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The Brew That Makes Sam Nazarian

Drive, Daring and Family Legacy

by Danielle Berrin

September 2, 2009 | 9:05 pm

Sam Nazarian, the 34-year-old real estate mogul, is stuck at a stoplight in the Pacific Palisades when three pre-adolescent boys start screaming from the sidewalk.

“Ohmigod! That’s so sexy!” one of them shouts, reacting to Nazarian’s car. “That’s so sexy!” the boy cries, over and over, sounding hysterical as he bounces up and down. “That’s a Bugatti!” he yells to his friends, “It’s the fastest car in the world!”

Nazarian grins and shrugs it off. He’s used to hoi polloi ogling and coveting his very expensive toys. Pretty much everywhere we had been that day — from his fancy hotel to his beachfront restaurant to friend and former L.A. Laker Rick Fox’s Malibu birthday party — people had been photographing his car. It is the Picasso of sports cars, a $1.8 million masterwork Nazarian says is “faster than a Formula One race car.” Certainly anyone with even a mild knowledge of mechanics can appreciate its 16 cylinders, four twin turbos and top speed of 254 miles per hour, even though it’s the kind of thing more likely to be found in a collector’s garage than on the road. (Just ask Jay Leno, who keeps his locked up.)

“What are you, A DRUG DEALER?” the kid yells across the street.

Nazarian lets out a raucous, full-bellied laugh that sounds thoroughly hoarse from smoking too many cigarettes. He’s been called less flattering names. He looks at the kid and shouts through the window, “Are you Persian?” There’s a moment of camaraderie, then he drives away.

Nazarian is one of those people who inspire a certain amount of awe. He is CEO of SBE, the Los Angeles-based restaurant-hotel-nightclub-and-film company he created that is fast becoming a real-estate empire. He also comes from one of the most prominent Persian Jewish families in the world — his father, Younes Nazarian, is a co-founder of Qualcomm, making Sam one of the heirs to a fortune estimated at as much as $2 billion. He owns three hotels: the SLS — for “style, luxury, service” — in Los Angeles, the Sahara in Las Vegas and the Ritz Plaza, being developed on Miami Beach. What made him famous, though, were his opulent nightclubs on whose dance floors Paris Hilton and Britney Spears created tabloid gold. Hyde Lounge and Area are the only two currently operating, but over the years he’s been constantly opening, closing and reinventing a steady stream of of-the-moment nightspots — Shelter, Prey, Privilege, S-Bar and Foxtail among them. He also owns a collection of restaurants: the Japanese Katsuya, with locations in Brentwood, Hollywood and Glendale and a fourth opening this fall in downtown Los Angeles; XIV by Michael Mina; The Abbey in West Hollywood and The Bazaar by Jose Andres.

Just this summer, SBE took over management of the Four Points Sheraton at LAX and the beachfront icon, Gladstone’s of Malibu, adding an additional 700 to the company’s 3,000 employees. Next month, Nazarian will open a 13,000-square-foot club in Hollywood, and he says he is beginning negotiations on a hush-hush deal that includes a 15-hotel portfolio.

You might say he’s poised to become the next Conrad Hilton.

Nazarian’s youth is part of his cachet. In late July, he celebrated his 34th birthday. Twice. There was the bacchanalian pool party with 150 people, organized by his friends and hosted at his Hollywood Hills manse, to fit his public image. And, a few days later, there was a quieter affair on the garden terrace at SLS, on La Cienega, for the inner circle only — Nazarian’s family and closest friends — at which L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa “just dropped by,” teenage daughter in tow, to roast his newly appointed airport commissioner. Nazarian is both the youngest and the only Iranian American to serve on that board.

That he’s amassed large swaths of real estate, Hollywood celebrity and political consideration at such a young age has won him lots of attention. His success has been chronicled by The New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Business Week, Fortune, W and The New York Times, among others. He was named one of the 100 most powerful people in Southern California by Los Angeles Times Magazine, one of “the influentials” by Los Angeles Magazine, and has been labeled “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Emperor of Cool,” “Mr. Big” and “The Nightlife King.”

