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Stimulus party

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When you walk into Crave Dessert Bar, it's hard not to like its swanky, sexy décor.

Located next to the popular Uptown eatery CANS, Crave -- which serves alcoholic drinks as well as sweet treats -- is cozy yet spacious and adorned with plush couches, low-hanging lights and high bar tables.

With a grand opening set for some time in April, the pastry-pushing establishment is one of several new nightspots preparing to debut in Charlotte in the coming months.

But wait a minute ... aren't we in a recession?

Locales that cater to "party people" -- such as nightclubs, lounges, music venues and such -- survive based on customers spending disposable income. But with people feeling the pinch of the global economic meltdown, folks obviously have less cash and/or are less inclined to spend what may be their last dollars on a chocolate martini.

So, what makes the owners of these soon-to-open spots think they can survive and/or thrive in our currently crappy economy?

According to Scott Vines, general manager of Crave, a big part of their impending success will be because the dessert-bar niche is new to Charlotte. "We have so much to offer, so many people we can touch: the after-work crowd, the young professionals in the area, the residents that live in the nearby apartments, the University, the foodies who love desserts. We'll have the dates that are going to come in and want to share a bottle of wine and a dessert. Then we'll have the late-night crowd to capture as well," said Vines. "This is a major metropolitan concept that's been done in many cities but just hasn't come to Charlotte at this point."

The size of their venue, just under 3,000 square feet, also plays a role in his optimism. "We're in a comfortable space, but at the same time, we're not huge," he said. "Through research we've found that smaller restaurants are more profitable in this type of economic climate."

Rick Gur, the owner of another soon-to-open nightlife destination -- Luna Lounge -- agreed with the idea that a smaller location will do better than a larger one at this time.

"I think Luna Lounge will be OK because it's for about 200 people; it's not a big club," said Gur, who is also involved in Kiss Lounge on Woodlawn Road and The Sunset Club on South Boulevard. "Because it's smaller, it'll always look like a happening place. The expenses are much lower than at Sunset Club and at Kiss, and plus it's in downtown."

When the offer came up to purchase the old Coyote Ugly spot, located at 521 N. College St., Gur couldn't refuse. "In a million years, I never thought that I would open another place, especially this time of year and right after I opened Kiss. But it was just the perfect place, and if I said no to that deal, I knew I would regret it in two or three years. It's a terrible time to open a business, but like I said, the deal was too good to be true."

The details of the deal, according to Gur, include a 10-year contract, five months free rent and use of the parking lot. He added that the rent was reasonable for downtown, the size was perfect and because Coyote Ugly was previously housed there, renovations were minimal -- aside from giving the place a little character and personality.

Like Crave, Luna Lounge will reportedly cater to a specific niche. Gur is aiming to draw in an international crowd with an intimate, "European" ambience; tapas and appetizers; and Latin dance classes in the evening during the week, among other things.

Yet another new nightspot slated to open soon is Soul Gastrolounge in Plaza Midwood (1500 B Central Ave). Andy Kastanas (who has been involved with The Forum, Alley Cat, Cosmos and the Garden & Gun Club) and his partner James Fedele are the brains behind this operation, which has been in the works for about two years now -- before the economic crisis hit the scene in a major way. A self-styled "music restaurant," Soul will offer mezes, tapas and Asian-inspired menu items in a lounge environment alongside a DJ spinning "soulful house" music.

Similar to Crave and Luna Lounge, Kastanas felt that his spot, which he said cost about $250,000 to renovate, is something that Charlotte needs and is lacking conceptually. On top of that, he believes that Plaza Midwood has always given value to its patrons, and he plans to keep that same notion in line with his own product.

"I'm not really that worried about it in that neighborhood as I would be in any other place in town. The Plaza Midwood neighborhood is one that has always kind of gotten through this kind of thing. All the restaurants, bars, stores, everything there, nothing's gone out of business, no one's business has dropped," Kastanas said. "I think the more upscale places in other parts of town, if I were them, I'd be worried."

While the owners of Crave, Luna Lounge and Soul Gastrolounge can only wait and see what happens as they venture out into an unknown business environment, two nightclubs that opened recently, in the middle of the economic crisis, have been able to see and feel the real-world effects of a recession on their bottom line.

The upscale R&B/hip-hop club 935 on Summit Street -- opened Dec. 5, 2008 -- is doing "really well," according to co-owner Orlando Farrar. Profits are "probably better than we projected," he said. "The recession hasn't affected us, at least not yet."

At 12,600 square feet, 935 has reached its capacity (999 patrons) plenty of times, Farrar said. "I think No. 1, it's because it's the newest urban nightspot in Charlotte. And our base crowd is urban. I think Charlotte was kind of hungry for something new, something different, and something to this magnitude."

On the other side of the spectrum, Gur's Kiss Lounge, which has been open since Aug. 8, 2008, isn't doing what he'd anticipated in sales. "I thought we were creating something very nice, very beautiful and very unique. I thought it was going to be easier, but it was not the way I had planned," he said. "We still get 300 to 400 people. But the average person used to spend $40 a night. Now the average person spends $20 a night. They still go out, but they don't have money to spend right now."

Overall, these nightspot owners remain optimistic. "There's always going to be people who are going to celebrate," Vines said. "People won't stop celebrating their children's birthdays because we're in a recession. They're not going to stop celebrating their birthdays, their college reunions, their anniversaries, their promotions, just because something's happened politically or economically in the last few years. We're counting on that."

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