In the beginning, there was Lisa Cannistraci and Minnie Rivera. And after almost three decades as major players in the fight to keep lesbian nightlife alive in NYC, it’s clear their business partnership was meant to be.
Twenty-five years after they founded Henrietta Hudson, their iconic West Village bar is enjoying newfound success, even as lesbian establishments around the country are shuttering. It wasn’t an easy journey, and after struggling for a time, a total business makeover has launched beloved “Hen’s” to new heights. The secret to staying open during an era many have christened “the death of the lesbian bar?” Business savvy and a willingness to change with the times, the pair says.
It all started when bar and restaurant owner Rivera was heading to pick up a friend at the airport, and she and her companion decided to stop and have a drink. The bar: Crazy Nanny’s. The bartender: Cannistraci. The friend at the airport: forgotten.
Rivera was incredibly charmed by her bartender. “I found her [Cannistraci] great. We had more drinks and by that time we missed the plane,” says Rivera. “After that, I kept her at the back of my mind.” Rivera was planning on opening up another bar, and thought of Cannistraci. “So I actually went and saw her and said ‘I’m interested in you coming along with me.’ This place was for rent at the time, so we walked by and saw it.”
Cannistraci knew the place. It was 438 Hudson Street, formerly Cubbyhole, where she tended bar in the mid-‘80s.
While very involved in the scene and a student at the time, she had never considered owning a bar herself. “I was going to be a clinical psychologist,” Cannistraci says. “[Turns out] they’re not that different, really. But I graduated and I opened Henrietta’s. It was really a calling.”
She had been approached before about reopening the old Cubbyhole, but she says she “didn’t get a good vibe” from the other prospectors. Rivera stood out to her. “I remember her personality. She was very electric; she used to flit around the room.” Luckily for the New York lesbian community, Rivera was able to get her on board, along with a couple of other partners, and in 1991, Henrietta Hudson was born. From the start, Henrietta’s was a hit. Aptly named after the explorer who discovered its neighboring river, the bar fit right in to the progressive haven of the West Village. It was a place where lesbians and allies could feel at home: a definite safe haven. It has retained that feel to this day.
Trouble in Paradise
One could argue that the mark of a person or business is not how they operate when things are going well, but how they respond during periods of adversity. Cannistraci and Rivera found themselves in such a period around 2012. Business was poor, and both admit to having dropped the ball. Rivera was involved in other business ventures, and Cannistraci was traveling near-constantly as vice president of Marriage Equality USA.
Rivera emphatically states, “We started, then over the years, we drifted apart. In 2012, it was like, OK, it’s time. Something happened. It was like we got tapped on the shoulder by something.”
“Basically, we did not have our finger on the pulse at all,” says Cannistraci. “So, we met and we said, ‘This is not good. We don’t like what’s going on here.’ We weren’t greeting people at the door properly. Our customer service wasn’t up to par. We decided to call a meeting and said, ‘We would like to turn this around and make it as amazing as Henrietta’s used to be.’” Not all of the partners aligned, Cannistraci says, so she and Rivera bought them out. And they started making small adjustments and what she calls “very difficult decisions, which you sometimes have to do in business.”
Those decisions were born of extreme mindfulness and frugality. While Cannistraci says the strategy is “not really sexy,” it’s highly effective. They watch what they spend, keep themselves salaried, and do the little things every day—like making sure the thermostat is turned off every night, hiring a mindful staff and keeping close track of their inventory. Rivera gives Cannistraci—who lives directly over the bar—a great deal of credit for the success of this process.
“Lisa is hands on as a partner,” Rivera says. “To the point where I have a conversation with her and in five minutes she can tell me just about everything that has happened. Because it’s point to point to point. Not a lot of blah blah.”
Cannistraci’s Brooklyn upbringing also comes in handy. “[Growing up] we had to scrape for everything we had. I got 25 cents allowance, and I had to clean the house for three hours. That wasn’t enough for me. So I was very resourceful as a kid, and then developed that street edge.”
When things aren’t going well at the bar, Rivera says, “I like that street edge…I tell her sometimes, ‘You have to go Brooklyn.’” According to Cannistraci, she gets “very, very quiet about it. You never hear me raise my voice. Oh, it scares people.”
“A bigger part of the puzzle,” says Cannistraci, “is that we always change with the times.” And these times are changing. With an ever-growing call for transgender and queer acceptance, Henrietta Hudson remains a place that is open to and accepting of everyone. When asked if, with these changes, they still refer to Henrietta Hudson as a lesbian bar, Cannistraci responds, “You know what? That’s a good point. I'm gonna have to shift the language a little bit and say lesbian-centric. Only because we genuinely do love everybody.”
The only condition to gain access? “Politeness,” Cannistraci says. “If you're polite, you stay; if you're not, you leave.”
Cannistraci estimates that some 80 percent of the customers are lesbians. “We are thrilled with the mix,”?she says. “I can really say it's been the most peaceful existence lately.” This is due in large part to the all-new lineup of parties and events that they’ve been cultivating since the rebirth began a few years ago.
Fun every night of the week
Monday is Local 438, featuring everything from parties for the city’s different LGBTQ sports teams to poetry book releases. Tuesday is Sing Out Tuesday, one of the best karaoke nights in the city. On Wednesday night, Bodega 438 is Latin fusion night, with DJ Culi on the decks and the amazing Dot—“a real crowd-pleaser”—behind the bar. Thursday features one of Henrietta’s newest editions, Homotown, with DJ Tikka Masala, who, “draws a really nice genderqueer, friendly crowd,” Cannistraci says. Friday is Turnt Up Friday, where they bring in celesbians or artists to pair with weekly DJ Nikki Lyons. “Saturday night (Revolver Saturday with DJ?Culi) is the busiest night of the week,” says Cannistraci. “We get the big international crowd. All the tourists.” On Sundays is Wreckroom, with alternating rock ‘n’ roll parties (Rock Hudson) and The L Word trivia nights.
Rivera and Cannistraci have been extremely cognizant of the importance of working with and helping the younger members of New York’s lesbian party scene, especially with 25-to-37-year-olds as their main demographic. Next up: Carnival on April 29 with Miss Mugshot Events. “It’s gonna be like a freaky, crazy party,” Cannistraci says. They also play host to people of all ages, every night; including OWLs (Older, Wiser Lesbians; a term they were kind enough to teach me).
While the parties have changed, one thing that has remained consistent is Henrietta Hudson’s iconic place in the NYC LGBTQ activist community. By hosting fundraisers supporting everything from animal sanctuaries to the fight for marriage equality, Henrietta Hudson is a direct reflection of its owners’ passion for advocacy.
Rivera says, “This is a stage for so many things, and because we have the stage and because we both have certain loves for certain things, we use the stage to help other people and help other causes that we find are important.” Cannistraci adds, “I’ve always just had the activist bug, that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. Henrietta Hudson has always been a platform for social change. We pick our battles.”
Seemingly against all odds, Rivera and Cannistraci are at the top of their game, and the sky is truly the limit for Henrietta Hudson. With a diverse, fun crowd; capable ownership; an iconic status; and a newly-signed fifteen-year lease, it is safe to say that Henrietta Hudson is here to stay. And we couldn’t be happier about that.
Their new lease expires in 2031. “Talk about the last bar standing,” says Rivera. “We’re gonna be here.”
Check out henriettahudson.com for more on their upcoming events.