Unicorn Booty Bounces
The guys behind the dishy and successful LGBTQ infotainment blog Unicorn Booty, publisher Nick Vivion and editor Kevin Farrell are coming to South by Southwest Interactive to tell the story of their journey from Seattle, where they once ruled their blog empire to New Orleans to open the brick-and-mortar restaurant/bar Booty's in the city's Bywater district.
We spoke right after Ash Wednesday, after they'd just survived their first Mardi Gras as business owners and residents of New Orleans, and right before the countdown to their Austin arrival.
Austin Chronicle: This isn't your first South by Southwest, is it?
Nick Vivion: Last year we had press passes to cover it for Unicorn Booty, so we were gallivanting around doing videos and interviews. I'd never been to SXSW before that; I didn't know what to expect except for a lot of people.
This will be our second conference. We're presenting. I'm excited for this time, it's a little less pressure.
AC: SXSW permeates the city – not unlike Mardi Gras. As new New Orleaneans, was 2013 your first full-immersion Mardi Gras?
NV: Mardi Gras does take over the entire city, but it's so different. If I had to choose – I know this might be sacrilege – but I'd much rather go to SXSW. It feels like everyone who is anyone I would want to meet is there.
Kevin Farrell: At Mardi Gras, you're lucky if anyone remembers the conversation they had with you that day… because they were so glittery.
AC: How did you two meet?
KF: Nick and I actually met at Burning Man a number of years ago. And we affectionately say that it's always Burning Man in New Orleans. The costumes, the parades, the craziness. Anything can happen.
NV: New Orleans provides a counterpoint to people like myself, that work a lot and like to work – I'm proud to be a workaholic, I enjoy it – but here sometimes there are forced breaks, literally friends will come over, pick me up and take me out. That kind of stuff doesn't really happen in Seattle.
KF: We had our eye on New Orleans the whole time we were in Seattle. We were watching the statistics: How New Orleans was the fastest-growing city in the country. And Forbes named New Orleans the biggest brain magnet in the country.
NV: Also, journalists love writing about New Orleans.
KF: We've been been featured on BBC's travel blog. I don't think that would have happened if we were in Milwaukee right now. People love telling a New Orleans story.
AC: When did you make the move to New Orleans? Aside from the business statistics, what made you decide you could live there?
NV: Last year on February 29.
KF: I went to Loyola and had lived here for about five years up until Katrina. I lost my house, my car, everything to Katrina, and relocated to Seattle, stayed there longer than I thought.
NV: I was a travel writer. I grew up in Switzerland. I grew up speaking French. It's very European. I feel at home here – the language, the architecture, the people, the weather. After living in Seattle, I was over the gray, overcast sky. One day I just turned to Kevin and said, "You know I could live there, right?" And he looked at me and said, "Really?"
KF: There is a rapidly rising LGBT tourism economy in New Orleans. Considering our background with Unicorn Booty, we envisioned Booty's as being like the central hub, where people could find us
Unicorn Booty readers come into Booty's all the time. They seek us out; they know that we're down there typing on our computers every morning, then helping to run the show at night.
AC: I've scoured the internet to find anyone else who's gone "Blog to Brick." Is this unprecedented? Were you inspired by anyone else?
KF: I tried to find good corollaries just to make sure… You have to be careful making grand pronouncements like, "We're the first to do this!" It can come back and bite you. The main area where I've seen [similar] success is e-commerce, where there is retail convergence. Great style bloggers who might have developed a following then develop a line of clothes or open a consignment shop or something like that. Other than that, the best example would be like… Disney.
AC: Ha! I was going to say Dollywood or Disney World.
KF: Cultural touchstones… They made the movies, then gave their followers a physical place to come and experience that brand – but on a much smaller scale.
NV: I'd been searching for the term "blog-to-brick" for about six months, racking my brain for some sort of discrete description of what we're doing, because [when I would talk about our plans] so many people looked blankly at me, and I was like, I need a catchphrase! I need something that encapsulates what I'm trying to get at, because no one is understanding it.
I had this realization one day when I was looking at our blog: You see the design and layout of a blog – the headline, the content. You click on the page and see it, then look at the comments. This all happens within maybe 60 seconds. Then you click away, or you continue and you dive right in. A retail space, especially a restaurant, is exactly like that. Someone opens my door, they'll look around: Who's sitting at the table? They'll feel the vibe, they'll feel the atmosphere, look at a menu, and then decide if they want to stay or go, and that generally happens within 60 seconds.
As far as maintaining community and understanding flow and how you become “sticky,” it's very similar in the restaurant business – the experiential entertainment business – to an online space. Which was really exciting to me. There are so many brick-and-mortar commercial places that are like, "We should blog!" And you have so many bloggers saying, "We need money; we don't make any money!" But if you put them together, what happens?
KF: That said, we were making some money with Unicorn Booty, primarily from advertising, We tried a couple different things: We tried a clothing line, with hits and misses. But we had a profitable business on our hands. It turns out, however, that while you can make money doing an online advertising, you can make a lot more selling craft cocktails and tapas and an experience in real life, too.
