Work It! Kristine Hengl: “Grand Poobah” of Chicago’s Late Bar

Work It! is a weekly interview series featuring fascinating folks who work outside the traditional 9-5, to amuse, inspire, and light a fire under your butt to start pursuing the career of your dreams.

Photo by Allison King

Name: Kristine Hengl

Age: 40

Location: Born, raised, and still living in Chicago.

What do you do, in your own words, and how long have you been doing it?
I am the “Grand Poobah” of Late Bar, a uniquely poly-subcultural/ nightclub/ bar/dance club/live music venue/community located in Chicago’s west side neighborhood of Avondale. I am the person who created Late Bar’s aesthetic so when you walk into the bar, you see my personal vision.  I am responsible for Late Bar’s staffing, HR, PR/Marketing/Promotions, ordering, menu items, unique cocktail development, party planning, and community service/outreach. I develop and manage the budget with my financial backer. I am the person that you need to go through to do anything at Late Bar. I am also the co-creator of our unique music format with my longtime business partner Dave Roberts who has been an iconic DJ in Chicago for over 30 years. We opened the bar on December 26, 2009.

What was your first job?
My Mother owned a flower shop in Lincoln Square. I worked at our family business as soon as I was able to reach the register. My mother would take me out of school to work major holidays like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day because I was a good salesperson and floral designer. I blame her for my obsession with flowers.

What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had?

Voxbox performing at Late Bar. Photo by Allison King.

Some people would say the job I have now is weird, but I love it and I’m good at it. The most dubious job I had was when I cleaned toilets in order to survive. At one point in my life I was cleaning a bar, an office, and various people’s houses to pay the bills. Actually, I still clean toilets at Late Bar but that’s not about survival; it’s about keeping my place nice while I build the business. And that feels different. One of my goals is to put the brush down and use my talents in a more constructive way without losing perspective of what a humbling experience feels like. It was, and is, a life lesson about hard work and gratitude that I will carry with me until I die.

What led to you pursuing your current career? Did you have mentorship or special training for it?
I have always been a creative person and have been interested in music, art, design, dance, and theater all my life. That’s why the nightclub business works for me; I get to explore all of these things in a different way.

Photo by Allison King

What a lot of people in Chicago are unaware of is that I have been in their lives for many years and they probably don’t know it. I have worked in the nightclub business since 1992. I’ve been coat check, waitress, door host, cashier, DJ, bartender, security, manager, and promoter. Club 950, Smart Bar/Metro, Neo, Holiday Club (both of them), Spin, Club Foot…I have put on events  at places like Subterranean and Beat Kitchen, as well as private parties and events. And yes, that often includes fabulous flower arrangements.

My favorite job was being the marketing strategist and co-disc jockey for Chicago’s longest running New Wave night called “Planet Earth” with DJ Dave Roberts (est. 1994). Dave and I work together really well and we turned a fun new wave night into an iconic nightlife event, moving through several different venues until we opened Late Bar. Planet Earth happens every Saturday night at Late Bar, and it’s very successful. A whole new generation has discovered 80’s New Wave, and they party right along with people who were there when it all originally happened.

What do you think sets Late Bar apart from other bars and dance clubs in Chicago?

Photo by Allison King

Our music, cocktail offerings and style sense, but mostly the staff sets us apart, Everyone who works at Late Bar has a vested interest in providing a unique place for people who care about music, art, film, and community. No one who works here is here just to make money and leave. They all care about this place, each other, and our customers. We’ve had a few bumps in the road, as all new businesses do, but right now I can honestly say that everyone who works here is doing this because they know Late Bar is important to many underground music scenes.

We take chances on people and sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but we keep moving forward with our mission statement: “To provide a safe, unique, creative, 4am venue, that cares about culture and community.” I have a brilliant, hardworking staff and I couldn’t do this without each and every one of them. I am very blessed.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Photo by Allison King

On our opening night people waited hours in the cold in a line that extended all the way to Central Park Avenue (2 blocks away). I felt really bad because we have capacity laws that we had to adhere to, but it showed me what I always knew….people will travel and wait for something unique. I’m also really proud of the article and photo in Time Out Chicago magazine about my “Horchata Martini” creation, Our Time Out Chicago award after only being open for 3 months where we won “Best reason to buy real estate in Avondale,” and that Late Bar was in Playboy magazine as one of “Chicago’s best late night venues” next to a established places like the Billy Goat Tavern. I am a kid from Chicago, can you understand how much of an impact that had on me? This is the city that I grew up in and love very much, so to be recognized in that way was a defining moment for me.

You’ve recently started a woman-oriented monthly get together at Late Bar. Tell me more about this.

Sparks fly when the Devil-ettes perform. Photo by Allison King.

The night is called “Season Of The Witch,” named after the Donovan song. It’s a monthly invitation-only women’s night created to empower the women of our scene. Our goal is to have women support each other and to teach ourselves how to be better human beings and live healthy, happy lives, emotionally as well as financially.