Crisis, notably the economic one, is something Nazarian has deftly avoided. In the past year, as pretty much everyone — wealthy or working class — has been pinching their pennies, Nazarian has been snatching up a variety of new properties. For him, the lousy economy presents opportunities for profit, and sure enough, his business is booming beautifully while less resilient, or less talented, businessmen crash and burn beside him.

Nazarian arrives at SLS on the Saturday morning after his birthday in the Bugatti. (He collects the world’s supercars; he now has seven; he once had 15.) He is a towering figure, a husky, 6-foot-4 with fleshy cheeks and a prominent nose. His black hair is slicked back, and he wears Ray-Ban aviators, a polo shirt and cargo pants with the words “Stay Rude” monogrammed on one of the pockets. The bad-boy image is appealing, but deceptive. He walks in with a flurry of energy, greets his staff and his guests with handshakes and lands at a table in serene calm. He orders a latte.

“Ever heard the myth you can’t freeze alcohol?” Nazarian asks me, referring to a production taking place at the next table. “Well, we do.” The waiter comes over, pours a mix of vodka and orange juice into a bowl and tosses in a heap of liquid nitrogen. Smoke billows out in a frivolous display and then I’m eating blood-orange screwdriver sorbet with espresso-bean garnish.

Nazarian takes a moment to marvel at his creation. “You spend your life trying to build a brand, and then it all comes together,” he says. “All the insecurities, all the nightmares, the not knowing, the struggles, deciding on a property that everyone said was the worst property in town.”

He lists their objections: “‘It’s across from a body shop; it’s on the wrong part of La Cienega.’ Like what the hell were we doing, right?” He looks around at the hotel’s outlandish decor. “It’s, like, so out there. Are people really going to embrace it? The people I want?” Then, “Opening at the worst possible time in human history, Dec. 4, 2008 ... now, here it is, eight months later, and, literally, we’re the best performing hotel in L.A.”

Not everyone can open a hotel amid one of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and then boast that it’s trumping the Four Seasons in occupancy.

“If this was 2007, we’d be killing it,” he says, admitting that reduced room rates at SLS have somewhat offset profit margins — a standard room is currently priced at $300 per night, when it might otherwise be $425. Then he declares that SLS’s restaurant, The Bazaar, which takes up the entire ground floor of the hotel, is “the best performing restaurant in L.A.” He has a penchant for hyperbole — almost everything he owns or admires is described in glowing terms: A restaurant is “iconic”; an idea “groundbreaking.” And lots of the time his claims are validated: The Bazaar was awarded four stars by L.A. Times food critic S. Irene Virbila last February, who wrote, “In the midst of this gloomy climate, The Bazaar arrives like fireworks bursting in the night.”

Right before the economy tanked, Nazarian shelled out somewhere between $300 million and $400 million to purchase the Sahara, a down-on-its-luck Vegas landmark he says he hopes to resurrect. Although it’s been eclipsed by more glamorous, modern hotels like the Bellagio and the Wynn, the Sahara remains legendary on the Strip — it was the sixth hotel to open there, in 1952, and once hosted The Rat Pack, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich and Bobby Darin. Many in the business world thought Nazarian’s purchase naive, doubting that the newly minted developer could compete with Vegas tycoons like Steve Wynn, Sheldon Adelson and Kirk Kerkorian.

“I don’t have $3 billion to play with,” he admits. “I’m repositioning an asset, and everybody thinks I’m crazy, in an area of the Strip that everyone says is completely dead. But as soon as we went non-refundable on our deposit, MGM-Mirage bought the 26 acres across the street, and the whole area just exploded — so you look like a genius.” 

Nazarian says it didn’t bother him that right after the purchase, Las Vegas was crushed by the downturn. “I bought Sahara more for the asset, for the bones, so it really didn’t matter to me what Sahara was doing; I bought it for what it was going to do.” In fact, he says he had a hunch that the economy was headed south — people were being seduced by “stupid deals,” he said, and in 2007, he sold his family’s interest in 11 hotels.

“You know, they say in real estate, ‘You’re only as good as the deals you didn’t do, not the deals you did.’”

