OCEAN CITY — When Seacrets owner Leighton Moore sets a deadline, you can expect literal and proverbial mountains to be moved in order to hit it.
This week, the newest tower in the Seacrets kingdom opened on the anniversary of the former 40-seat tiki bar’s inception. Now, 28 years later, Seacrets is one of the biggest clubs in the country, and with this week’s opening of the Seacrets Distillery, it also signifies a shift in business model and the long-term strategy for Moore and his team.
Moore sat down with The Dispatch this week to talk distillation, the idiosyncratic art of making a successful bar and how he likes to do big things in the community all while keeping as low of a profile as he can.
Q: This week marks the beginning of the next chapter in what some may call the ‘Seacrets Empire’ with the grand opening of the new three-story, 12,000-square-foot Seacrets Distillery. I was here when you broke ground in late October for this building and now we are just days from its much anticipated opening. Tell me about the past few months to get this up and running and your excitement about people seeing this vision and plan come to fruition.
A: For me, it’s more than just a distillery. It’s a chance to go through and learn the distillation process. It’s an educational thing and something a local or a tourist can do when it’s raining or too sunny, or windy or when they just want to do something different in Ocean City. So, it’s my chance to add a different dimension to Ocean City tourism, educate people about distillation, and, hopefully, to increase sales and be able to go more regional and national with my product.
Q: I know there’s a special significance of June 29, not only for the opening of this distillery, but also many other so called landmarks in Seacrets business. Tell people about the significance of June 29.
A: June 29, 28 years ago in 1988, I was dead tired, more so than I am right now because of Rob Tunis and all the crews that we’ve had working here the past six months. Rob is my right hand man and I think he’s beaten me by three hours over this whole process. June 29, 1988, I wanted to open (Seacrets) before Memorial Day and couldn’t do it. I tried to open before Memorial Day and I couldn’t do it in 2001 for the (Morley Hall) nightclub. June 29, 2001 was a very tough day as well because you are always pushing, no matter when you set your deadline. Now, in this third phase, going from the bar, to a bigger bar, to a nightclub and now distilling liquor is a huge step, and so we’ve tried to push it, and we are going to make June 29 once again.
Q: Designing bars and buildings is a passion of yours, and that is evident from the unique landscape of what you’ve created here. What makes this distillery so special? As people walk through it, what are some of the idiosyncratic things that you believe sets it apart?
A: I think the design that Keith Iott from Iott Architecture and I came up with is one thing. We sat up for hours designing it. My goal was to make it all a ‘figure 8’ like I made Seacrets so you don’t have to go backwards and the tour guide doesn’t have to go backwards through the crowd in order to say, ‘let’s go this way.’ Also, I have always wanted to educate and show people items from the past. So, as much as we could, it is dressed out with items that were built and installed in other places — either distilleries, homes, warehouses, commercial buildings, or highways — prior to Dec. 5,1933, which was the first day of no prohibition.
So, I got a grain grinder from India that was made in Kentucky and it will be in the grain grinding room. I have a fire door from a Chicago paper mill that was originally installed in 1911. I have the first series of pallet jacks that were ever invented. Rudimentary indeed, but it’s a piece of nostalgia. All the lighting in there in old Benjamin explosion proof lighting. And then, to work it in with art, there are all old pressed tin ceilings.
As someone said to me just a few minutes ago, there is a lot of ‘eye candy.’ But, we are actually putting together a book of all the historical pieces so when someone takes the tour, they can look at the book as they do it because there’s an awful lot that is going in the distillery right now.
Q: That’s interesting because I’ve heard you call Seacrets a piece of art that has evolved over time. I think when people look at you, they often marvel at the sheer quantity of what you have created here: the size, the scope, the grandiosity and the volume. Yet, it seems that every piece in this massive place, from the distillery to the club to the nightclub, has been carefully chosen and is a part of an artistic vision. Do you still see it that way?
A: Oh yeah for sure. I have a need to keep going and to change and evolve. You have to change and you have to give the customer something new and a reason other than just ‘hey, let’s go to Seacrets’. Rather, we want it to be ‘let’s go to Seacrets and see what they’ve done.’ There’s been ebb and flow in that depending on the monetary gain. You certainly have to have the money to spend in order to do it and sometimes I haven’t had the money to do that based on things that happen in everybody’s life.
Q: Back in October, you told me that your plan is to produce 100,000 gallons at the distillery in the first year. You called the distillery the latest step in the organization’s vertical integration, but you mentioned your hope of it becoming self-sustaining. Talk about how you see the distillery fitting, both short-term and long-term, with the overall Seacrets experience for your customers.
A: It’s separate, but it’s also together. When you have a taste of liquor, you’ll be able to know that it was made next door, and I think that’s kind of special. To be able to go next door, and to be able to watch the liquor get made, or to be able to purchase a bottle or 10 at the distillery is special too.
