It was an eerily quiet year for Big Night Entertainment Group, the hospitality giant with over-the-top restaurants such as Empire and Scorpion Bar, and flashy nightlife venues such as the Grand and Big Night Live, which opened in 2019 next to TD Garden and immediately sold out Steve Aoki shows.
But despite the pandemic, there’s been a lot happening behind the scenes as the Boston company expands beyond bricks and mortar.
Before those changes could begin, however, Big Night had to deal with many of the issues that faced other businesses in March 2020, when COVID-19 became a public health crisis. It had just shut down all 17 restaurant and nightlife locations and laid off most of its 1,300 employees. The move brought to light a reality about the company’s staffers, and the hospitality industry in general.
“You knew their name, the fact that they came in, that they liked soccer or baseball, maybe they have two kids,” said Ed Kane, cofounder of Big Night. “But I didn’t know that they had no money in the bank, or that if they didn’t get a paycheck for two weeks, they couldn’t pay their rent.”
Kane had figured there might be a dozen workers who weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits because of their legal status, but it turned out there were close to 200. That prompted the company’s owners — Kane, his brother Joe, and Randy Greenstein — to establish the B Strong Foundation, a nonprofit they funded with an initial commitment of $100,000.
“We fed people, we helped them with their rent, we made sure their kids were safe,” Kane said.
The fund has since raised more than $600,000, and Big Night plans to make it a permanent fixture. The company also set up “Big Night Boutiques” at two of its nightlife venues, so employees could pick up anything from clothing to children’s books. And some of the restaurant kitchens were used to prepare meals for families.
The pandemic “has changed our company forever,” Greenstein said. “We were laser-focused on work and growing and building . . . Social good is always something that we cared about . . . but it wasn’t this.”
Kane said he remembers thinking his entire workforce would be back to work by last summer.
“Ignorance is bliss,” he said. “If everyone knew this was going to be a year, I think a lot of people would have been more panicked.”
Starting in June, Big Night opened a few of its restaurants, including Empire, Scorpion Bar, and Guy Fieri’s Tequila Cocina in Boston. Many employees slowly got back to work. But those limited openings brought in a small fraction of Big Night’s normal revenue. Before the pandemic, 80 percent of its money came from the nightlife businesses, including the Grand in the Seaport District and Mémoire at Encore Boston Harbor, which have remained closed due to restrictions on clubs and dancing.
Before the pandemic, Big Night expected more than $120 million in revenue last year. Instead, it brought in about $32 million, which is what the Big Night Live concert venue was projected to generate on its own.
“We were a brick-and-mortar company before,” Kane said. “We needed to figure out how to create nontraditional revenue streams.”
Kane told Greenstein he could do “whatever he wants, as long as we don’t lose money.” That’s when Big Night started thinking, well, big.
The company launched businesses it had always wanted to start, such as Big Night Talent, a management agency for artists, and Big Night Merch, an e-commerce arm. The goal is to help artists build their brands, sign deals, and land gigs. Greenstein said it was a natural extension of what the company already did. It helped that Big Night owns venues to plug artists into.
Other ventures were born out of the pandemic, including Big Night Media, the company’s bet on becoming a major content and marketing player. The operation is anchored by nine podcasts marketed across platforms including YouTube, Spotify, and TikTok. They target a millennial and Gen-Z audience, including one featuring lifestyle advice from women with corporate jobs in Boston, called “Drinks After Work.”
The company is also building a studio under Big Night Live at the Hub on Causeway to produce content. It’s expected to open in the fall.
“It has legs,” Kane said about the media division. “We get a lot of celebrities and talent, and we are friends with movers and shakers in Boston . . . They can be on a podcast in a busy area.”
Under the media umbrella is Big Night Breaks, an unconventional company Kane said initially sounded “like a bad idea,” because it required buying tens of thousands of dollars worth of sports cards. Sports card breaking ― which involves buying and trading “shares” in boxes of trading cards ― has become popular in recent years.
Big Night is already hosting live “breaking” at Big Night Live, and it plans for this to be a staple at the venue. Most of the details are under wraps for now, but a reality television show based on the brand could be on the horizon.
Big Night Breaks is one of several ways Big Night is finding alternative uses for its spaces. For example, it partnered with the Boston fitness studios Handle Bar and Barre Groove to host workout classes in empty nightclubs.
“You are going from a 1,000-square-foot barre studio to a 15,000-square-foot nightclub with a 70-foot LED wall and $2 million worth of sound and light equipment,” Greenstein said of Barre Groove, which holds classes at the Grand in the Seaport District. “It’s such a different experience.”
Big Night is also using its kitchens to create online brands, known as “ghost restaurants,” to capitalize on increased delivery and takeout orders. Scorpion Bar at 58 Seaport Blvd. is the central nervous system for multiple digitally optimized menus that customers can find on Uber Eats or DoorDash, including Wicked Big Burritos, Wicked Wings, and Pizza Aoki, the popular DJ’s online-only franchise.
“The average person doesn’t know it is coming from Scorpion or Empire,” Greenstein said. “It appeals to different people.”
All of Big Night’s ventures, from cheeky podcasts to sports cards to selling chicken wings, take the company beyond the four walls of its restaurants and nightlife venues. And that’s the point.
“Elon Musk is Tesla, and he’s sending rockets to the moon,” Greenstein said. “Why do we have to be restricted by just hospitality? We’re not going to launch ‘Big Night Landscaping,’ but there are so many things we can do.”