When the movie Coyote Ugly came out in 2000, it helped launch the careers of Piper Perabo and Maria Bello. It grossed well over $100 million at the box office, nearly half of which overseas, and its soundtrack went multi-platinum in both the United States and Canada. But many people do not realize that Coyote Ugly was based on an actual bar in New York City.
The Coyote Ugly Saloon was opened by New York University alumnus Liliana “Lil” Lovell in January 1993. Lil moved into the bar world after a short stint in the Wall Street world, bartending before she became a bar manager. The original Coyote Ugly earned a lot of attention when writer — and former bartender — Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about the bar for GQ in 1997, which ultimately led producer Jerry Bruckheimer to purchase the rights to Lil’s story. Lil began franchising locations of the Coyote Ugly Saloon in 2001, opening one at Las Vegas’ New York-New York Hotel & Casino. Currently there are over 20 locations open, the latest of which opened in Kyrgyzstan last month.
Lil spoke to Downtown about the past, present and future of the Coyote Ugly Saloon. Effective with her time, she opted to answer this Q&A while flying back from the opening in Kyrgyzstan. The bar can be visited online at www.coyoteuglysaloon.com, while Lil herself is on Twitter as @CoyoteLil.
A lot of people first learned about you as a result of the movie Coyote Ugly. How long did it take from the movie being optioned to hitting theaters?
LL: It was a quick turnaround. I was approached about the idea, and after everything was in motion, the move started filming about a year later.
Are there any parts of the movie that you feel misrepresent who you are or what the Coyote Ugly brand is?
LL: The movie gives an unrealistic vibe between the bar’s patrons. In the movie, it is portrayed that there was tension between the regulars and bikers. In reality, everyone who comes in — from bikers to doctors, to plumbers and average Joes — all get along and have a positive and happy vibe. Everyone is looking to have fun. Also, I would never buy a huge crowd a round of drinks, no matter what the situation was.
What about the CMT show The Ultimate Coyote Ugly Search? Was anything overly-played-up for television?
LL: The show was fun, but CMT kept changing the format. It was slightly played up in the sense that it’s not very easy to get a new Coyote Ugly employee to be awesome in a month. It was a challenge because it typically takes a few months for an employee to find their groove and shine.
When was the last time you stepped behind a bar to serve?
LL: I recently made a few reporters drinks at the Bishkek opening, but now I only go behind the bar to help clean glasses or keep on top of orders if they are slammed.
Coyote Ugly is known for being against overly-done drinks, but what is your drink of choice?
LL: At home I drink red wine, a big bold cabernet, but when I’m in the bars I drink Coyote Ugly whiskey.
NYU was a very different school when you went there. What made you choose that university?
LL: I was lucky enough to be awarded free tuition!
You worked as a stock broker’s assistant after graduating from NYU. Was it your plan to stick around finance long-term? Or was that just something you were doing due to a lack of direction?
LL: My plan was to work as soon as I graduated college. Around that time, most people applied in the financial sector, which is what I did. I quickly realized that’s not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
How did Coyote Ugly go from being one bar to a successful franchising machine?
LL: Through a lot of trial and error. After the movie, many people approached me about franchising, which was something I was always wary about. We tried licensing, but found people were changing the brand too much, so we went back to corporate locations. Now, we’ve found a system that works, but we are always learning to tweak things to fit the different cultures.
Did you have a mentor in terms of learning how to run a bar as opposed to just serving drinks?
LL: I managed a bar before I opened Coyote Ugly, where it was sink or swim. The owner would leave for a month at a time, and in those instances I was in charge, meaning I had to rise to the occasion. While it was hard times, I learned a lot about owning a bar and had fun in the process.
Do the locations of Coyote Ugly differ from one another? Do they have local specialties or concepts to them?
LL: All staff members are trained in the same manner, but each location does have some local flair depending on the culture. Our U.S. bars are much different than the overseas bars, but you can always walk into Coyote Ugly have the same wild, crazy, and fun experience at any location.
On a day to day basis, what do you work on for Coyote Ugly? Are you most focused on the licensing?
LL: My main job is to be a mom to my 16-year old son, after that everything else comes second. My main focus is to be available if any of the bars need me. I attend every anniversary celebration at all my bars, and I try to attend as many of the locations’ promotional events as I can.
With there being more than two dozen Coyote Ugly locations currently open, are there any particular tools you use to stay on top of things? Are you big on checklists, to-do lists or online calendars?
LL: We have a lot of procedures in place to manage multiple bars in faraway locations. Managers of each bar have a huge to-do list that has to be up-to-date and approved by the corporate team. Deadlines are a must for us, especially concerning certain promotions. Overall, the Coyote Ugly team each has a different task: someone to handle the finance, the marketing, location scouting, etc.
What’s coming up for Coyote Ugly?
LL: Right now we just opened our first location in Kyrgyzstan…Our next bars set to open include Wales, Fort Worth, and Tokyo in the next few months.
Do you have any projects in the works besides growing Coyote Ugly?
LL: As of now, Coyote Ugly is my main project…but who knows what could happen!
Work aside, what do you like to do for fun?
LL: For my own personal sanity, I complete triathlons and races.
Do you have a favorite restaurant in New York?
LL: I love bringing people to John’s in the East Village — it’s a great local Italian place that is delicious. I also love Peter Lugers.