(Note: This story appears in the July 2022 issue of ED Magazine)
Between being influenced by South Park, a life-sized steel hippo statue named Pepper greeting patrons in Las Vegas and CEO Alan Chang’s undaunted ambition, Peppermint Hippo is quickly etching a name for itself in the industry.
Las Vegas, affectionately known as “America’s Playground,” is a city renowned for its dining, casinos, shows and 24/7 nightlife. But it just might be a life-sized steel hippo statue named “Pepper” that is the newest must-see attraction on The Strip.
Pepper is the first thing that greets patrons when they walk into Peppermint Hippo Las Vegas, which has taken over the illustrious Olympic Garden building. The name, a reference to the strip club in the hit TV show “South Park,” was born from a coin flip.
CEO Alan Chang was convinced the name would be a comical allusion to the show and provide instant brand recognition.
“Everybody hated the name except for me at the time — they were scared,” Chang recalls of when he and his friends were bouncing around ideas for the new club’s name. “They’re like, ‘Dude, everyone’s going to think we’re an overweight strip club.’ I’m like, ‘No, it’s going to be funny. It’s from South Park. We’re catering to guys our age (mid-40s).’ I’m not trying to make it sexy or anything like that. It’s just funny. That’s pretty much exactly what happened — people thought it was hilarious and they started coming in.
“Even if someone doesn’t watch South Park religiously or anything and they’ve watched it before, that name recognition is in their head,” he continues, pointing out the name is the only thing the real-life club and cartoon club have in common.
Chang, who cut his teeth for nearly a decade at Spearmint Rhino Las Vegas (one might guess that this is where South Park got its moniker inspiration), has put Peppermint Hippo on the map in short order with the crown jewel in Vegas and 11 clubs total come August — ranging from locales like Reno to Little Rock.
When Chang left Spearmint in 2015, he was at a crossroads. He started a promotional company ferrying people to nightclubs and strip clubs in Vegas. From there, he realized he could leverage that traffic into his own strip club.
“At that time, I didn’t have any money to be able to open something this big,” he says. “I tried for two years. I was like, ‘Well, I gotta get out of Vegas if I’m gonna put this thing together.’ That’s when I went to my first club (Lust) in Toledo, Ohio. I wanted a strip club, but I didn’t really know how to do it.”
Chang and four friends who had all worked at Spearmint invested everything in Lust. “It wasn’t Peppermint Hippo, but it was the first club,” Chang notes.
From that point on, Chang ended up opening his second club, the first Peppermint Hippo, in Neenah, Wisconsin. He said a gentleman was going under and had to sell his club. Even armed with little capital, Chang was able to put it together and raise money. Then, he went and opened another club in Little Rock, Arkansas, right before the pandemic.
“We moved pretty fast at that point,” Chang says.
Even with the closures and headaches the pandemic brought on, Chang says PPP loans helped him not only stay afloat, but continue aggressively expanding.
He bought clubs in Reno, Akron, Texas. The seventh club was in Las Vegas, which Chang was able to put together last year. He is adamant that the training and experience he received at Spearmint helped him with expectations and how to properly run his own growing club chain.
“I was trained at what was the premier club in the country at that time — just the pure amount of volume, the interaction with the entertainers, the customers,” says Chang, who started as a host at Spearmint and moved up into business development, where he was tasked with promotions and cultivating the relationship with customers.
“When I went to towns like Toledo or Neenah, they didn’t know any of that,” continues Chang. “I had all that experience from one of the largest markets for adult entertainment. I was coming to a field where they had no idea what was going on. I was able to pretty quickly just take over the market wherever I was at.”
As far as the interior, we actually spend money on design. We spend money on lighting and sound. We make it more vibrant — our music and our energy level is higher. We have a nightclub feel to us, but it’s still definitely a gentlemen’s club. It’s more of a party atmosphere versus just going in there to see girls. — Alan Chang
Hungry hungry Hippo
Chang is pretty matter-of-fact when detailing how he was able to keep building up his brand in the face of a generational pandemic.
“It’s all about funding,” he says. The majority of Chang’s investors are people with pasts in the gentlemen’s club industry: management, entertainers, even waitresses.
“When I was able to finally put this together, I realized the ROI was really good, especially the way I buy clubs and the way I turned things around,” Chang says. “I wanted everyone from my organizations to be able to partake in that. Once the numbers started hitting a certain revenue source and I was able to pay off all the debt, I immediately started doing the dividend payouts for all my (investors). That’s why I was able to do this so quickly.”
As more and more Peppermint Hippos spring up, Chang strives to have them all be part of one brand identity. In other words, once the remodeling is done — whether you’re in Little Rock, Neenah or Las Vegas — customers will know they’re in a Peppermint Hippo.
“As far as the interior, we actually spend money on design,” exclaims Chang. “We spend money on lighting and sound. We try not to make it dark or dingy. We make it more vibrant — our music and our energy level is higher. We have a nightclub feel to us, but it’s still definitely a gentlemen’s club.
“It’s more of a party atmosphere versus just going in there to see girls,” he continues. “It’s a different vibe. Again, we will spend money on promotion, marketing, lighting and sound and everything to make it look the way it should feel.”
Despite the nightclub aesthetic, Chang stresses he was never going to make Peppermint Hippo a nightclub, citing a 70/30 split — 70% gentlemen’s club and 30% nightclub feel.
“I didn’t even wanna make it 50/50,” he says. “Even that 30% element is a lot.”
Another way Chang is ushering his brand of clubs into the 21st century is utilizing social media.
“We do a lot of social media — our girls post, our bartenders post. We tag between our clubs so now you have X amount of clubs tagging each other. People from Little Rock are flying to Vegas and saying, ‘Oh, there’s a Peppermint Hippo in Vegas.’ We make sure we tag and help promote each other.”
“Everybody hated the name except for me at the time. I told them, it’s going to be funny, guys. We’re catering to guys our age (mid-40s).’ I’m not trying to make it sexy. It’s just funny. That’s pretty much exactly what happened — people thought it was hilarious and they started coming in.” — Alan Chang
Chang brought his social media director Aisha Pinder from Little Rock to head up his social media in Vegas.
“Some of my older clubs weren’t as social-media-driven,” says Chang. “Now, they’re posting a lot more because the entertainers got involved and they’re actually having fun doing it. We’ll have photographers come in, we’ll do video shoots, entertainers are welcome. We get the whole staff involved.
“If you try to force them to post, it’s not gonna be good. You could tell they don’t want to do it. But if they’re already posting, they don’t mind. They actually like it.”
Chang says part of the reasoning behind presenting a cohesive brand is because of the clubs he’s interested in to begin with: establishments in need of fixing up.
“I’m not buying clubs that are crushing it,” says Chang, who says he hopes to continue to add more clubs to his growing roster. “I buy clubs that need a massive remodel, that need help, and I turn it around. So instead of me constantly trying to think of new paint schemes or whatever — I’m not good at that anyway — I have everything more uniform. If a club is going under or owners want to sell or are over it, I have no problem with that. I actually enjoy the remodeling process.”
For a guy who got into the industry on a whim desiring a change of scenery from Pennsylvania, even Chang finds it hard to believe he’s accomplished so much so fast.
“In all reality, I thought back then I’m gonna come out here, have fun for a couple years. And then I could always go back to Pennsylvania or go wherever. Once I got into the industry, I really loved it. Honestly, I didn’t realize it was gonna get this big. I always knew I had a drive and once I got into the field, I wanted to open up my own club. But again, I didn’t even think about that until probably 2014, 2015. When you’re starting, you have no idea even how to do it. It’s all trial by fire.”