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Blog article 12 min read

Meet Abraham Merchant, the hospitality mogul known for luxury events in America

Preslea Jane

Written on

Photos courtesy of Merchants Hospitality

On a call from Montreal to New York City amid the June gloom escalated with smoke-filled skies, Abraham Merchant spoke from a DC restaurant to be opened the coming week.

As the president of the well-established hospitality group with locations around the globe, he spoke of his love for the city and the business he’s been in for decades.

Read on for his prediction as to how the event business will improve and evolve with hybrid work scenarios.

New York City: A League of its Own

When it comes to location, entertainment, food, beverages, the world has a lot of one thing: options. The key to being a top-notch corporate event planner is knowing how to cut through the noise and select the option that will give you everything you're looking for, and more.

According to Abraham Merchant, president and CEO of the longtime leading hospitality group, there is only one sensible choice for corporate events in America: New York City.

“New York is the capital of the world. So why wouldn't New York be the top choice for everyone? Everything we do is a little faster, we walk a little faster. We are a very energetic city — a very small city in theory. 300 square miles with a population of 8 million.”

I am New York City

“I've been here for 45 years,” Abraham tells me. “It's the only city I've ever lived in this country.”

And he wouldn't have it any other way, “If I had of lived on the West Coast, perhaps I would think differently. But I came from a very large city before I came to New York. So I will say I don't know better.”

“I like the energy, I like the uptick, I like walking a little faster. I like taking the train. More often than not, I am on a subway. I take Uber, I take taxis. I have a two wheeled bike that goes up to 50 miles an hour. I take city bikes, every method of transportation. We're always going somewhere, we don't sit in traffic. We hop on a subway, it runs 24 hours a day, and you're there in 15 minutes. Every other city, traffic is a consideration every morning or every evening.”

With every word you can see how he embodies the city, and just like that, he says, “I am New York City.”

One of the Oldest Restaurant Companies in NYC

Okay, so you've landed on New York City for your event. What now?

Merchants has something for every vertical in the restaurant business, Abraham explains. A Planned marketplace partner since November 2022, the group has been giving corporate event planners for companies like Amazon and Airbnb early access to these esteemed venues across America.

Whether you're looking for a sunrise or sunset spot, craft beer, or inconspicuous 3 am cocktails, they've got a place for you.

Let's start with their oldest restaurant: Art Bar. Abraham first understood the fame the place had when he was thousands of feet in the air.

While it has now had 38 years of success and counting, it started as a humble neighbourhood bar, back when nobody would go to Meatpacking district. Now, even at 3 o'clock in the morning, he says with equal pride and bewilderment, you can't get a seat.

He recounted a flight where he was perusing the Michelin Guide in the back of the plane seat, and came across a review.

“And it says, 'Art Bar, you have to sell your soul to get a seat there.'”

In contrast with the craze, it's casual in nature once you're in. Abraham set the scene, “It's very bohemian, it's a neighbourhood drinking place. You want to be able to wear your shorts and be super casual? Not wear any makeup and just hang out? Nobody's gonna be able to see you, it's rather dark. It's candlelight and you can sit on the floor. People sit on the floor in the living room in the back all the time.”

Of the next place, he says, “Every baller comes to Philippe.”

Philippe Chow is a world-renowned chef and restaurant, which they have expanded globally. As well, it is the DC restaurant Abraham was at during the interview.

Here, it's high-end. “You walk into Philippe, there's host staff saying hello to you, with the maître d' and the concierge, all of that.”

With equal parts glamour and elegance, Philippe is the perfect place to impress clients. Whether it's for intimate gatherings after work, client dinners or team outings, it's the type of place that you'll never forget, no matter how many dinners you attend.

Then comes Industry Kitchen, which sees a staggering 1800 covers a day. Abraham calls it the place to be for sunrises.

Watermark, another prime sunrise spot, is 10,000 sq ft of outdoor venue, altered to the nines with every season.

If you like sunsets, Mezze on the River is the only place, according to Abraham. “It's at the tip of Manhattan, overlooking the West Side.

If you're in search of a lounge, there's Ophelia. It's been nominated for best ball, best rooftop.

“And then we have everything in between,” he says. “Craft beer halls, which are, you know, truly craft. People use craft very loosely. Our goal is that if you can recognize half the beers on our list — because they rotate every day, every week — if you can recognize half of them, we haven't done a good job.”