Nazarian was born in 1975 in Tehran, the youngest of four siblings. With the eruption of the revolution in Iran, his family moved briefly to Israel, then came to Los Angeles when Sam was 3. Younes had grown up poor in Tehran’s Jewish ghetto, worked in Israel in the 1950s, and then returned to Iran, where he and his brother, Parvis, made a fortune importing construction equipment. In Los Angeles, using money from their savings accounts in Israel, the Nazarian brothers purchased Standard Tool & Die. But their big break came when they invested in a communications company called Omninet, which later merged with the technology outfit Qualcomm. When Qualcomm went public in 1991, the Nazarian brothers, Qualcomm’s fifth and sixth largest shareholders, became billionaires.

Sam starting working when he was 12. Instead of summer camp, he worked the floor at his father’s factory, and throughout his youth held a variety of odd jobs: cleaning toilets at a deli in Century City, selling tickets to Ripley’s on Hollywood Boulevard and, as a teen, selling antiques at his maternal uncle’s Manhattan store.

For Nazarian, these experiences were so formative that in his mind he didn’t grow up pampered, he grew up working class.

“I’d work with Dominicans and get disgustingly dirty and sweaty, and I loved it,” he says, as we zip past the estates on Sunset Boulevard. “I didn’t grow up in posh Beverly Hills mansions; I grew up with guys from Staten Island — Domingo, Santiago, Isaac — guys making $50 a day, wearing the same clothes three days in a row. Day laborers,” he says resolutely. “Those were my summer playmates.”

Yet, the rest of the year he went to Beverly Hills High School, where he made a name for himself as a sports bookie and a jock. Deals, more than academics, were his calling, and in college, he bounced from NYU to University of Denver and finally USC, before dropping out.

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His first venture out of college was to start a cell-phone company with $25,000; two years later he sold his stake for just under $1 million. He was 22 when he joined his father and brother in the family investment house, where he was given charge to expand the real estate holdings. He began investing in mixed-use and multifamily housing, then hotels. He also got into the habit of flipping high-end residential real estate; he bought Jennifer Lopez’s Mulholland Drive mansion, including her furniture, for $11.5 million, got it into Architectural Digest, then sold it 18 months later to Gwen Stefani for $13 million. Nazarian often boasts that with those deals he set a “record price per square foot.” By age 28, he told The New Yorker, he had invested between $100 million and $150 million in real estate, before, he says, he “tired of being perceived only as money.” It was around that time that he established SBE, purchased his first two clubs and began investing in independent film (though he had some success he has since slowed his pursuits in Hollywood, explaining, “You have to do what you’re great at, not what you’re good at”).

Defying stereotype, Nazarian is both an heir and a self-made man. From the time he was young and ironing dollar bills in the family laundry room, he was determined to make his own way. There are rumors about how much money Nazarian was given by his father — all of which he denies. “It wasn’t, ‘Here’s a check, and go do whatever you want,’” he insists. “You’re accountable to what you’ve been given to work with; I had to prove a business model.”

Nazarian’s hyperbole stops when he talks about his private life. If he admits any regret, it’s that in the desire to prove himself, he developed a drive so ceaseless, he hasn’t kept up with more personal parts of his life.

Nazarian is learning that even his kind of success is not entirely fulfilling. Lately, he has been feeling like he’s standing at a precipice; unsure whether to blast forward and cement his legacy or settle down. Is he willing to compromise his grand ambitions to be both titan and family man?

On the way to lunch at Gladstone’s, a week after SBE took over, Nazarian relaxed into the traffic and let his guard down. “I’m at a point right now where I’m feeling the fruits of my artwork; I’ve got recognition, monetary success, leadership in my industry — my role models are now coming to me for advice. And then, there’s the bad stuff: everybody recognizes you; you’re only as good as your best or worst product; it’s a very public platform.” Even though he is often the most popular person in a room, he sometimes feels as though he’s among strangers. On any given night, it’s more likely he’ll dine with Sting or Victoria Beckham than with his close friends.

