allow me to speak and present our plan and then deny me, but to deny the tenants the opportunity to let the applicant be heard? It’s just something that we’ve been dealing with, with Trump now. That type of behavior is not who Hell’s Kitchen is.

Now with Covid, you look down the street on 10th Avenue between 43rd and 44th–that whole block is basically vacant, except for one deli. And there’s an increase in crime. So, you know, having more businesses and life on the block actually helps stop crime and clean up the neighborhood.

A number of these snooty, controlling, moneyed co-op people have declared that New York is “dead” and moved out. Maybe their departure is just what small businesses need right now!

Maybe… we’ll see.

[Rise’s opening night in 2014 with John Blair, Shequida and Ted]

But in the meantime, the expansion of your nightlife brand is gonna hopefully happen a little closer home.

Yeah. The place next door to Rise, Haru, closed… and we are working on trying to expand there. We’re trying to serve lunch; they have a working kitchen, and we want to serve things like tacos and pizzas (we’ve already been doing pizza, and it’s been great). I’ve been working with the Block Association on 55th St. over here, and they seem a little bit nicer. We’re asking the community to approve 4am closure on Sunday weekends when there’s a holiday, and also 3am closing on Thursday. Right now we only have 2am [pre-Covid], and we want that extra hour.

That would be amazing!

Yeah. I mean, I think that I’m just a little bit exhausted because this is the third venue that I tried to expand to, and I’m just tired of fighting. But I’m going to continue the fight, because I don’t want 2020 to have been a total loss. Not to mention our clientele at Rise is very well-mannered and behaved, and they don’t give anyone any problems. And this community need LGBTQ safe spaces, which are dwindling down in Hell’s Kitchen.

Do you feel a sense of community now with with the other gay bars in HK?

I have conversations with some [of the other bar owners], and we are basically all on the same side. We’re all getting beat down by the government. We’re all trying to stay afloat. You know, some people weren’t getting out there and trying to be as innovative as some people. Some people didn’t take advantage of the outdoor seating, the street seating. I think that’s part of the reason why they closed. Everyone thought it was going to be a month or two… and when they realized it was going to be longer, they didn’t do what they could. So here we are… we did everything we could. We we did the outdoor things, and we just keep rolling with all the punches to be able to provide for our staff, and for our customers in the neighborhood.

You used to co-own another popular HK spot back in the day: Bar-tini Ultra Lounge!

That was a blessing and a curse, to be honest. I opened it up with my ex and his mom. We did good the first year, and the second year the community board approved us to expand to double capacity. Then the third year I left that company because me and my boyfriend and his mom were having disagreements about the business–they saw that it was making money, and were stealing and stuff like that. They invited somebody else to buy my shares… which they couldn’t legally do. And they ran the company into the ground, and it was getting noise complaints and whatnot.

So that’s been a problem–a thorn in my side–because every time I try to get something approved, specifically when I tried to get [Spot Bar]. All these people come out, talking about how the old Bar-tini was so noisy and loud and it was horrible in 2013… even though I left in November 2011. When my name was actually on the business, I was not legally there… and there’s a paper trail that confirms I wasn’t. So it’s been an uphill battle to clear my name.

On that basis, I sued [my ex and his mom]. They ran the company into the ground so they wouldn’t have to pay me, and then the landlord put the property under a marshal order… and they left town. So even though I won my court case, they’re nowhere to be found for me to collect… they even wiped out their Facebook accounts.

And that’s why I called my next bar “Rise,” because my success was my revenge.

We’re all looking forward to to seeing Rise back in full capacity mode. And of course, all of the bar’s loyal fans are going to support it any way they can. What do you recommend that people do now, to really help Rise?

[Hell’s Kitchen residents] can sign my petition, or send a letter to Community Board 4 saying that they support the expansion of Rise. And also, you know, bundle up and come over and have a drink if they can. We’re serving a hot chocolate drink with vanilla vodka, a hot apple whiskey cider, and a hot coffee and Kahlua drink. Also, buy a Rise mask, which have adjustable straps, and have a covered straw hole so you can still sip while wearing it.

Good luck with everything! It’s a scary time to be a bar owner, but also an exciting time for Rise. The latest of many such moments in your incredible nightlife career! You must have learned so much about the business and the community at this point.

Yeah. I came to New York City in 1998 and I worked at G Lounge when I first got here, when I was 22 years old (I’m 43 now), and then I worked with John Blair, the original XL on 18th. I worked in the nightlife as a way to help pay my way through the School of Visual Arts… and then I realized that I was making a lot more money and having a lot more fun in the bar scene, and I could be creative here. Then I opened up Bar-Tini way back in 2009. In nightlife, I worked my way up from a waiter to bartender to the manager, and you learn a lot along the way.

And I think what I’m learning now because of Covid is the importance of the community and the relationships that you have with your neighbors–not just the LGBTQ, but also the surrounding neighbors. When you actually get to know some of those people, they have real needs and concerns that might be directly impacted by your business. And that has value; their opinions are important.

[Left, bartending at Stage 48, c. 2013]

What do you think is going to happen to NYC nightlife after the vaccine?

Oh, I think that we’re still going to be trapped in a holding cell because of Cuomo. Yeah, I think that even when the vaccine is out and the city should loosen up some restrictions, I’m not confident that they will. But I’m praying that they will, because there’s no way that businesses can stay closed for another nine more months… even with financial support. I mean, if you look into the PPP loans that they have, you can only use a small percentage of it toward rent, which in New York City will cover only about one month. And then the rest you have to pay [staff]. And it’s kind of like a double-edged sword, because if you’re not open, you can’t hire the staff back to pay them. And if you do hire them back, you have to use the money within a short period of time in order for it to be forgiven.

But, I think there is going to be a huge need for nightlife when people are back out. Once we do reopen, I think people are itching to go out there for human interaction.

Just a few years ago, there were countless articles and commenters saying that Grindr was going to destroy nightlife, that Netflix and social media were going to destroy nightlife. But that never happened!

Yeah, I mean, Grindr definitely changed nightlife a little bit. But basically, people are more complex than just having sex. We need human interaction as well. And like I said, you just want to hang out with your friends sometimes and be social.

Rise, of course, has been a home base for many of the city’s great drag queens over the years… so I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Drag Race Season 13 before we part! Who are you rooting for?

Oh God, I don’t want to say! I usually only watch it when New York City queens that I’ve actually worked with at Rise are on. The last season I was watched was when [S10 winner] Aquaria was on.

That’s right! Rise was the home of Aquaria’s big weekly gig in the City.

It was her first gig. She came in to Shequida’s show one night, and I told her she had The It Factor. And I put her in “Legend Wednesdays” with Andora, because [Aquaria] was still a little bit shaky on the mic. And over the year or two she worked here she really grew, and when she won Drag Race it was really nice.

I’m going to watch season, and I mean: the obvious answer for who to cheer for would be Tina Burner. She’s our local queen, right? So, maybe I’ll support Tina… or I don’t know, maybe another drag queen will win my heart!

Anything’s possible! Final thoughts?

Not really, I’m just sticking to the grindstone and hoping that New York City opens soon… and that everyone has a job to come back to. I’m really hopeful for 2021, and I just really hope that people will be ready to, you know… come back.

They will be! Thanks, Ted!

Check Thotyssey’s calendar for any upcoming appearances by Ted Arenas, and follow him on Facebook. Follow Rise Bar on Facebook, Instagram and its website, and sign Rise’s petition to the community board for expansion here.

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