We have had many wonderful and inspiring speakers, we have a lending library, the Chicago Women’s Heath Center (CWHC) is there every month to answer questions about health related issues, we have domestic violence information, feminist sex toy shop “Early To Bed”   selling their products in a safe environment where women do not have to be afraid to ask questions, female entrepreneurs selling handmade items, we play music made by women, we dance, and we all bring food to share. It’s a networking event as well as a motivational event. We want to be the place where women in our community can go for information, friendship, support, and enlightenment. I’ve described it as my answer to the closed-door “brandy and cigar” type of environment that men have used for decades to network. It is a very powerful thing to see women working together like this and I’m very proud of it.

I wanted to help women in any way that I can because it was the women in my life that showed up when the chips were down. My goal is to raise awareness and sensitivity to the subject of abuse, whether it’s emotional, physical, sexual, or self abuse. In 2011 we lost one of our long time Planet Earth regulars to suicide due to the (trauma resulting from) sexual abuse they suffered as a child. It is a serious problem and being a person who has lived through every sort of abuse imaginable it is my intention to show that you can live a happy, successful, healthy life regardless of your upbringing or life traumas. If I can be a voice for somebody who doesn’t have one then I need to do it. I am using my self and my position to help people the best way I know how…in a nightclub environment. I am always looking for great speakers for the event, and I am taking book donations for our library. I am also hoping to create a fundraiser for the CWHC. They do amazing work for women and transgendered people in Chicago.

What is one of the most memorable moments in your career?
The day that I finally woke up and decided that regardless of all the long hours, dramatics, crazy people, bar politics, and stress that is unavoidable when running a 4am bar, that I’m where I’m supposed to be right now. I am very strong and I believe in what we are doing here. I realized that running a 4 Am bar is a lot like life in general: it can be incredibly hard work, but also bring great joy. There are the most amazing people on the planet, and the most dysfunctional and unpleasant people too. Setting boundaries is essential, but not building a wall. And dancing can fix just about any bad mood.

DJs Scarylady Sarah and Peroxide. Photo by Allison King.

What triumphs and challenges have you faced as a female entrepreneur, and what advice would you give to other women hoping to start their own business?
As a woman you are going to have to work twice as hard and twice as long to succeed. You will have to learn to not take things personally because when you make business decisions and have to react in any other way other than “friendly and nice” you will be called “a cat,” “a bitch,” “a witch,” or any other of the demeaning names people use in an attempt to keep women “in their place.” It’s very common to criticize a woman on her physical appearance when she stands up for herself, her beliefs, or her business. It’s another tool used to try to break you, so you can’t let it. There will be times when you lose your cool. If a man loses his cool he is considered strong; when a woman loses her cool she is considered “crazy.” That’s called “gaslighting” and it’s not OK. You are not “crazy.” Try to be gracious when faced with criticism,  move on by focusing on the positive and surrounding yourself with positive people. Make sure you have that one girlfriend that will never let you down, she needs to be your sister. Here’s my other advice:

1. Have more money than you think you need.

2. Remember that business is business; it’s not personal.

3. Be prepared to deal with and deflect parasites and predators, and don’t think for one minute that people you think you know well won’t try to take a piece of you, or your business. Protect yourself and your business.

4. Ignore critics and keep your eyes forward. Let them talk all they want because it only helps your bottom line. All gossip, good or bad, is free promotion. Use it to your advantage.

5. Document everything.

6. Take good care of your body or you will learn the hard way that you aren’t superwoman and your body will cave in if you don’t get sleep, proper nutrition, and exercise. Take vitamins every single day.

7. Understand that your “to do” list will never end so learn some organization skills.

8. No matter how hard you try you will make mistakes, so learn from them or you will keep repeating them. When you fall pick yourself up, dust yourself off, put your big girl panties on, and just keep going.

9. Make time for fun things, try to smile, and hold on because you are in for “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride” when you make the choice to work for yourself.

What future projects do you have planned, and what are your long-term goals?
A colleague who has watched me in action over the years suggested that I start consulting for other bar owners and I’m starting to do that. I love taking nothing and making it into something, and I love to share the knowledge that I’ve learned over the years with other people.

I would also like to start teaching simple mixology classes at the bar. People have expressed interest in learning about bartending and I love to teach.

Eventually I’ll turn my attention to finding the financial backing to do another bar project. I have another great idea that would be successful in the Chicago nightlife scene. This time I plan to add food to my concept, and of course me being me I have an unconventional idea on how to approach it. I watch people and trends very carefully, as good entrepreneurs do, but I always come from it at an alternative angle. That’s the key to everything I touch. People seem to enjoy my approach because we have a very loyal following.

Visit Late Bar at 3534 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, IL, or check out their website and Facebook pages.

Read more Work It! profiles here.

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Comments

  1. eric sheridan says:

    i know kristine and she is one incredible woman! very good interview guys.

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