In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb! Gilt Groupe Rings in 2011

giltfinal2 In Like a Lion, Out Like a Lamb! Gilt Groupe Rings in 2011“Here’s where my daughter is right now,” said a nearly bald man from Connecticut, showing the white-jacketed bartender something on his iPhone. It was New Year’s Eve at the Lambs Club restaurant, just off Times Square. “The Phish concert at Madison Square Garden. I’m going to tell her to come here after this.” The bartender had paused from making the drink of the evening–a gin and raspberry Champagne concoction dreamed up by speakeasy trailblazer Sasha Petraske–to look at the phone.

“She can’t possibly get here,” said Mr. Connecticut’s tan wife, leaning against the red-leather-rimmed bar. Next to her, a circle of white eggs had been positioned on a vertical chrome rack. There was chrome everywhere, actually.

A properly bald man with an English accent interrupted the threesome’s conversation by approaching the bar. “Those raspberry things?” he said, holding up three fingers.

The local deal site Gilt City had organized this event, inviting its subscribers in a Dec. 30 email that concluded, “For a throwback to mid-century New York swank, make it the Lambs Club this New Year’s Eve.”

“Every time we send an email, we view it as a lifestyle experience,” Gilt City president Nate Richardson told The Observer. His company is a subsidiary of Gilt Groupe, the Silicon Alley darling that hawks luxury clothes through invite-only daily flash sales. Gilt City launched this past spring and since then has offered lifestyle experiences like “speed decorating” classes, halotherapy sessions and an invitation to the launch party for Jessica Seinfeld’s second book.

Its business model is not dissimilar to that of Groupon, the two-year-old Chicago-based site that recently turned down a $6 billion purchase bid from Google and stood out in the lazy Christmas news cycle by attracting half a billion dollars in new fund-raising–a reflection of investors’ soft spot for targeted local marketing but still somewhat head-scratching in its scope. The site has understandably spawned many imitators, among them popular competitors LivingSocial and BuyWithMe, but Gilt City has moved into six cities and is growing along with the rest of its parent company, which, according to Bloomberg, raised $15 million in the past three months, on top of an earlier $83 million.

At the Lambs Club, a restaurant within the Chatwal Hotel named for the private actors’ club that used to headquarter there, waiters rushed to the darkened dining room with handfuls of squat Champagne glasses as midnight approached. Noisemakers and hats were dispensed as attendees finished their three-course meals, and the chef, Geoffrey Zakarian–formerly of 44 and Town–gamely mingled with guests, who occasionally approached to shake his hand or slap him on the back. One man who did this began a spiel with “So here’s what you’ve got to do for next year.”

The music intensified in both volume and song choice: “Boom Boom Pow” cut out during one of the second Booms for the year-end countdown, and then was abandoned in favor of “I’ve Got a Feeling.” Men in waistcoats and sparkly masks threw up their arms, strangers embraced. An older, curvaceous Brazilian woman gave the bartender a long kiss on the lips.

“This is my first Gilt City event,” said Vivian, an obstetrician from Secaucus in costume-style jewelry. She said she’s a “daily” Gilt Groupie. The promise of an old-school atmosphere was what made her decide to spend her New Year’s Eve at the Lambs, and she was not disappointed. “The fillet was very classic, with a foie gras and shaved truffles,” she said, putting fingers to her lips in a gesture signifying perfection. “Excellent.”

Sarah Sheehan, Gilt City’s head curator, was drawn to the venue for the 1950s atmosphere, but also for the opportunity it provided both parties involved in the deal. “I think the big factor for us was aligning ourselves with the Lambs Club,” she said. “I think the restaurant itself, the name behind it, it’s definitely a partnership that we’ve been developing and that we’re going to continue developing, and it was just a perfect opportunity for us to brand ourselves together.”

Strong branding is essential to the success of a site like Gilt City, according to Nick Beim of Matrix Partners, which provided some $30 million to the company in its early funding rounds. He now serves on the Gilt board and said that neighborhood businesses were eager to join with the company, as its dedicated user base–the site now boasts 530,000 subscribers in the New York metro area–made it attractive from a marketing standpoint. And despite the fact that Groupon has more than 900,000 subscribers in the region, Gilt City employees say the two sites aren’t in competition because loyal Gilt users prefer the latter’s tailored experience.

“Local services is a reef that has sunk many Internet start-ups,” Mr. Beim said, adding that the “real magic” of these sites’ strategy is that restaurants, gyms and artisanal cheese classes don’t have to pay for the advertising until the customers walk through the door.

Sharona, a 50-something blonde in a white dress, and another Gilt Groupie, arrived at the Lambs later in the evening with three women, and deemed the event a success “We’ve been here about 20 minutes and I kissed two people already,” she said, pulling her maroon lips into a sharp smile.

Around 1 a.m., the Backstreet Boys and New Kids on the Block showed up. It was a lifestyle experience that had not been mentioned in the Gilt email.

“Ohh, the smokers,” said Joey McIntyre disparagingly as he passed through the smokers outside the building. He wore a white silk scarf draped over his suit. Nick Carter was in tow, berating himself for taking a drag from one of the bystanders.

“Yo, yo, hang on, my mom’s calling me,” Donnie Wahlberg told the caller on his flip phone as he entered. The crooners inspired whispers and photo requests from the patrons.

Ms. Sheehan said that if she had to name a fantasy Gilt City project, she would have loved to work with Tavern on the Green in the 1980s. Mr. Richardson, the president, went bigger.

“In terms of my dream event, I’ll throw it out there: There hasn’t been another Truman Capote Black and White Ball,” he said.

The Lambs Club event wound down around 2:30. As he headed toward the door with his overcoat on his shoulders, Mr. Wahlberg stopped by the bar and took one of the eggs from the circular rack.

“These hard?” he asked. Before anyone could answer, the egg fell from his hands to the bar, where it landed with a crack, but, thankfully, not a splatter. He rolled it on the bar under a fingerless glove and took it with him as he walked out of the lounge.

Had Sharona managed to kiss any of the boy-band members?

“I kissed one of their managers,” she said, raising the sentence at the end to indicate that it hadn’t been a bad consolation prize.

Outside the Chatwal, a corporate travel agent named Kevin turned back to Times Square, having just left the party. Confetti still drifted down amid the bright lights amplified by the evening’s fog. He shook his head at the mess. “That’s five million dollars for you,” he said.

dduray@observer.com