Spearmint Rhino



At the UK's Spearment Rhino Extreme, everything focuses on the real goods.

Proprietor John Gray’s 37-stop chain plays variations on the strip club theme.

By Chrissi Mark

The adult entertainment industry was far from John Gray’s mind as he went from law student to police officer to construction company owner to nightclub owner, but now, at 48, he sits at the head of the highest-grossing gentlemen’s club chain, Spearmint Rhinos.

“I love the business,” Gray says now of Rhinos’ $150 million annual gross sales. “It’s probably the most profitable per retail-square-foot of anything out there, other than perhaps a gaming facility.” According to him, the 24/7 Las Vegas location rakes in “over a million dollars a week. There’s not a nightclub on the planet that touches those numbers.”

Today the Rhinos chain includes 37 locations – six in England, two in Russia, two in central Europe, three in Australia, and the remaining 24 U.S. locations concentrated in California – over 2,700 employees and more than 6,000 dancers. “The clubs do phenomenal money compared to restaurants or nightclubs, both in gross and net figures.”

Spearmint owner John Gray.

And Gray knows nightclubs. He opened his first in 1985 and within five years propagated a chain of nine “discotheque nightclubs” in southern California, bearing the name Peppermint Elephant. Gray opened the first Spearmint Rhino, which is still open today, in Upland, Calif., in1990. For the first couple of years, Rhino operated like his other clubs, with no ties to adult entertainment, but the rise of Hooters and other suggestively clad waitress facilities spurred Gray to institute a “Vegas showgirl-type” uniform to perk up daytime business.

Though there was no actual nudity local authorities, the San Bernardino County Sheriff, stepped in claiming Spearmint couldn’t operate without an adult entertainment permit. With a law degree holder’s confidence, Gray said, “that’s rubbish, read your own ordinance, it’s wrong.” He then sought and won a temporary restraining order, and filed a federal lawsuit. “We invalidated the county’s ordinance,” he says, “and got the right for more than we bargained for.” With the government’s go ahead, Spearmint Rhino became a topless club and Gray says he’s never looked back.

The Van Nuys location mixes a cozy fireplace with Rhino's signature leopard carpet.

Girls! Girls! Rules?!?
All the clubs offer “some form of live female entertainment” and “some form of nudity,” but the level of that entertainment varies geographically, depending on local ordinances and laws. “For example, in California you either have a nude club without liquor, or liquor is regulated at a state level [by an] agency, the Alcohol Beverage Control Board. [The ABCB] mandates that a girl can never be bottomless, and when she’s topless she must be on a raised platform 18 inches or higher, and six feet away from the nearest customer. Whereas in Florida with liquor, you can have the girl completely nude and in immediate proximity to the customer, the so-called lap or table dance.”

To Gray, abiding by the law is the first step toward identifying your club as upscale. Spearmint Rhinos upholds its reputation with employee drug testing, strict dress codes for both employees (“long gowns as opposed to sleazy little bikini-type outfits,” and styled hair and make-up) and customers.

Keeping the Rhinos name untarnished also requires attention to the community. “We try to be a good corporate citizen and neighbor,” says Gray. “We don’t build our places to be obtrusive. We don’t believe in the flashing lights that say, “Girls, Girls, Girls!” At closing time, doormen even pick up every empty on the block, because “the neighbor that arrives tomorrow morning at their place of business is going to assume that the beer bottle came from the adult club, rather than the bar,” says Gray.

A video screen, too small to detract from the girls, hangs amidst classic Rhino art in London.

Would You Like Fries With That Shake?
Some Spearmint locations, like London, house their own five-star restaurants in addition to the Rhinos-standard 300-option champagne and wine lists.

“To be an adult club, the law zones us out in the manufacturing area and puts all types of locational requirements on us, so we take a lesser building than a first-class restaurant would have, and then build it very nice inside,” says Grey.

Regardless of their buildings’ histories, Rhinos interiors are modeled after restaurants rather than warehouses, keeping a warm, comfortable, inviting look fit for an 11 a.m. opening. “A traditional nightclub doesn’t feel proper, and looks dirty and beat up Wednesday afternoon at 2:30,” Gray says. “We build the clubs to cater to an afternoon crowd because if you do the hours and the math, we care about that Wednesday afternoon business.”

No neon lights on Birmingham, UK's facade, just three-piece suits and a red carpet.

To achieve that look, the clubs often feature candlelit tables, framed paintings, chandeliers and wooden accents. Though there is no “Cheesecake Factory cookie-cutter” format for Rhino, Gray says, “anything that we can uniform, we do.” All Rhino interiors include the same paint, tables, chairs, carpet, even artwork on the walls.
Music plays near the same volume morning, noon and night to diminish awkward silences in slower times and foster table conversation – or, er, damn’s and booyah’s – during the slam. All of the “dancefloor” lighting is strictly focused on the stage, accentuating the girls. Gray prefers the rest of the space dark, like a theatre, at all of his locations.

And though there are plasma screens airing satellite sports at the bar, a Rhinos club will never have the nightclub features of VJ or music video. “That would be distracting,” Gray says, “and probably offensive to the girls who are supposed to be getting the attention.”


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Copyright 2005 Club Systems International Magazine
Copyright 2005 TESTA Communications