On a Tuesday afternoon, Max Russo is chatting with friends at 41 Ocean. Warm and welcoming, Russo, one of the founders of the membership club, takes time to make sure his friends have everything they need while directing employees to take down remnants of a pop-up clothing and goods sale the venue hosted earlier that day.
The sale was a favor for a friend, he explains, but not a usual occurrence -- unlike the dinner TMZ producer Harvey Levin is throwing in the private dining room that night. That's more 41 Ocean's speed, and what they're aiming to continue as the club itself expands. Rough beginnings for the Ocean Avenue property have led to lessons learned and a hope on Russo's part for new growth this fall.
41 Ocean was created by Russo, the managing partner and director of memberships, and Jeremy Umland, also a managing partner, as a response to a lack of an exclusive club in Santa Monica. There are other such clubs in L.A. -- Soho House in West Hollywood is perhaps the most notable, while other spots like Magic Castle and Cana Rum Bar are also similarly exclusive. But 41 Ocean -- a Spanish-influenced spot with lounges, full service food and drink and the chance for members to light up a cigar -- has the Santa Monica market cornered.
After what Russo admitted was a rushed opening (the idea first germinated last August, and 41 Ocean was already open for private parties by January), the club quickly burned through executive chefs (Top Chef alumnus Chris Crary left after a short time, to be replaced by Raphael Lunetta, who has now been replaced by BOA's Jimmy Martinez) and had to make sure management and employees were properly trained. "We made some mistakes that we've come to fix," Russo said.
Perhaps because of these issues, 41 Ocean experienced only "OK growth," as Russo put it, and members come to the club only approximately twice a week on average. "That's not enough right now," Russo said.
Russo is the son of Aaron Russo, movie producer and manager to Bette Midler. When asked about how growing up in Hollywood has influenced him, Russo joked, "A lot of people come in asking if Bette Midler is my mom."
In truth, Russo has always been in the business of service and hospitality, but not always in running a club. While he previously worked as Las Vegas' Pure Nightclub's VIP host and event planner, he also opened three recovery homes -- attributed both to his own struggle to find himself and the loss of his close friend to drug addiction.
Still, Russo says, rehab and a club aren't that far apart -- though one is about serving drinks and the other is about taking them away, they're both about hospitality.
In that vein, and to combat the club's slow growth, 41 Ocean is hosting a summer series of events open to non-members by reservation, so they can sample the club before diving in. Events will include jazz nights on Wednesdays and 80s nights on Fridays (but are subject to change). Russo said the first weekend of summer was a success, but he's hungry for more members.
Still, Russo said that 41 Ocean isn't likely to start letting in just anyone -- they've already turned away "over 100 people" because they didn't match 41 Ocean's intended clientele of friendly, outgoing patrons. Applications for membership, which costs $2000 a year if you're over 30 but only $1250 if you're under, are personally handled by Russo in his role as director of memberships.
Demographically, the club is a mix of older and younger, singles and couples, with a lot of entrepreneurs, making for great networking opportunities -- a cardinal virtue for the club and Russo. But the biggest virtue of all for Russo is true connection, as he tries to create a close-knit community.
"It's really a family environment," Russo said. "We want people to feel safe, to have a good time, to know they're gonna be treated right. ... It's about being able to connect to someone on a different level."
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By midsummer, Russo's big goal is to keep up the rise in quality and get 41 Ocean "pumping." As he says this, he turns to his friends ordering food and instructs one to get the fried chicken. When she looks hesitant, he relents. "I'll order the fried chicken, then you can have some of mine," he says.
For Russo, such hospitality isn't something nice. It's expected.