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Jonathan Schnapp, owner, & Nick Shields, GM, of The Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club
Issue 59: On running a venue in a pandemic, how they think about growth, and the Gowanus rezoning plans.
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Technically, the Royal Palms Shuffle Board Club is a shuffleboard club and bar in Gowanus, Brooklyn — but it’s so much more than that. First of all, the place is run and managed by a stone-cold pack of weirdos (in the best possible way). They host frequent leagues that run two nights a week with nearly 100 teams. They’re also a really fun bar with great drinks, nightly DJs, table games, and weekly food trucks. And more recently, they’ve been fundraising for causes like the Texas Equal Action Fund, the Reproductive Justice Fund, and more.
I’ve been a league member since 2019 (with only moderate success), and it’s such a joy to spend a night each week at the club. In that time, I’ve gotten to know owner Jonathan Schnapp and General Manager, Nick Shields. I sat down with them one night before league play to talk about running a venue in a pandemic, how they think about growth, and the Gowanus rezoning plans.
Brianna Plaza: Jonathan and Nick, can you both give me a rundown of your background?
Jonathan Schnapp: I opened the club about nine years ago now. I wasn't in the hospitality industry before that, and it was a pretty significant learning curve, but I have really loved it and also been humbled by it at the same time. I have definitely grown to see the world in a different way since being in the hospitality industry. Before that, I was a web developer, a teacher, a DJ, and I made piñatas.
Nick Shields: The first seven years I was in New York, I was in the corporate world doing digital media and ad sales, and one day I kind of woke up and realized I was miserable and needed a change. I knew this male bartender that I just had a work crush on because he was the coolest guy I'd ever seen, and I was like, "I'm going to that.” I had bartended through college, so I had some experience, but I was like, "I'm going to go back and just bartend for a bit, and kind of figure out where that's going to take me."
I worked at a smaller place called The Wing Bar on Smith Street, and it turns out when you are some degree of competent and have some passion for a thing, you quickly move from bartender to host, or helping a manager, to becoming a manager, to basically running the place so that the owners don't have to do the thing anymore.
I was there for a little over five years, and in that time, I had a couple failed ventures of trying to open a place on my own with the Wing Bar owners. The challenges hit an impasse where it wasn't going to work. Meanwhile, over those years, I got to know Jonathan and Ashley (the other Royal Palms owner), who became semi-regulars at The Wing Bar. In some ways, Jonathan became a mentor. We would go and talk about where my career's at, and what I'm doing, and what the plans are. Eventually, the timing worked out in this serendipitous way and a position opened up here and the was an opportunity for me to move over. I had reached a pretty hard ceiling at a place that's 2000 square feet, and is just a small mom-and-pop kind of place. To get the opportunity to move to something as huge as this was a big career move for me.
I came over right before the pandemic, and then everything shut down. We were closed for about a year, and then we had to reopen this bar, in some ways, from scratch. It was still in the scarier time of the pandemic, and it was hard trying to win people's trust to get back inside and run it in the way that made people feel comfortable being here.
Brianna Plaza: Jonathan, what about 2012/13 made sense to open this kind of space?
Jonathan Schnapp: I don't know that it did. I think more than anything, I had a vision of the place that I wanted to make. It felt like it was time to try to do something that was really, really hard. I wanted a challenge. I wanted to do something that felt like it was bigger than me, something where I'd have to learn a lot of different things, something just that I could really sink my teeth into. So that's kind of how it happened.
Brianna Plaza: Nick, how is running a place like this different than running a bar?
Nick Shields: I mean, the biggest difference is size, and size of staff, and the amount of people you have to manage, the amount of vendors you work with, the amount of different things we do here. We run the leagues that we run on Monday and Tuesday. That's a whole job unto itself, running that program, which is really special to this place.
And then we have the events side of things, that are booking corporate parties through the rest of the week. Then we have the birthday party days on Saturdays, so there's a lot of things that we do here that are not, in many ways, comparable to what you're doing at a small restaurant or bar. So that's exciting.
