Interview With Joshua And Sarissa Schwartz | Finding The Fun In Life

The art of having a well-balanced lifestyle for Joshua and Sarissa Schwartz is finding the fun in everything

With over nearly forty years of experience in the Food & Beverage (F&B) and the night life scene, Joshua and Sarissa Schwartz launched SJS Group in 2016 as a platform for their future endeavours. A few of SJS Group’s unique and fun filled concepts include Lulu’s Lounge which just opened early this year, as well as expanding the ever popular New York City based Employees Only concept in Singapore as well as in Hong Kong. 

The Hedonist had the great opportunity to catch up with Joshua and Sarissa Schwartz to find out what it is like to be in this bustling industry, how they complement each other in their work and personal life as well as what they get up to in their free time.

How did the both of you (Joshua & Sarissa Schwartz) enter in the Food & Beverage and night club scene?

Sarissa: For me, I’ve been in the F&B industry for awhile. My first job was at a bakery filling and eating up all the cookies! I was 14 then. And then I was a hostess at a restaurant. I went to a college at Washington DC and in order to pay for student loans, I started bar tending at the side. I got into this routine of spending all of time either studying or working and turns out I really enjoyed my work. I couldn’t really see any other career option. When I think about not being in this industry, I would get upset. I started to realise this is what I love to do, and it started from being a necessity when I was in college.

Joshua: For me, my father was a chef in New York so I always grew up in the business. I started when I was 10 and during the summer vacations, I would spend it in the kitchen deveining shrimp, peeling potatoes and prepping food. I always had a passion for the F&B business. But my favourite thing about it was to get off work at six at night. I would be allowed to go to the bar and order a Shirley Temple with my chef whites on, watching all these people come to the bar and on the dance floor, interacting with each other. It was so magical to me. This interaction was a new play every night. It was when I fell in love with Front Of House, as opposed to being in the kitchen. I’ve always had jobs relating to the F&B industry, like a dishwasher, a waiter, a bartender, kind of every job in this business and learnt more and more as I went on. I also spent many years doing something else to try and get out of this business because it is a very challenging industry but I always fell back in love with it. At some point, you need to realise that if you really enjoy what you do, it’s a gift so you might as well honour that!

What is the most interesting thing about being in this industry?

Joshua: It is a very zen business! No, not really but because in this industry you can plan as much as you want but when the night falls, everything changes. It never goes according to plan. And anything you built that entire night, any good will you built, any amazing experience you create, the next day you just start from scratch. It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday, everything starts all over again. Everything is constantly changing so you have to be in the moment all the time. I think to me that is super exciting and super interesting about the business. If you’re someone who likes to plan and go ahead with that, you’re not going to be able to last long in the industry.

Bang Bang night club in Singapore

Sarissa: All of our concepts are really different and what I find really interesting is what motivates people to choose a particular experience and what keeps them coming back. So, I love the fact that when there is a crazy night at Bang Bang, those regulars may not be regulars else where but they also might be. I love to look at the reasons behind that, and what is it about this experience at this particular place that this person really loves and what motivates him to keep on coming back. Being able to understand that and build on that to make their experience even better, I find really interesting.

Tell us how it is like working with each other and how you both complement one another.

Sarissa: We were on a long boat ride last night coming back from a diving trip and Josh and I were talking about this. For us, what we love is we can’t imagine not having somebody that we’re constantly bouncing ideas off of. It gives us a sense of security and confidence that I wouldn’t have if I don’t have Josh being around, and cares for the business as much as I do.

Joshua: On that point, I think it is a very difficult business because sometimes your own instincts aren’t always right and sometimes it’s very easy with F&B to personalise your experience based on what you personally want. That’s not always the smartest thing to do. You have to be analytical. Sometimes a person has a very crazy idea and you really need someone who can bounce ideas off and be there to listen to you.

Sarissa: I think also because of our age difference and Joshua’s extensive experience in F&B, while we both think alike, we also have different perspectives on the way things should be executed or what would work.

Joshua: There are certainly things I don’t understand, like social media for example. And it is so important today for the business. Sarissa is extremely savvy with that whereas I come from a more operations background so my strength is more on that. Sarissa on the other hand is more on the soft skills side so we compliment each other this way, and vice versa. I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it as well as her.

What vision do you have for SJS Group?

Joshua: We want to create projects that add to the community and fabric of Singapore. We are very conscious of the type of product and projects that we take on at this point. We try to have them add value.

Sarissa: I think that’s the most important, whether is it in Singapore or in another city. We just want to make sure we’re doing something with purpose and be able to make a difference, make things better and leave people with great memories. One of the things we tell our staff at Bang Bang or even at the other venues is that you have to understand that the memories people are making here, they are hopefully going to be talking about it in 10 years, we want to create some sort of nostalgia for people when they talk about us even when their partying days are over.

Joshua: The unfortunate thing about night clubs is you only have people for a small window in life as guests. In that window, the fortunate thing is you can build lasting memories like “that’s where I partied” or “this is the place I’ve had the greatest partying experience of my life” and that’s kind of very different from other industries and even the rest of our restaurant businesses. That’s something so specific for a night club so we’re really fortunate that we can create and build memories for our guests that will hopefully last them.

Sarissa: Our future doesn’t just revolve around night life but we do want to take on projects that make the community better and more interesting.

What does luxury mean to SJS Group?

Joshua: Luxury is a very malleable term. When we think of luxury or how to provide luxury, we try to bring it down to the micro element of it. So, personalization is key. Trends come and go in waves and for the F&B and night life industry, seven years ago luxury meant giant bottles of alcohol, tons of expensive champagne and being exclusive. But now, luxury is personalization, approachability and fun. We spend a lot of time thinking on how we can personalize an experience to an individual. If you look at business class airlines, it’s more about finding personalized way to approach people and that’s what luxury is becoming now with the access to all the data we have now.

