Ruschmeyer's in Montauk, NY.

Ben Pundole: On Hospitality, Curation & Rolling with the Punches

At the height of the recession in 2010, in a city with no shortage of restaurants, hotels, or combinations of the two, King & Grove launched its first hotel: Ruschmeyer’s in Montauk, New York.Turned off by the ultra-chic (but ultimately cold) boutique hotel trend of the ’90s, King & Grove founder Ben Pundole wanted to create something different – a new breed of lifestyle hotel that focused on immersive service, progressive design, and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. In short, he wanted to put real hospitality back in the hospitality business.

Pundole wasn’t always calling all the shots, though. The creative force behind King & Grove got his start as a cellarman at the Groucho Club in London at age 19. I recently sat down with him at Soho House in Manhattan to discuss his rise through the hospitality ranks, and how he made the leap to being a full-fledged entrepreneur. Never one to put on airs, Pundole immediately took note of our wobbly table and dropped to his hands and knees to fix it. Hospitality is in his blood, which became even more apparent as we dove into the real secrets behind King & Grove’s success.

What is a “lifestyle hotel” exactly?

I think a lifestyle hotel encompasses many things, the most important being an accessible and approachable nature.  With King & Grove, we’ve tried to represent a focus on design, but not one that overpowers the operation, honest and aspiring food and beverage programs, and a nightlife component but certainly not one that’s at the forefront. We’ll always include children’s programs as well as health and wellness offerings; but, that said, we’re not trying to be all things to all people.

You went from being a cellarman at the Groucho club in London to VP of Marketing & Entertainment at the Morgan’s Hotel Group and finally the founder of King and Grove. How did you make it happen?

I’ve never really had a goal in mind. I think my career has been strangely cyclical because I started out with humble beginnings, simply out of necessity, and now I’ve come back to try and project some of that authentic hospitality out of desire.

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Stills from Ruschmeyer’s in Montauk, NY.
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When you were working with Ian Schrager [founder & CEO of Morgan's] were you collecting ideas?

After 11 years with Schrager, I figured out exactly what I didn’t want to do, but was still figuring out what it was that I wanted to do. I collected notes, recorded ideas, was always ripping out pages from magazines — everything from interviews to interior design and recipes — and I was always studying blogs, galleries, and museums. I’ve been researching food and hospitality my entire life.

If I wasn’t in hotels, I always thought that I would be a good gallerist. I’m quite interested in the art world — my family in Mumbai has a contemporary art gallery — and I always thought it encompassed everything I’m passionate about: design, hospitality, and salesmanship. I continued my life in hospitality instead, but it’s the curation of people’s experiences that inspired me to start my own line.

When I was very young my father had a small hotel in a place called Norfolk in London. He was also the chef of the hotel, and I was always fascinated about how he could curate people’s experiences and I loved that.

I started out with humble beginnings, simply out of necessity, and now I’ve come back to try and project some of that authentic hospitality out of desire.

You left Morgan’s in 2010 at the height of the recession and after a recent promotion. How did you know the time was right?

Honestly? I went with my gut, which I don’t recommend doing, but that’s what happened.

How did the recession affect your plans?

I think that the menu structure is a lot more accessible and approachable –  it represents a much more easily shared menu, easily held, made out of cardboard, pinned together with bulldog clips – we don’t want to be too extereme on either end (i.e. just handing people a piece of paper or a leather bound book).

You’ve been known to speak out against the trendy nature of boutique hotels and even the word itself, why is that?

Boutique hotels appealed to my generation when we were growing up because they were new. They were these arenas of bewilderment and modernism, and I think a lot of the time they were very much design-driven and that impressed people. They certainly took precedence over traditional hotels with the creative set. And then as with most things, the creative set longed for more: more context, more depth, and more tradition… which boutique hotels didn’t have.

Everyone who opened a hotel thought that to be successful in the boutique world you had to hire some starchitect which didn’t actually help the hotels run better. In fact, this hindered their ability to run effectively.

We’ve avoided this by looking to see how we can best use each space in a welcoming and engaging way rather than simply worrying about how we can impress people.

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Top: King & Grover founder, Ben Pundole. Below: Stills from Ruschmeyer’s.

