Chitchatting With Woody’s Co-Owner Billy Weiss

Billy Weiss talks Rosewood, keeping up with club trends, and renovations to one of Philly's premier LGBT clubs.

The dimly-lit, atmospheric interior of Woody's new Rosewood cocktail lounge, which opened in April.

When it comes to interacting with media outlets, the Weiss brothers — co-owners of Woody’s, Voyeur, and now Rosewood — are, shall we say, shy. So much so that they’re rarely photographed in public (note that we have no profile shot to share — sad face), and their media motto goes something along the lines of, “No press, is good press.” Still, Billy Weiss was gracious enough to divert his attention away from the bar for a few lines of gay chatter about that new side-pocket Woody’s addition you’ve probably heard of (but never been to), as well as what it’s like being a club owner in the Gayborhood.

Oh, and did I mention Voyeur‘s getting renovations?

My conversation with the straighter half of the Weiss guys:

G Philly: Let’s talk for a bit about Rosewood. What’s the distinction between Woody’s and the new lounge?

Billy Weiss: Well, with Rosewood you have the 13th Street entrance, which gives us more exposure to walking traffic. We wanted to create a Woody’s alternative — a place to grab a cocktail. We have more than 80 whiskies, bourbons, scotches, and other high-end drinks that you don’t get at Woody’s. With Woody’s, it’s more of the “vodka-cranberry” experience. But here, we have $400 scotch and $200 bourbon. … It also has a throwback feel. It’s a nice medium-level place to relax.

GP: Is there a big difference between the clientele of the two?

BW: I don’t think so. I’d say that sometimes, because we’re right across from the Holiday Inn, we might get some business people who come in and don’t realize that’s part of Woody’s. And I’d also say we get a little more straight people at Rosewood [than at Woody’s].

GP: The word on the street is that Rosewood is the straight version of Woody’s, only with better cocktails. Fair?

BW: Yeah, I’d say Rosewood is 60 or 70 percent gay, whereas with Woody’s you’ll get straight women, but rarely a straight guy. So I think Rosewood is more straight guys, and more straight couples. But the great thing is, once they realize Woody’s is over there, they’ll walk over and love how much fun it is on that side. With this corridor now, in Midtown Village, the whole thing is developing into a mixed crowd — I think that’s a good thing.

GP: How long had you been planning Rosewood?

BW: Since around January. A retail store next door was closing, and their lease was up, so we decided we would break through and have that extra street access. … And so far, it’s all worked out really well.

GP: Do you see this as an extension of Woody’s, or its own thing?

BW: It’s an extension of Woody’s. It’s still Woody’s bar, but it has a different name because of the cocktail aspect of it.

GP: Gotcha. And where did the name come from?

BW: For starters, the “wood” half plays on the name of Woody’s. And the “rose” part, it’s because all of the wood in the bar is rosewood. It’s also just got a warm feel.

GP: How has business been going since it opened?

BW: It’s going great! On the weekends, we’ve got a bit of overflow — people are enjoying the different environment from Woody’s. It’s more of the 9 [p.m.] to 12 [a.m.] place where you sit to sip on a cocktail. We even do mint juleps. It’s the place where you go for a quality cocktail that takes a little longer to make — made to perfection.

GP: It’s kind of funny that Rosewood and ICandy’s “The Pub” both opened around the same time, but ICandy made quite the spectacle of the opening, rolling out a red carpet and every drag queen in town. By comparison, Rosewood’s opening was pretty low-key … That’s intentional?

BW: That’s our thing. We’ve been doing this for a long time — 20 years, next year. I always go in and open up a place and try not to build a lot of hub-bub, because there’s always going to be kinks and things you didn’t think about. Things that need tightened up. So I’d rather have an insider-y VIP party, where I know the people — friends, family, people who will give me honest criticisms. And we kind of like a slow roll. If people like it, word of mouth will get the message out. When a movie comes out, you go see it because of the hype, and then walk away thinking, ‘Oh, that was horrible!’ That doesn’t happen if you’ve never heard about it.

GP: No press is good press?

BW: Exactly. The customers will tell you when you’re doing a bad job.