Somehow, there are pleasures in life that still elude him. Not least, a wife and family. And this is where his strong Persian Jewish background comes to the fore. His mother, Soraya, is a sculptor who studied art at the University of Judaism and in Italy. She is the family matriarch, beloved by her children — David, who works in private equity, Shulamit, an art gallery owner, and Sharon, a political science professor at UCLA as well as the president of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation. Sam is close with his siblings and feels a particular pride in mentoring his eight nieces and nephews, though he is the only sibling without children of his own.

“There is a void; the stuff that hopefully you’ll one day get to,” he says. “These guys I deal with go, ‘Well what’s the next thing? You’re on the periphery to be able to go really, really big. To move the pendulum. And moving the pendulum would mean a very, very big partnership or a very, very big acquisition,” he says with anticipation clearly in his voice. Then, he adds, “Is that something I’m willing to sacrifice [for]? Because once you do, there’s no turning back.”

“I’m perfectly fine where I am: I don’t answer to anybody; I’m very profitable; I don’t have to worry about pretty much anything. But, I mean, how much more do you want? Those are the things I struggle with daily.”

He says he has fantasies about recreating the family he grew up in. “When I sit with some of our celebrity friends, we talk about guys that are used to getting things the way they want it, and ultimately that’s not the kind of girl I want to end up with, the actress, the model — but a good solid person,” he says. 

“A good solid person won’t put up with 90 percent of the s—- that 90 percent of the other girls will put up with, and you have to be OK with that. You have to be OK with things not being on your terms, with the world not revolving around you and your schedule — and it’s the balance of ‘F—-! I could just ... it’s there! People are handing it to me.’” And just like that, Nazarian is back to talking about business. “It’s something I worked nine years on, and I’ve sacrificed so much for….”

The mental seesaw continues.

“Sometimes my mom asks me, ‘Is there any girl you ever went out with you regret not marrying?’ Now, there’s a couple she has in mind,” he says, laughing. “Some of them stuck around for three or four or five years, and then they got married and had kids…. But I always say to her, ‘No matter how great they were, at that particular stage of my life, there’s something called ambition and passion’; it’s instinctual.”

At Gladstone’s, Nazarian happily gloats over his new jewel. “I don’t care who you are, this will never get duplicated in anyone’s lifetime,” he says. Of all the beachfront venues in Los Angeles, there’s nothing except for Gladstone’s that has the same “edge” or “quality,” even though Nazarian dislikes the food. He gives me a quick tour, promising major renovations and a brand-new menu, though he is most excited about the little slice of beach out back, where, thanks to available alcohol permits, he envisions “$500,000 Sundays.” The manager leads us to our table, flashing a smile. “Welcome to our town,” he says, and, as if automated, whips back around to correct himself — “Sam’s town.” 

At the table, Nazarian starts futzing with a piece of bread and says, “You know the best compliment you can give a girl? The one that’s worked for me the best?” He smiles broadly, breaking off a thick piece of crust from the loaf and smearing it with butter. “‘You’re the perfect bite,’” he says, lowering his eyes. He adds a touch of salt, “‘Just enough of everything.’”

Part of the reason Nazarian isn’t yet married may have something to do with his feelings about the Persian community. On the one hand, the community’s minority status has amplified his success. But while he clearly identifies with the community of his birthplace, he’s also outgrown its clannishness and sees himself as a person of the world. In conversation, and even publicly, he is blunt with his criticisms.

“I think there’s a lot in the Persian culture that’s gorgeous and rich in tradition, but there’s a lot of negativity in the culture,” he says plainly. Then he lists: “Superficiality, insincerity, doing things because you have to and not because you want to — like having a wedding for 2,000 people because you want to show everybody how important you are.”

“I’ve taken myself out of the community to some degree. That world is a commitment. Everybody’s got an opinion. You either gotta be all in, or you’re all out.”

Even as Nazarian has assimilated into the larger culture, his success has crowned him the poster child for Persian Jewry. Yet he insists he has no desire to be the community’s “ambassador,” as he puts it, though, at least in Los Angeles, he already is.