AC: What's your space like?
NV: We have a total of about 2,000 square feet, including kitchen and bathrooms. There are about 45 seats for the public. It's very intimate, but not the original vision we had by any means.
KF: When we first decided to go this route, we [imagined] it was going to be this big giant gay bar on Bourbon street. We sought investors. We talked to networks and producers about a potential reality show. Instead, we saved our own own money and built this place by ourselves. We own it now. We're so much better off for being in the building we're now. It's open, it's working, it's making money, and it's making people happy. We're going be able to move faster than we would had we taken on giant financial commitments. We're already looking for second spaces and other buildings, and thinking of other cities. And I'm not sure we would be in that position so soon had we gone the humongous, giant investor route.
AC: What's the current infrastructure/staff of Unicorn Booty?
NV: I'm the techno geeky dude, and when the website goes down, it's usually me trying to tinker and fix it. It's really me and Kev, you know. He writes and keeps everyone engaged and happy, and it's really just been a two-man show. I think that once people see behind that curtain, the sexiness of it all just dissipates, because you see it's a lot of work – like most things that are worthwhile.
AC: What's the staffing at Booty's?
NV: We have 16 people on staff, which is really cool and fun to create that life for people who make it possible for us to pay rent and all that. We have our executive chef, Greg Fonseca, born and raised in New Orleans. He was the sous chef under John Besh, under the catering part of American Sector, one of Besh's restaurant here in New Orleans. We have a sous chef, his name is Dave Cordani, who came to us with Greg. Generally, it's Kevin dealing with the front of the house, working the floor, do the training, make sure everything is working well – I do all the systems, finances on the back end. Just as with Unicorn Booty, I manage more of the stuff that no one sees, and Kevin, handles the more sexy stuff .
AC: How have you been received in NOLA? By the tech community? And by the gay community?
KF: When we were in Seattle, having an online business – having Unicorn Booty – was kind of impressive to people. We'd go to social media meet-ups and there was a lot of pride in having an online business, a successful blog. In New Orleans, people could care less. [laughter] "Online presence" – that just doesn't resonate with people. New Orleans has a huge, robust LGBT population, especially in the neighborhood we are in, the Bywater. At first glance, it seems that 'gay world' is focused on the French Quarter, around that constellation of bars there, but like any city, once you spend some time, you realize, there's much more going on.
NV: There is no gayborhood. The gays are everywhere. They are spread out. And the people that are here are very queer in the broader sense of the word. The reason why a lot of people come here is to get away from the rest of America. So you have a lot of weirdos, you have a lot of artists, you have a lot of creative people, you have so many people focused on experiences that you don't get as much of that traditional gay culture as far as shiny new toys and nice new Polos.
Everyone here, especially in the Bywater, has been so supportive of us and we frequent a lot of the businesses. We don't have a car, but get out when we have the money and the time. So we're at the Country Club [a popular restaurant, bar, and LGBT lounge with a membership pool in the back] in the night time, have breakfast at Satsuma, Maurepas for dinner – all of these businesses that are in a one- or two-block radius. There's this really wonderful constellation of businesses that support each other, it's really kind of special. They love us and we love them.
As far as the general community, there's definitely some friction between those of us that are change agents and those that prefer to keep things are they are, or as they were. These discussions happen in every neighborhood, every city: "The gay boys moving in on the corner," this kind of stuff. But we have really made a commitment to the community and to really being here. We're not absentee people. It's not like we dumped a bunch of money and ran away. Or took a bunch of money and ran away, which has happened here often.
KF: We're very conscious of the fact that we were the very definition of gentrifiers. A gay couple opening a business in a very artistic neighborhood. With that said, this building sat empty for two years. It was blighted, it was a mess. It needed so much work. No one was doing anything else here before we put this here. It sat there. Other people had the opportunity, and we chose to do something. And we did. We lead with our values. Like I said, we don't have a car, we put bike racks all around the building, we have bike parking for 12 bikes.
AC: For such tech dudes, you seem to enjoy this hand's-on existence.
NV: The touch points of the future are not just techno dreams. Most people realize that overconnectedness is a drain on all kind of resources, mental and otherwise. You lose a bit of that personal touch. It has been a big part of what we're trying to do with the whole blog-to-brick concept, to create a synergy between the two so that it's not just all about the digital world but about the physical world as well. You see it in the artisinal small-batch movement. You see a lot of small producers creating with their hands; you have Maker culture.
There are people in the world that love their digital existences. Myself included. I love the internet, I love my smart phone, I love my computer. I love video editing. But I also love not having it. People are going to eventually start using these tools as tools and not being used by them. It's just the feeling that we can all start controlling what we're doing with this stuff and somedays, we're going to turn the phone off, we're going to turn off the TV, we're going to go away and do something physical.
With Booty's, we've made something. People can come in and have an experience that may be informed by the digital but is not defined by it.