Merchants indeed does it all. “If you want to be somewhere where you spend the evening and be pampered, we have something for you. If you want to go out and have a few drinks at a nice cocktail bar, we have that. If you want to just go out and have a really great time, in the middle of summer, we have that. If at 2 o'clock in the morning, you want to have a drink and be discreet, we have a place for you.”

Wherever you go, be it a casual or coveted destination, there will be a subtle glamour throughout the place, day and night.

When it comes to corporate events

“Philippe is probably one of them that has done a lot of corporate events, where everyone from Bill Gates to P. Diddy to Stephen Curry, everybody comes there, Rihanna, you name it. Adam Sandler…”

At Philippe, everything is elevated. “They will have an artist that you couldn't get a seat at Madison Square Garden for. They're paying a performer hundreds of thousands of dollars for a 20-minute event. We've done a lot of those, and those are elegant affairs. They're not activated or thematic, they're passing around hors-d'oeuvres.”

While those have their place and their flair, Abraham has a special appreciation for interactive, corporate events. “Those are a great deal of fun,” he says.

With everything done in-house, guests have the chance to be immersed in the world of culinary expertise. “From how to make a dumpling to how our noodles are done, they're hand pulled. It's rather amazing if you see how it's done, how the dough becomes noodles by beating it down.”

With everything done in-house, guests have the chance to be immersed in the world of culinary expertise. “From how to make a dumpling to how our noodles are done, they're hand pulled. It's rather amazing if you see how it's done, how the dough becomes noodles by beating it down.”

The chaos that ensues has an element of childhood joy, “People are spilling things. When they're working on the noodles, there's flour everywhere. It's a rather interactive experience, and I enjoy them quite a bit. I don't go there as a guest. I'm more there just to look at it where something different is going on. I always sneak in just to see how it feels, how it looks.”

On office parties…

With the evolving workplace, Abraham foresees an emphasis on connection outside of the office, meaning more corporate events of all sizes.

“As work changes and becomes more remote and non-remote, depending on where the winds shift, this one part of our industry is unaffected for the most part.”

As a hospitality aficionado, Abraham knows the never-ending value of in-person connection.

While they have embraced certain technological advancements, he's adamant about the tangible experience. “We're not a fan of QR code menus. I hate QR code menus. You can quote me on that.”

“And why do people go out? Because they have to go out. With Meta and digital reality, you can't taste food. I'm sure they will come up with ways to put smells in it, but part of the reason the Meta universe, or the virtual world is not as popular as they thought it would be, is because there's a very small subset that wants to do it.

For most people, they want that social interaction, the human interaction. They want to talk to other people, meet other people, be outside their environment. So I think it's become more relevant than before.

In the past, you were at the office, you'd have a happy hour, you have a drink at a social connection. And that was it.

Now, they're not seeing their colleagues, or anyone for that matter, for days.

So it's flexible, but there's a social cost to it, where people are not interacting as much. And that's not a good thing. It's unhealthy.

There are always going to be overachievers, but for everyone, there are nine of them that could struggle, because it's depressing. Sitting at home, you achieved a lot, you're working in your pajamas, great. You were able to do your laundry during work, great. But there is a social cost with it, a mental cost. You no longer have that functioning environment.

It will become more important to have these events and meet up.”

With people coming to the office less and less, he predicts that the event business will improve.

“The companies are providing event opportunities for people to meet up. We see a significant uptick on these 30 to 40 person office parties, because senior management is saying I've got to get my group together.”

“If somebody's working Monday through Wednesday, somebody's working Tuesday through Thursday, they're not always seeing each other. And we need that camaraderie to be able to develop.”

He predicts an increased frequency when it comes to work events, “It won't just be a celebration, it will be actively getting together. We need to see each other.”

When I asked him how he defines a successful event, he said with a laugh, “Well, when the guests have hangovers in the morning.”

He elaborated, “A great event is when they extend the event. Our agreements always say if we want to extend by half an hour, this price is predetermined so we don't really debate that in the end. So I think when they extend an event, now we know they had a good time. And they wanted to stay longer. The money is secondary to it, it's knowing that people had a great time.

On beautiful places…

“We always say, we eat with our eyes. The first impression of 'It looks great.' Everything from that point on, your brain has already enjoyed. We already have a head start if it looks good.”

Abraham's golden rule lies in the first 15 seconds when you walk into the restaurant. Those seconds are crucial, he explains, because that impression will influence how you perceive everything else throughout the evening. “It's a subconscious behaviour,” he says.

