You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more passionate about any industry than John Terzian is about hospitality.
As cofounder of the h.wood Group, he is the creative visionary behind nine of today’s hottest, most exclusive restaurants, clubs, and bars in Southern California, Colorado, and Dubai, UAE. Besides overseeing these nightspots and a thriving events business, Terzian handles “everything” for about 25 private clients, providing personal chefs, entertainment, complicated travel accommodations, and private lift.
I met him at the Mandarin Hotel’s Asiate restaurant, on the top floor of the Time Warner Center in New York City. He was fascinating to watch because he seemed to elegantly glide into the restaurant, almost fading into the background, quietly observing every detail. I found him unexpectedly soft-spoken, unassuming, polite, focused, and professional.
The success of his venues testifies not only to his understanding of the market but to the customer loyalty that he has established in the cutthroat L.A. scene. But despite his young age, Terzian is no overnight success. He didn’t hit his stride until after two early nightclub ventures had left him penniless at 27, forcing him to move back to his childhood bedroom.
Having come a long way since then, Terzian has set his sights on new challenges. He and his cofounding partner Brian Toll are planning another half dozen or so properties in such cities as Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, and Scottsdale, Arizona. They’re also creating a hotel brand, most likely to debut in Las Vegas, that will raise their profile exponentially. Don’t bet against them.
How did you start flying privately?
I used to be scared to death of flying, and the main reason I got over it is because I have to fly so much. A lot of my meetings are in Vegas because we are doing projects there and my board is there. I’ll have to be in New York for an event, then be immediately back in L.A. I have a [nightclub] in Aspen, a restaurant in Chicago. The more I can cut down on time, the better. And flying private cuts all of that extra time out. It makes business 10 times better.
What providers are you using?
I primarily use JetSmarter [as a member who purchases seats and also sometimes charters the whole airplane], and I have been very happy, because they act fast. A lot of times I need a flight for myself or a client right away. I have also used NetJets [via its Executive Jet Management subsidiary] for charter. And I use charter brokers. When I am booking a plane for a client, we need to move quickly. If one broker isn’t coming through, I jump to the next one.
What is a typical day like for you?
I am up by 7:30. All day I am working on current projects or new business. I take a few hours off before I have a [business] dinner, and then I try to go to at least three of our places. I am usually home around 2 or 2:30 a.m., and I try to take Sundays off.
Isn’t that a tough routine?
I thrive on it. It’s actually not hard for me at all, but I am married, so it is hard on someone else, and I have had to be conscious of that.
How did you get started in the restaurant business?
When I was at USC, they had me recruit for the football team, and I was very good at it because I love people. I started mixing friends from high school, friends from college—I would get people together to some restaurant I knew, and I ended up turning that into a promoting business and it grew really big.
Were you making money doing that?
The funny thing is, I never planned on making money, but then restaurants and clubs starting paying me to bring people in. That turned into [my doing] events at colleges—promotions and stuff that are big on college campuses now but were new at the time. I never planned on doing this, which is why I went to law school. But doing these parties was so natural for me. It was like creating art. I actually had gotten into college on an arts scholarship and I chose not to [pursue it].
I think I had it in my head that I had to learn business, but when you’re an artist you just don’t have that mindset. I wasn’t good at law school, but I graduated, and when I got out no one would hire me. I was looking into entertainment, I was looking at anything. I [helped start] a nightclub called LAX. I was mopping floors, doing the cash, doing the legal work, everything—which was good because I saw every aspect of [how to run and brand] a club.
Soon after, I realized that I’m an entrepreneur, and I’d rather live and die by my own sword. I had a friend who grew up with me in L.A. and went to USC, and I finally convinced him to start a very cool place with these Warhol factory windows, and we spent three times as much as we should have because we didn’t know better. We brought so many crowds that the city shut us down, declaring us a public nuisance. I was pretty young and brash. Neighbors complained, and the police were a little shady. I also had another place called West Palm, which was down the street. We had a business partner there that was embezzling from us, so we got hit with everything in the span of two years.
There is reportedly lots of corruption in the nightclub business.
There is, and I refuse to [partake in] that. The way I have separated myself—to whatever degree that I have—is by being aboveboard. I think sometimes people see ruthlessness get rewarded or hear glory stories about getting to the top by any means. I don’t think you need to do that. It’s very easy to get some power, get an ego, and then basically lie, cheat, and steal to get to the top. You can’t be a pushover, but that doesn’t mean you need to cut corners or be awful to people or cheat the system.
How did you bounce back after the initial failures?
I had to move back home with my parents, and I was at the lowest time of my life. I had not a dollar to my name and I had lost millions of my friends’ and family’s money. But what’s crazy is that as down and depressed as I was, it never crossed my mind to leave this industry that I love, because the one thing that I knew I had that others didn’t was the ability to bring people together in one place. I just didn’t have the business side. I had to recognize that I needed to surround myself with people who did [have that knowledge] so I could do my thing—which is to create.
The first place to really turn for us was Shorebar, in Santa Monica. I was so scared—and still am—from those early failures that I was extremely careful in the way I operated it.
What are the pitfalls of opening a restaurant or bar?
It’s easy to get carried away with [too many] employees and a bunch of excess fat that you don’t need, and that’s a hard lesson for people to learn.
Do you walk into a problem every night at the clubs?
Every night. I am pretty much putting out fires constantly. To help eliminate some of that, I am [hiring excellent] people and putting them in high-level positions under me. That way I can focus on making sure our concepts stay strong and our core customers are happy. Because we are like a family, the way we treat our customers.
I have people that eat at my places four, five nights a week.
Is the customer always right?
Aside from illegality, I don’t say no to a client. Not only is it never a no, I actually go overboard to try to surprise them. It’s a people business.
How do you keep a level head?
I have a very tight, small circle of close friends—people I grew up with from forever. Some of the bigger celebrities I knew prior to them being famous. At the end of the day, [celebrities] are just working people.
You are known for giving back to the community.
Charity has always been a big part of me. I used to volunteer my time, but now I have less and less time, so what I am doing is raising money for charity. Three or four years ago I realized that I couldn’t do everything and I had to focus on a few key organizations. For Imagine LA [which combats homelessness and poverty in Southern California] I created the Magic Ball, and this is our fourth year. It’s supposed to be the anti-chicken dinner—it’s like a fun concert but you know you are giving money toward this great fund. I also do quite a bit with the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, an absolutely amazing place for very sick kids. I help them with guest celebrities for raising money for their gala or other things as they need them—playrooms and stuff like that.
Do you have any kids?
Not yet. But drunk people at 2 a.m. are basically like kids!
Do you always stay sober?
I do, for the most part. It’s not that I don’t drink. It’s just that I’m out every night and every morning—you can’t really be drunk. I don’t think anyone’s ever seen me drunk, except maybe my wife.
This article has been updated to clarify the tile of Brian Toll, cofounding partner of h.wood group.
NAME: John Terzian
BORN: May 8, 1980 (age 37)
POSITION: Cofounder of Los Angeles-based hospitality & lifestyle firm The h.wood Group, which owns Bootsy Bellows in Los Angeles and Aspen, Colorado; the SHOREbar in Santa Monica, California and Cabo, Mexico; The Nice Guy, Delilah, Petite Taqueria, Poppy, and the Peppermint Club in West Hollywood; and the Blind Dragon in West Hollywood and Dubai and Scottsdale
TRANSPORTATION: JetSmarter, Executive Jet Management, various other charter providers
PHILANTHROPY: Imagine LA (board member), Children’s Hospital Los Angeles Sports & Entertainment Board (co-chair)
PERSONAL: Married to Loni Terzian