BY JARED GRABOW
Walking into Union Square’s Coffee Shop feels a bit like stepping into a classic ‘50’s diner with a retro-chic edge. It’s a place to grab grub 23 hours a day that seems to adjust depending on when you come in. It’s almost a shame there’s not a time elapsed camera to capture the transformation as the hours go by – casual and charming by day, see-and-be-seen hotspot by night. What most people don’t know is what the place doubles as during the in-between time. And just exactly what is that tall shiny mysterious silver door with a red velvet rope doing at the back of the shop?
The shiny door opens and out comes the deceptively young entrepreneur Bernard Smith. “I’m Bernard”, he smiles, and extends a firm handshake. It’s a foggy- cool fall day, but one that required a few extra layers. You can tell Bernard’s one of those lucky guys who can look good but keep fashion effortless. Designer jeans, fitted shirts, ball cap, and clean white tennies. “Thanks for the complement, but I actually hate shopping” Bernard jokes, “Especially for pants. But I love sportin’ the sweatshirts.”
To understand Bernard, it all starts with a passion to solve problems. “I’ve created multiple businesses”, he says. “It always starts with trying to fill a void”.
Growing up in East Harlem, Bernard faced early challenges. Through sports, Bernard was able to overcome a tough urban upbringing by using his athletic talents in ice hockey to attend a boarding school in New England. Ice Hockey served its purpose as Bernard was able to secure an athletic scholarship and demonstrate his ability to play at the elite D-I level. He still plays for fun in recreational leagues at the Chelsea Piers. But it would be business that would become his first love. “At school, I got to know some of my friend’s parents and would always ask them questions about what they did. I’m driven by the idea of being young and successful”, Smith explains. “I’m sure it’s great to be old and rich. But why not get try to get it (success) when you can enjoy it a bit more?”
This entrepreneurial drive would be evident at an early age in boarding school. Smith realized his many of his classmates would see other kids get care packages, only to find that their own busy parents didn’t have the time to pull them together. Almost overnight, Smith and his roommate put together a small business to take orders, make purchases and ship packages. Within weeks, the company expanded into other schools throughout New England. After relocating to NYC, Bernard would keep an open eye out for other problems. While not having a desire to enter fashion outright, he started dating a model and developed a close friendship with NY Models booker Ben Garcia. After hearing about several model’s challenges to just walk into a coffee shop between shoots without getting harassed, Bernard again saw an opportunity. Modellounge X Microsoft was born. While most young guys may have thought up a variation to the idea while daydreaming on a lunch break, pulling it off is a different matter. As the famous Silicon Valley adage goes, “ideas are good. Execution is better”. And Smith had the right balance of drive, charisma, and temperament to execute. “I never really had any doubts”, Smith explains. “If I have an idea that pops into my head, I just act on it is quickly as possible”
Modellounge is just that, a place where models from the top ten agencies all over the world have a getaway. While plush leather sofas, large flat screen plasmas, advanced surround sound systems and snacks and beverages are at model’s disposal, it’s essentially a functional place where models can just do the simple things to meet basic needs. Get online. Relax. Not get hounded by hundreds of guys oodling them. Almost like a Fortune 500 CEO would check into the Admiral’s Club at JFK, models can take a break and relax between a grueling schedule of photo shoots and agency meetings. In addition to having this oasis, models get access to a VIP card which provides discounts to fashion retailers, independent hotels, and massage services. The partner list is a who’s who of where you’d want to shop in NYC. Free food and drinks, as well as state-of-the-art computers and technology services also help the lounge transform into a home away from home.
Four years later, it’s safe to say the idea has become a success and Modellounge X Microsoft is here to stay. “My goal is for Modellounge to still be around 20, 30, even 40 years from now”, he says. “But hopefully I won’t be the one opening it up each morning” Smith smiles. Perhaps the biggest reason is the idea took off is that there really is no “catch”. No capturing of model’s phone numbers and e-mails to try to get them to visit clubs. No hidden costs or fees that models discover after they secure their membership. The place has avoided the typical glamour industry pitfalls and stayed true to its roots. “I’ll let the clubs accomplish the “cool”, Smith says. “I just want to provide a resourceful place that serves its purpose and does what’s right”. Smith’s authenticity has been rewarded with partnerships with Microsoft, Xbox, and Skype, who have helped provide capital and resources to the business. Next up for Smith is exploring international venues such as Paris, London and Milan, as well determining other channels in which to expand the brand. Smith is also a business co-owner trying to tackle another issue near and dear to the heart of New Yorkers, the city’s challenge with waste disposal. While launching two successful businesses would be enough for many an overachiever, you get the feeling that Smith may just be getting going. Next up: Universal healthcare? Climate change?
We walk outside the shiny door back to the reality of the fall day to take some pictures. Walking across the velvet rope, a realization hits me. I’ll likely never get to go through that tall shiny door again, as I’m not a model. But that’s part of the places charm. In his limited time off, Smith enjoys visiting model girlfriend’s native home of Puerto Rico. “The W Vieques (small island right off of Puerto Rico’s mainland) is great”, he says as we walk outside and he stares into the cold NYC fall. “It’s definitely a tough spot to beat in the winter”. After seeing him in action just for a morning it is hard to believe that he gets to do getaways. Bernard’s humble demeanor and intense work ethic spell out one thing. This young man is just getting started.