“We take painstaking efforts to look at the wall, the ceiling, the colour. I was talking to a mill worker yesterday, and our banquettes for D.C., the colour is not correct. They're wrong. So they have to pick it up. And he commented to say, 'Well, if the colour is not exactly correct, people are not going to not come, and say, 'Oh, I'm not coming to this restaurant because the colour is not right.'' It's just that here we take a lot of effort getting it right.”

“Most people leaving a restaurant, if you ask them when they leave, test with your friends, ask them what colour the floor was, they'll not know. But that doesn't mean they don't know; to the subconscious mind there's something they like, it's just that they don't pinpoint it. If something were wrong, you will immediately know.”

One thing Abraham knows very well is luxury. For him, it is defined by opulence, timelessness. “To me, something that is not timeless is a fad, because luxury should be timeless.”

“I would say luxury is touch points, feel. It's how you feel when you walk in. Luxury is what you sit on. Is it vinyl? Or is it velvet? To me velvet always feels great. Without being clubby, without being tacky.

To me, luxury is simple. It's not necessarily too many layers. And I don't mean by simple: bare. Some people say less is more, I say well, less is just less. More is more. Give it depth.

When asked what role he has in the designs, he says, “Significant.”

“Everything. I am intricately involved in every colour, every stitch on a banquette, because A) I enjoy it. It's fun, it's creative. And B) I feel like I have a good sense of what a consumer would like, because it's the same thing I like.”

With every location under the umbrella of Merchants, the environment is always aligned with the energy of the place. While Philippe has rose gold and lacquered and velvet furniture, Art Bar has the bohemian touch, and the lounge at Ophelia set with Amber light to make everyone look good.

As for his process, Abraham visits multiple restaurants in a day to gain inspiration, “I have a driver waiting outside, and I go in and I have a drink so I don't drive, I'll just have a quick appetizer, I might not eat dinner at any of them. But I'll hit 15 restaurants a day sometimes or maybe more even.

Then I'll spend days on Pinterest creating a board for myself. Architects and designers want to implement their ideas for the design, but they want to see what your vision looks like. It helps us to articulate the entire project with a Pinterest board, an imagery board.”

Regardless of how much expertise one might have, “You have to constantly learn and have new ideas coming to mind.”

An evening in Abraham's shoes

“I know what the evening looks like at any given place on any given night.”

Whether he's at Watermark or Ophelia or any other location, he knows how the evening will progress, how the music will play, and he knows he will find something that needs fixing.

“I'm one of those people, like other restaurant owners, we go to other restaurants and we are instinctively straightening out the chair at the bar because it's second nature to us. We're not thinking, it's just natural for us to do it. Because that's what we have to do.”

Throughout the evening, he would run into at least 10 to 15 people he knows, “And you know, we generally greet people with a hug nowadays. We're back to it. There was confusion for a while, shake hands, don't shake hands. We didn't know if we were doing a fist bump or what. Now I think we're passed the confusion. It's a genuine pleasure to see people.That's what we do, you know, we do it because we love doing it.”

“And 'no' is not in my vocabulary. So the management generally keeps me away from certain things. Saturday? Sure! No problem. I just say yes to everything.”

Cash and creating something

“We make good money, and that's goal number one. Number two would be creating something. Having something come to life is a challenge, and it gives you a sense of personal achievement. People like Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, money is no longer a factor. 10 billion here, 10 billion there. It's a scorecard. At some point, it becomes 'How can I achieve this?'

Apart from that, it's interesting to do. My day is never the same. I'm sitting at a D.C. location. I'm watching my staff, they're doing trainings and so forth. And you know, some people come up to me and they say, 'Who are you? We see you here every day.' And I say, 'I'm one of the guys from New York helping out.'

I don't like the word owner or any of those things. I'm one of the colleagues. But I enjoy this and I love it. I could be in New York one day and D.C. the next, or wherever it is. It's fun. Part of my work is going out and drinking and eating. And that's my job. Pretty good life, yeah.”

Upcoming projects

A major expansion of Philippe around the country and the globe is underway, with the new location in DC, a deal signed for Nashville at Cummins Station, another for Miami at South Beach at 1 Collins for a 14,000 square foot Philippe, and seven agreements signed in the Middle East.

Apart from that, there is a new bar lounge opening in DC on the wharf, Merchants Marina.

“Now, we are expanding as quickly as we can,” says Abraham.

Whatever the occasion, it's safe to say that Merchants has not only a location but an experience for it. And it will always be an experience that people treasure. Certainly, Abraham is doing everything in his power to guarantee it.