In May, he was invited by the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans (PAAIA) to speak at their annual leadership training conference at UCLA, in front of thousands of young Iranian Americans. He was in good company: Omid Kordestani, a vice president of Google, was there, along with Hamid Biglari, the Princeton nuclear physicist turned vice chairman of Citicorp and Parisa Khosravi, a vice president at CNN, among others. Backstage, Nazarian sat nervously in a corner, dressed impeccably in his custom-made Italian threads. It was a rare moment of humility; he was the “nightclub king” in a room full of the most well-educated and powerful Iranian Americans in the world. He was also the only Jewish speaker, yet, even here, the crowd belonged to him.

“We all work for you, Sam,” trilled the conference host, journalist Rudi Bakhtiar, sounding mildly flirtatious as Nazarian walked onstage. “You are a unique individual who has been born into A LOT of money, but you didn’t let that stop you. You are so incredibly ambitious, and you have developed such an amazing name for yourself — I call it ‘in all the guilty pleasures.’”

“We just want to get into your club, that’s all,” joked Maz Jobrani, a popular Iranian comedian, to much laughter.

“Believe it or not,” Nazarian said, turning toward Jobrani, “When I heard you were hosting, I said, ‘You think Maz wants to get into a club, or a movie?’” The crowd erupted into laughter.

Then Nazarian turned serious. He spoke to the Persian parents in the room, urging them to “Let children dream,” and not to pressure them into pursuing livelihoods that would make them rich instead of happy. As much as he loathes that wealth is the Persian community’s barometer of success, he’s their standard-bearer.

“There’s a lot of excess,” Nazarian remarked to me about the Iranian Jewish community one day last January as we were on our way to a Lakers game — where he had courtside seats. “Any community that for hundreds of years wasn’t allowed to have any luxury ... the first thing you do is you want to show that. It’s that chip on your shoulder, like, ‘Hey, listen. We made it.’”

I ask if he considers his lifestyle excessive. He becomes quiet.

“This is a rental,” he jokes of his car, before bursting into his raspy, infectious, smoker’s laugh. (This time we’re in the Maybach 57S — finer than the Rolls Royce and the Bentley.) When I mispronounce the model, Nazarian chides, “That’s like $50-grand you just knocked off.” When he recovers from laughing, he says, “Listen, you live in the most outward city in the country. In L.A., it’s all about what you drive; it’s all about where you live, because people drive up and down Canon and they can see your house — it’s a visual city.”

“People think,” he continues, ‘Oh, wow, he’s got everything he wants,’ but then live that life,” he demands. “I always say, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ Some people say it about me, ‘Oh if I had his dad’s money, I could be ...’ but, you know, 90 percent of people who are second generation of high-net-worth individuals usually lose everything. Those are the things that were ingrained in my head, not because somebody told me, because I saw it.”

Truth be told, Nazarian could have grown up and done nothing. He could have frittered it all away like a playboy without a purpose. But that was not his father’s legacy; Younes had to rebuild his life after enormous losses, and he taught young Sam the value of hard work. All grown up, Sam Nazarian has come to embody the zenith of the American Dream.

“Who do you think added more to society,” he asks me over a banana split at Gladstone’s. “Mother Teresa or Bill Gates?”

I tell him I don’t think it’s a sound comparison, but I let him make his point.

“OK, fine. Did I spend my time giving like my sister, who spends her time educating and giving and raising three kids, which is as noble as it gets; or do I give 3,500 people jobs? Am I being productive? Am I adding to society?”

I realize he doesn’t have an answer that gives him much comfort.

“The point is, I’m trying to be creative and invent and inspire others and give people who have a horrible day a reason to come in and enjoy. And in the meantime, do I live an excessive life? Sure I do. Do I need a jet? But the fact is, I busted my ass for four years to buy this. When my partners call me and I gotta go to Vegas in two hours, I’m not flying Southwest.”

Still mulling it over, he adds:

“I have members of my family who have just as much money as I did when I started who don’t do shit. They’re great fathers, they’re great wives. And I don’t know which one is right or wrong. Would it have been better if I just sat in an office, made a couple of investments, enjoyed and traveled more? I still don’t know if I made the right decision; I don’t know if I ever will. Would it have been better if I just got married when I was 25? Should I just say f—- it? I think about that a lot.”

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