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Making It | Otto’s Shrunken Head, Turning 10 This Weekend - The Local East Village Blog - NYTimes.com


Making It | Otto’s Shrunken Head, Turning 10 This Weekend


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image-3Shira LevineSteve Pang

For every East Village business that’s opening or closing, dozens are quietly making it. Here’s one of them: Otto’s Shrunken Head.

Otto’s Shrunken Head turns 10 today, and tomorrow the punk-rock tiki bar and live music venue will celebrate with an overflowing scorpion bowl of bands, DJs, and raucous revelry. The decade hasn’t been all sugar: partners Steve Pang, Nell Mellon and Patricia Lou have survived everything from a devastating fire to rising property taxes. “We came out of the worst year ever for us with that fire and now seeing that we were able to make it to ten years, I feel confident that we will be here a while,” said Mr. Pang. “We are beginning to make our mark on the city.” We grabbed a few words with Mr. Pang to chat about Otto’s’ journey toward becoming an institution, in a city that has lost many of them.

Q.

You’re at ten years; how would you say business is doing?

A.

We are doing well. This is our best year yet. Even when it’s slow we tend to have a nice crowd always at the bar. Summer is always a slow time for bars in general, and now that summer is over we’re really busy again. Fall to after Christmas is our busiest time.

Q.

How did you get this space?

A.

We opened officially as Otto’s Shrunken Head on Oct. 19, 2002. We had taken over Barmacy Bar in May and slowly transformed it into Otto’s. It was too expensive to close it down to redecorate. We just couldn’t afford to. So we basically took over and just starting to make money while redecorating at the same time by slowly working our way from the back room, which we set up for live music, to the front.

Q.

How did you come up with the name?

A.

Tiki bars used to have long, convoluted names like: House of Bamboo, Lair of the Seven Veils, etc. I also liked that it was similar to Max’s Kansas City, one of NYC’s greatest rock n’ roll venues.

Q.

What has been the secret to sustaining all these years?

A.

Creating an outlet for local creatives to showcase and perform and keeping the flame burning for rock music in Manhattan. Also making killer cocktails you can’t get anywhere else. We also have a variety of events that include live drawing, musical theater, poetry, comedy, and burlesque – a little something for everyone. We took over the bar six months after 9/11 when businesses in general weren’t doing well. We decided to open a place for people to come and perform where there wasn’t a cover charge for people and they could have all of that inexpensively.

Q.

How does that work out for the bands when there is no cover?

A.

They make what they make through passing the bucket. I asked the bands before we opened if they would rather charge a cover or have more people see you and 99 percent said they’d rather people see them. The only time we charge a cover is for benefits.

Q.

Having a business on 14th Street between Avenues A and B must be fodder for some good storytelling.

A.

14th Street is interesting. I feel like we’re on the border of pre- and post-gentrification Manhattan. East of us is Campos Plaza, west of us is N.Y.U. We’re in the middle and we’re carrying a torch that is threatening to go out. I hear rumors that our block will go to the high-rise developers soon. Unsurprising when you see how many single-story buildings are on our block. We’re losing the 99-cent stores, the Spanish food places, beauty parlors on our block and soon it will be like the rest of 14th Street to our west. I like the mix of old-school families, middle-income Stuy town veterans and some of the newer kids moving in. Development will change all of this, for better or worse. Who knows?

Q.

The year of the fire was your worst year, yet you came out of it strong in the end.

A.

Two years ago we had an electrical fire that destroyed our back room where bands play and we have our events. It was the day after our eighth anniversary. The back room was destroyed. The smoke damaged the bar. It was very rough for us, the hardest six to eight weeks of my life. We had to rebuild and clean and raise enough money to get a new HVAC system, to replace and repair all the things that needed to be rebuilt. This was before the era of Kickstarter, etc. During a crisis you find out who your friends are and we found out we had a lot of friends. A lot of people came out and helped. Bands came out to help us clean and rebuild.

Q.

How many people make up Otto’s?

A.

We are three partners. Our staff is about nine bartenders, two barbacks, and two door people. A lot of our staff has been with us a long time. We have a very slow turn over.

Q.

How much rum do you think you go through a week?

A.

During a busy week I would say we go through eight cases of rum and when we’re slow four or five.

Q.

How has your rent changed over the decade?

A.

Our rent hasn’t gone up terribly. We have our incremental rates so our rent is pretty steady and our landlord has been good to us. We signed for another ten years so we will be there for a nice long time. Who knows after that? The sad thing about New York is that it no longer has its institutions.

Q.

How about taxes?

A.

When we first opened, our property tax was about three or four months rent per year. Now it is closer to six to seven months of rent. Remember, you have to pay that all at the same time! New York’s property tax rate never dropped during the housing crisis. The way they charge property tax is some kind of amorphous, hypothetical housing bubble kind of thing. That’s what is killing this city. People don’t have a shot anymore. You have to be rich and have a lot of money to open a business.

Q.

How are you doing? Are you all rich with a lot of money?

A.

I have a day job so I’m still able to do this. If the bar was all I did I wouldn’t be able to make a living. We are partners so it gets divided. For me it is a labor of love. I like building a community and scene, contributing back to the neighborhood.

Q.

Have you had to raise your prices to accommodate the changing economy?

A.

We raised our prices about a year and a half ago right after the fire. Before that we hadn’t raised our prices for eight years! We are still relatively inexpensive $6 to $10 drinks plus happy hour specials. We also have a line of merchandise –  mugs, shirts, carved heads, etc. – that are popular with the souvenir set.

Q.

Who are some of your famous customers?

A.

Joe Strummer came in right before he died and I regret not being there to meet him since I am a big Clash fan. Robert Downey Jr., had a couple of martinis here; Mike Myers has come. Chris Noth has come in and had shots of Patron. He drinks tequila. Debby Harry has come in. We’ve done the Anthony Bourdain show and just did a segment with Sandra Lee.