When I’m there, I can sign the wooden cask and people can buy a bottle and put it in and start your own aging process, depending on how long you are willing to wait for it. I think to have that dimension where if you live in Philadelphia or Washington or maybe Tennessee, you’d be able to go to the liquor store and buy our product. So, it’s reaching out in a way that I want to.
I was thinking about franchising but then again, that’s other people, and they might not run it the way I would want to run it, and I don’t want to impinge the name that we’ve worked so hard to create. So, it’s my way of touching different parts of the country without having to worry about whether the bathrooms are clean or whether they have paper towels or if the bartender is a nice person. I just really love to create different flavors and I’ve created a couple that I think are really good and I want to run with the big boys and challenge.
Q: Many people look at you like you are somewhat of a self-made millionaire. Yet, any successful person always seemingly surrounds themselves with good people. Is that the key for you, because if you look around the Seacrets empire there are very talented people in the so-called power positions?
A: I didn’t find them for their skill set. I found them for being really talented, personable, caring and compassionate people. Gary [Figgs, VP and CFO], my comptroller, had no training in accounting. He was a doorman, but now he’s in charge of the accounting and the control, or the attempted control, of me because I spend more than most people would allow as a comptroller. Scott Studds [current General Manager] was also a doorman as well, and then you have Mary [Handy] in the office, who was a desk clerk in a hotel who is now the Vice President here. It’s about finding and taking care of the people who take care of you who take care of the people that pay you to be taken care of. That is truly the key.
It’s all about the people, and then you have to be big enough that you can handle the customers well, but still be able to shrink in down in the winter time and go from 600 employees to 175. If you go lower than that to save money, then the problem is each year-round person has to train eight to 10 people and forget it, you can’t do it because you only have a few weeks to train them. This way, with 175 employees, everyone only has to train three people.
But either way, it’s all about the people and I have great people and they will be rewarded for it.
Q: Well, let’s go from hiring people to helping people. Recently, you and your wife Rebecca helped fund a new wing of PRMC hospital in Salisbury called the Rebecca and Leighton Moore Child and Adolescent Outpatient Behavioral Health Unit, and that focuses on mental and behavioral health in teens. You’ve done many philanthropic things over the years but what about this attracted you?
A: Well, it’s devoid. There is no child and adolescent help, or very little, rather, on this side of the [Bay] Bridge, certainly not closer than Cambridge, which is too small a unit. I’ve had experience of trying to get help to people, and my job as Chairman of the Board over at the foundation at Peninsula Regional is to come up with innovative ways or fund projects that they’ve given me.
Now, you said that my wife and I had helped fund the project, and that’s not necessarily true. What we have done is cause such a stir in the community and in the hospital and the leadership. And then timing it with big government or the Obama government if you want to call it that, they are more worried and focused on getting help to the mentally challenged because they cause more problems when (those problems) aren’t addressed. We didn’t put in all the money that was required for that little wing at the hospital. What we did was bring more public awareness to the plight of people who are challenged and their families, but it’s the fact that we helped raise the money more so than anything else.
Many people are saying that we funded it, and I just wanted to clarify that. I did not fund that as much as I helped to fund it. In this case, I don’t know of a family who doesn’t have a member or know that doesn’t know a family where someone in that family has a mental challenge. So, yes, people have stepped up to donate money to different causes that I have helped chair, but this one hits home. We hit that goal so fast.
Q: Lastly, one of the images of the young summer season thus far is the seven-block-long line to get into Seacrets on Memorial Day weekend an hour before you opened the doors for the day. As you look at that growth and the interest and passion for what you have created here and set it up against what you were going through at this time back in 1988 when you were trying to get a 40-seat tiki bar open, do you even have moments where you recognize how remarkable this journey has been and perhaps how unprecedented growth like this is here?
A: It amazes me. It really does. One of the sayings I’ve always said is ‘if I’m in a coma, don’t wake me up.’ Because if I woke up and I was doing anything else, it would be not as satisfying as what I’m doing now, because I would have never known how many people’s lives I could touch.
Sometimes, I’ll stand on the balcony or walk through the crowd around [Seacrets]. I don’t hold up a big sign that says I own the place, in fact, some of the employees don’t even know me. But, because of what I’ve done with Keith [Iott] and our team here, people have the ability to be able to go out at Seacrets and have fun, and as long as they are responsible, they can stay and play.
It’s very gratifying to be able to be an integral part of the tourist attraction of Ocean City. Would I have ever thought about this? Heck no, not without my team. You can dream all you want and you can build what you want, but that doesn’t mean that you can run it, and this is not an easy thing to run.
(To listen to the entire conversation, click over to www.mdcoastdispatch.com/podcasts)