How does SJS Group ensure that it continues to remain one step ahead in the industry?

Sarissa: For one, we are constantly talking about this. We have the ability to be constantly, constantly talking about it unlike other businesses where they might just be talking to their business partners at work and they go home to their significant other. This allows for brainstorming, for us to say things to each other that we might not say to other people for the fear of being judged and to give a lot of care, love and thought. I’d liken it to parents speaking about their children when they go out for dinner. So, I think that keeps us one step ahead. And also, making sure that we have very emotionally intelligent and warm staff who continue to make people feel welcomed and have that sense of home at our venues.

Joshua: One thing we always tell our staff is let’s make it a mission for today to be better a little better than we were yesterday. So we usually have a meeting on Mondays, after the weekend to discuss everything, like what went great but most importantly, what are we each going to focus on to become better than who we were yesterday. I think what make Sarissa and I different is we try not to worry about competition but rather focus on ourselves and what we are doing. If we spend so much time worrying about what other people are doing, we are distracted from what we should do. So when we concentrate on what we do, we can become better.

Where do you get your inspiration for each of the night clubs/bars?

Sarissa: We do a lot of listening. We really listen to what people are telling us. Like “I went to XYZ, and I would love this here”. And then we ask ourselves, what are they really asking for? What about that place do they really like? Over time, we base our inspirations on on our analysis and our understanding on what the market is asking for, dissecting what they really want. Because honestly, even for us, we don’t exactly know what we really want. Our inspiration doesn’t come all at once, it comes over time, gradually. Like for Lulu’s Lounge, it took us 3 years.

Lulu’s Lounge in Singapore

Joshua: The thing about concepts is they take on a life on their own. They start to live and breathe by themselves and over time they start telling you more than you tell them what you want it to be. So, Lulu’s Lounge is a great example of that. It started off in one direction. We knew how we wanted it to feel like but we weren’t sure how we wanted it to manifest. We spent a long time discussing and thinking about it, going through different versions of it. So we went through one version of it for about 6 months but it’s nothing like what Lulu’s is like now because it morphed and changed over time. It always starts with an idea or a feeling. When Sarissa was talking about listening to the market, they don’t tell you they like this particular place for the lighting or the furniture, they’re telling you how they felt about a place. A place might not be nice, but it feels nice to them. My favourite place in New York in the 80s called Nell’s and it was super popular. But it was a black box, there was nothing to it but rather the emotions that come with it.

What can we look forward to next from SJS Group?

Joshua: We have a couple of projects that we’re developing. One in particular that we’re focusing on. We have been working on this one for awhile, we knew how we wanted it to feel like. Just yesterday, it was sort of a Frankenstein moment and the idea came to life. That’s probably the next project we are going to pursue. But in general, we may be looking to diversify in terms of the actual offerings we do but we try to keep a theme running through.

Sarissa: That theme is definitely having fun! Because if not, we’re not passionate about it. We get approached to do projects all the time but some of them just don’t feel right. If we can’t put our personal style on it then it’s not something we feel passionate about. If it feels like work every time we talk about it then we know it’s not something we want to do.

How would you describe a perfect day for you?

Sarissa: Going to the beach with our dog. He loves the sand and he’s super cute! Catching a sunset. Quite easy, not much.

Joshua: Somewhere in your perfect day, there’s a foot massage! It’s also really nice to walk into Employees Only, Lulu’s Lounge and then over to Bang Bang and wow everyone is having fun, having a great time at the end of the day when Sarissa and I take the cab back home.

What are your tips to having a balanced lifestyle?

Sarissa: It’s about saying no but also releasing guilt for not always being around. Joshua struggles with this more than I do but at some time you have to let go and take into account your personal time and well being, keeping yourself sane. Being in this industry, staying off your devices is tough to do, even on Sundays. It’s important to take time off and not going into our venues, not socialising or being at an event and being okay with that. Understanding that life will go on, it’s okay not being around most of the time. Putting myself first is really important. At one time, we were slaves to the industry and it really can take a toll on us.

What are some of your hobbies or activities you do in your free time?

Joshua: I recently got Sarissa into boxing. I used to box, still do now to try and stay in shape. She loves it. We also scuba dive. And cooking, we cook pretty often! When I first met Sarissa, she couldn’t cook anything. I don’t know what happened over the last year but she taught herself to be a phenomenal cook!

Sarissa: Now I’m even starting to bake, sugar free!

How do you define success both personally and professionally?

Joshua: Professionally, having the luxury and ability to create your day the way you want it to be. For me, I don’t have to clock into an office and I can design my day around that. Seeing people happy at our places, and seeing our places busy is also a sign of success. It’s one of those kind of industries where success is instant. Every single night it’s either successful or not. And choosing projects that we want to do, what we’re passionate about or even if we choose not to do anything next! Personally, every day I come home to Sarissa and our dog, that’s success.

Sarissa: Yes, I agree to being able to design our day and having the freedom, control over my own life.

What is a quote that you live by?

Sarissa: I actually have a lot of quotes! There is a poem when I was a little girl at home, there were a lot of inspiring quotes. The poem is called P.S I Love You and I have it all memorized. I didn’t understand what they meant when I was younger, I would take it very literally. One of my favourite was “don’t be afraid to go out on a limp, there’s where the fruit is”.

Joshua: For me, this quote by Mae West “you only live once, but if you do it well, once is enough”. Especially as I get older, this quote resonates with me even more.

Our motto at The Hedonist is “You can be do and have anything you want.” What’s your take on such a statement?

Joshua: It’s tough, but it’s great to have that as a motto. I’d like to think that, and I am living proof of this, that you really can be, do and have anything you want if you put your mind to it and work hard at it.