Brianna Plaza: The leagues are a big part of the club, but I have to imagine they’re not the biggest moneymaker. Why are they something that you continue to expand, and why are they part of the business that’s so special versus just going hard on monetary growth all the time?
Jonathan Schnapp: I can't really imagine the place without that part of it. Having a community that cares about this place and comes every week, I think is the thing that makes the place feel good, not just on league nights, but that bleeds over onto a Thursday or a Saturday or a Sunday. You can somehow feel that this place is important to people, and that the game is important to people, and people who are coming back over and over again treat the place in a really nice way. They treat our staff in a nice way, treat each other in a really nice way, and sort of create the vibes that we really want this place to have. And I don't know how we would have that without the leagues.
It's always just been a really high priority for me to continue to engage with that part of it because otherwise, we're just grabbing corporate dough or having a birthday parties with 23-year-old smacking shit around and making a mess. I always wanted us to be a real shuffleboard club. And to me, that meant starting a community. I think that's still the part of it that I really like the best. I think everybody likes it the best. So yes, it doesn't make as much money in here on a Monday as we might on a corporate party Thursday, but I would say that it's probably more important to the place to be able to do that.
Brianna Plaza: How do you think about growth and expansion for the club?
Jonathan Schnapp: I think what we're doing here is really, really, really hard. We're trying to engage people on a level that isn't normal. I think we're trying to treat everybody who walks in here as a potential member of this community, somebody who could join the Shuffleboard League. And I think that trying to engage in that way with our guests is really, really hard.
We’ve seen others - we’ll call them flatterers - open up shuffleboard clubs and we’ve watched it not work. I think our special sauce is our people and the way that we approach it. We approach this community with a deadly-level of seriousness despite the fact that we're having a ball out here. But we're all a little bit nuts because I'm a little bit nuts and I force them to be a little bit nuts too. I think that the first Cheesecake Factory was probably dope as fuck before it went corporate. You know what I mean?
Trying to figure out a way to grow without losing the soul of what something is is an impossibility. It’s actually literally impossible. So it's just a matter of how close can you get to that growth curve?
Additionally, I don't want to not win. You know what I mean? For us, we need three factors. We need to be able to have a community and do leagues. We need to be able to do corporate parties. We need to be able to do birthday parties on the weekends. It’s a lot of space. It costs a lot of money to build out 15,000 feet whether you're paying a lot for rent in Brooklyn or a little bit for rent in Tucson. The build out cost is still going to be pretty much the same, and trying to get out from underneath those costs is a huge challenge and project.
Nick Shields: We’ve been approached and we've had opportunities to expand in a way that would likely come at the cost of the league and the community, like being in a hotel lobby where you get every wedding party ever. But the reality is, that's not a core group and make this place what it is. So the growth beyond where we're at now is something we're looking at constantly: finding the right location, the right community in a specific area, the right neighborhood.
This wouldn't really work in Manhattan, right? It wouldn't be the same. You wouldn't be able to get the same kind of feel, like hitting that right kind of sweet spot. That's a big challenge with it too. Could you do this in a way where you slap a label on it and run it like it's just a moneymaker? Sure. You could definitely do that. There's a way to do that. But as Jonathan said, we haven't seen it work elsewhere, so we think that this is something that we're doing here that works and making sure that we can keep that as we continue to grow is key.
Brianna Plaza: You talked a little bit about this, but during COVID, we obviously couldn't go inside. As a business that's based purely inside, I'd be interested to hear how both of you thought about pivoting and reopening.
Nick Shields: I mean, very quickly we realized there was no way to be open. We couldn't do it. The idea of opening a pergola out front and trying to sling some drinks was going at the sacrifice of what this place is. It didn't make sense. We would be any other bar that's selling you a piña colada out of a window and make a little bit of money to offset a little bit of the loss, but at the risk of losing what we are and what makes the place special.