GP: You own clubs in San Diego too, right?

BW: Yes. We’ve got a restaurant called Lei Lounge, which is an outdoor restaurant. We’ve also got a gay bar called Bourbon Street — the Woody’s of California.

GP: Are there things you can get away with in California that you can’t get away with here in Philly — or vice versa?

BW: To tell you the truth, California would be the advertising and porn aspect of the gay club. There’s more media with it all, and more media with the drink specials. And the code on the alcohol portions is a little bit easier out there, but there are also rules, and all the rules are noise- and customer-oriented.  So if you have a noise complaint in California, the cops will come there and shut you down immediately. They’re more about neighborhoods and noise volume out there — which isn’t a bad thing. In Philadelphia, people are more accepting of the noise level. But the code enforcement is so different. … Other than that, they’re basically the same.

GP: Between Woody’s, Voyeur, and now Rosewood, is there one club you personally enjoy just kicking back and relaxing in?

BW: I’m 42 now, so I think Rosewood’s more my scene. But 10 years ago, definitely Voyeur. I loved the late-night parties, the dance floors. But as I get older, I’m more into the Rosewood type of place. Sitting back and having a nice scotch or bourbon, and mellowing out. It’s sort of the 35 and older demographic. … [We used to have] a bar called Pure, and we had a lot of fashionable people come in, and I don’t want to say they were “A-list,” but they were people going to New York and taking a pit stop in Philly. Rosewood, it’s starting to get those same guys. People who are work-driven, a little more conversational. But it’s a good thing. Woody’s, you know, it’s a little rowdy for me.

GP: Do you look at what other club owners do with their spaces in Philly and think, “Man, I wish I’d come up with that”? Are you influenced by them?

BW: Definitely. I do the designs, which is part of what I enjoy about what I do. I travel a lot and gather a lot of ideas and take inspiration from different places. You walk into different bars, see something, and think, “Wow, that’s cool!” When you see all these spaces, it’s like piecing together a puzzle when you finally put it all together. … But you know, in Philly, we have a lot of great bars, like the cocktail bar Franklin Mortgage — they’re probably one of the best cocktail bars in the country, so I didn’t want to go that far; I still want to be a little more of a mass-market bar than them. And then, of course, all Stephen Starr restaurants are along that same line. But it’s all about how the neighborhoods change, and this industry, 10 years ago around 13th Street — especially 13th and Sansom streets — you would never believe it, fast-forwarding 10 years, that everything is the way it is today. No one could have foreseen that. I also look at all the other bars and restaurants on 13th Street, and want to upgrade Woody’s too — we’re like, “Hey, we need to get with the game here. Everyone’s coming and really putting a nice product down.” Once we [first] bought the building, we were able to put the money into the place for the Woody’s remodel. And then Rosewood, it’s the same thing — we want to make sure we’re not falling behind.

GP: Do you and your brother get along well? Any sibling rivalries?

BW: Aside from being my brother, he’s also my best friend. He’s older than me, so I’ve always looked up to him, but we’re completely yin and yang as far as business goes — he likes to do the financials and the legal part of it. … I’m great with the marketing end of things, and we don’t cross wires with each other. And when we do, we always work it out. The best part of all of this, actually, is probably getting to work with my brother. It’s very easy for me to say, “Here’s the money!” and trust him wholeheartedly, without worrying about it getting stolen or something. So that’s great. We have a great relationship.

GP: Was it humbling when you first took over Woody’s? It’s a pretty big name.

BW: Yeah, it really was. Still is, honestly.

GP: Big plans coming up for Rosewood, Woody’s, or Voyeur?

BW: We’ve got a remodel for Voyeur coming up in September. We want to change the dance floor around. Can’t divulge too much now, but we’re looking for around Labor Day to do the full dance-floor remodel. The DJ booth, the whole thing. Every four or five years we do it, and it’s been four years. We say a “generation” is about five years in club life. It’s getting all broken down now, so we’re going to do the remodel again. And of course, we have Icona Pop coming in on Sept. 22, so we’ll definitely have the remodel done before then.

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