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When you were ready to launch King & Grove, how did your financing and initial team come together?

Rob McKinley [Pundole's business partner at the time] and I sought some advice from Morgan’s ex-CEO, Ed Sheetz, who was also Ian Schrager’s financial partner, and very bluntly his advice was “partner with me and let’s do it properly.” So, we were very fortunate in that sense, it was because of Ed’s help that we got our start.

What happened to Rob? His involvement seems to have shifted since King & Grove first started. I remember reading that the name “King & Grove” was based off of your respective childhood streets.

Rob is an artist and a designer and didn’t want to commit to a more corporate life. Working closely with a partner is very difficult with diverse personalities and physical space. You have to weigh up how you want to prioritize your working future. Rob is still very involved, but in a different way – he leads all of the interior design and décor for each property.

Also, I would never advise anybody ever to get a real corporate office – it doesn’t work and it’s counter-productive.

What are your offices like?

They’re like that [smiles]. And it doesn’t work, but we’re going to be changing them thankfully.

Also, I would never advise anybody ever to get a real corporate office – it doesn’t work and it’s counter-productive.

What would your dream creative environment be?

I think there would be a screening room, ping-pong table, planned workshops and real creative brainstorming sessions and service training sessions. Sitting people in a boring old office is never going to work.

Each King & Grove location involves the transformation of a pre-existing hotel. I can’t even imagine how many construction and design hindrances must come up along the way. How do you deal with setbacks?

We have to keep an open mind, that’s for sure. When we purchased Ruschmeyer’s, there was a pool that we were excited to restore. The previous owner had filled it in and when we looked into making it functional, we realized just how badly it had been damaged and there was no way we could salvage it. So, we turned it into a sandy beer garden with bocce ball, ping-pong, and bleachers around the edges. It actually ended up being even better than a pool, and more unique.

The bones of the building, the location, an understanding of the market – we take all of those things into consideration when we open a new hotel.  You have to. Otherwise you’re the DJ at a party playing music to yourself.

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Stills from Ruschmeyer’s in Montauk, NY.
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So what’s next?

Our next property, Hotel Williamsburg, opens at the beginning of March and will offer a similar experience to that of Ruschmeyer’s, it will be an urban retreat. We’ll cater to the global culturati that’s looking for something new, but we will also target the parents of people who live in the neighborhood and need a place to stay when they visit their kids.

The last thing I want to do is open up a hipster hotel, but there are six tennis courts across the street from us, so we’re going to provide tennis kits and there’s also a park nearby, so we’re going to pack picnic lunches for guests. As we do with each of our properties, we’re going to make sure that the check-in process is very well-done and that the service philosophy is incredibly friendly and knowledgeable.

After Williamsburg our next hotel will be in L.A.

There’s no shortage of hotels in NYC. How will Hotel Williamsburg different?

Historically, any downturn in the economy presents new opportunities. It almost recalibrates people’s way of thinking, and I think the emergence of so many gastropubs, accessible/approachable restaurants, a kind of hankering for homegrown or locally grown or organically grown – there’s a certain honesty and authenticity that people after any economic downturn respond to well again.

How do you keep each property fresh and relevant once it’s up and running?

That’s the hardest part. Our approach is all about continual cultural programming across the board. Seeking out the right partnerships, training and retraining the staff, and hosting the right events.

How do you manage a creative team on a global scale? What do you look for when you hire?

We hire people with similar ideas. From the chef to our creative director, to the interior design team to me, we all need to think alike in order for this to work. I would rather not look at someone’s resume until I’ve spoken with him or her. If they have the same philosophy about hospitality and hotels then we check to see if they have the technical skills to back it up. In my opinion, the technical side of something can usually be taught, whereas the philosophy can’t.

What advice would you share with aspiring entrepreneurs?

You have to separate life and work and create a balance. No one is going to give you points for working all hours that God sends.

Jenn Godbout

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Jenn is the Associate Director of Partnerships for Behance, working with clients like Pantone, AOL, RISD and Wacom. Prior to joining Behance, Jenn was the Sr. Marketing Manager for The Drake Hotel in Toronto. Say hello on Twitter
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