At one point we explored building an outdoor shuffle board court, and at first, we were like, "Oh, this would be great. What a cool idea." And then very quickly the logistics of trying to run a bar program out to get outside to do this. The whole thing just didn't make any sense. We tried to be as involved in the community as we could and we even ran periodic fundraising initiatives.
Jonathan Schnapp: I think so much of what this place is, is the idea of I want people to interact with. You know what I mean? I want them to talk to everybody. I want them to move around.
There’s a kinetic energy in this place: you play some shuffleboard, you go to the bar, you go to the food truck. You play the ring game. The idea of forcing people to stay at their court and only talk to their people, that's not what we're about. So I just thought that trying to do some sort of socially distanced version of our thing didn't make any sense.
Plus, our community wasn't really looking for that anyway. Our community was really looking to be really careful. So what we did was we just sort of mothballed for what amounted to a year. And for me at least, that was really difficult existentially.
When the world takes away what you do and you define yourself by what you do, then what the fuck are you?
I think that was the hardest part. I think people think of what happened to the hospitality industry as really financially challenging and it was. But I think for me at least, that sort of emotional part of it was way, way definitely harder.
Brianna Plaza: The Gowanus rezoning has been somewhat controversial and it's happening in real time, literally outside your door. How do you think about Royal Palms' role in a changing and developing community? As a long-time business owner in the area, what does the future of Gowanus look like to you?
Jonathan Schnapp: It's a really good question. I think for me, the first part of that was a real estate struggle because we had a 10-year lease with a one-year option, and thankfully, we had that option. The real estate developers who bought this place really would've liked us to split. They offered us cash to do so. And I'm just like, I'm not going anywhere. But we had to reengage that lease at market rate, which is a very different financial situation than we were in before.
I think I would've loved to be able to do the version of the Palms that we're doing now for a long time. And I would've loved Gowanus to continue to look like how it did.
But I also know that we were, to some degree 10 years ago, we were a part of that change and people didn't want us to come. So it's one of the really wonderful things about New York City that things change and there's an energy here, and that's incredible. But it's also a sad thing because of the places we really love don't stay.
I feel really lucky that we were able to negotiate a new 10-year lease. So we're going to be here for a while, and they've moved all of the air rights from our building onto the surrounding buildings.
I look at what happened at 365 Bond. They knocked down a lot to build it. I think a lot of us were pretty concerned about what that was going to be, or what was it going to look like, or who was going to be coming.
What I'm hoping is that we're going to wind up with people that want to engage in community, that want to be a part of South Brooklyn, and want to be a part of Park Slope, and Carroll Gardens, Gowanus. All of these neighborhoods are what makes the Royal Palms special. So I think somebody who wants to live here wants to live amongst those neighborhoods. I mean, that's my positive spin.
That's why I'm hoping that they're going to engage the neighborhood because they want to live here, not just because they want to live just anywhere. Hopefully they want to live here because they want to be a part of whatever it is is going on here, which is part of what makes the Royal Palms special.
There's a lot of talk on all sides of it as there's a housing shortage. Who's making money off that housing shortage? I would've loved it to be able to just be what it was, but I also, I need to be able to see all sides of it.
I'm here. I'm not splitting. I got to appreciate the people that are coming to my place. I got to believe that they can be better here, that we can make them better here than they would be somewhere else. Because otherwise, are we even really doing anything?
If I can't make a Murray Hill douchebag be better here than he would be at Down the Hatch, then I'm not good at my job.
I think when somebody comes in here, they're influenced by the care that we give each other, the care that we give the place, the care that we give the guests, the way that the other guests are treating each other and the staff. It all goes into that. Nobody is just in a box. It's more complex than that, I think.
Perhaps that's an idealistic version of it, but I think I approach hospitality in a pretty idealistic way because otherwise, I would just go fucking crazy.
We don't have a choice. It keeps going. It’s the New York Way