Hotelier Ben Pundole has set his sights to the west -- Brooklyn, to be precise. That makes sense: New Yorkers are already familiar with the 37-year-old's approach to hospitality from his two Montauk hotspots Ruschmeyer's and the Surf Lodge, both of which exude the rustic charm of a J.Crew-catalogue shoot and create the sort of charged nightlife that wakes the neighbors. As he demonstrated with those hotels, he has a nostalgic vision of America -- funny, considering Pundole is an expat Brit. But the food's great (the Surf Lodge's menu was designed by Sam Talbot; Ruschmeyer's features the work of the guys behind the Fat Radish), uniforms are on-trend (J.Crew and Loomstate for the boys, Madewell and Rogan for the girls, socks discouraged for both), and activities are perfectly pitched (wicker picnic baskets, for instance, come complete with balsa-wood toy airplanes). Pundole's tried-and-true sensibility is consistent and contiguous, and has earned him his place among other similarly experience-obsessed hoteliers -- André Balazs, Sean MacPherson and Ian Schrager.

That's all in line for a guy whose resume begins with work at London's legendary Groucho Club and as manager of the Met Bar at the Metropolitan Hotel. Now with King & Grove (the company named after the streets he and his co-founder Rob McKinley grew up on, in New York and London, respectively), Pundole is working to open his first urban hotel. Here, he offers his views on nightlife and celebrity, how authenticity has become the key to value, and why he doesn't like "boutique hotels."

Jonathan Durbin: Why did you start King & Grove? It's relatively new, right?

Ben Pundole: It's very new, less than a year old, but we haven't made any great effort to announce it yet. I've been in hotels for a long time, for the last 11 years with the Morgans Hotel Group and Ian Schrager. I got to the point where I wanted to put my own spin on things. I thought that the term "boutique hotel" had outlived its usefulness. Everyone who wanted to do a hotel thought they could get a starchitect or a designer to give the perception that they were doing something glamorous. When I grew up, boutique hotels were new to the market and fascinating. But the generation that followed grew up with boutique hotels and found them a little... naff. Style over substance. I wanted to do something that was more substantial.

JD: Both Ruschmeyer's and the Surf Lodge offer a sort of shabby chic aesthetic. Is that a reaction to your experience with Morgans?

BP:
Yeah, absolutely. 100 percent. I had a great time learning from Ian Schrager, but there came a point where I wanted to do something that I felt was a little more rich in content. With Ruschmeyer's, for instance, we explored the ways in which we could do that -- things like creating a fantastic breakfast and having a very in-depth activities list. We designed our guest-service program to make sure we had all the contacts for sea-kayaking and kite-surfing and surf lessons, but also at the same time to know where the local yard sale was and where you could take your kids to a petting zoo. That's very important because we wanted to be as welcoming to my friends with kids as we were to my friends in their early 20s.

JD: How do you keep the experience from being contrived?


BP: You concentrate on the things that give the property longevity. Consistency provides a great guest-service experience. That's why we decided to team up with Ben [Towill] and Phil [Winser] from the Fat Radish. They know how to source things seasonally, and they're progressive in their menus. It's quality food. It's not "destination cuisine." You can eat it four or five times a week.

JD: How involved are you in the details? Are you a big-picture guy or are you right down there, choosing which books to display on the coffee table?

BP: It's a good question. There are three of us in King & Grove: myself, my partner Rob McKinley, whose idea it was to see if we could give it a bash ourselves, and there's Ed Scheetz, who was Ian Schrager's partner for many years and was CEO of the Morgans Hotel Group. Rob and I had the idea, and we went to Ed for his advice. He said, "Well, my advice is that you team up with me and let's give it a real try." We were fortunate. Rob is a talented designer, a real creative force with everything from design in uniforms and logos and color to sourcing the artwork for the Surf Lodge. As far as the service elements and the team that we put together, that's what I'm good at. And we each have a meaningful role in each other's areas.

JD: Obviously you and Rob are fans of Montauk. Do you surf?

BP: Yeah. I'm a terrible surfer. Rob's a great surfer. I'm learning... I've been learning for about five years.

JD: Now that you have the new company, what are your plans?

BP: Next stop: Brooklyn. It's very exciting, due to open later this fall. We're working very dilligently on getting that completed now. It has a name, but we've got to keep that quiet. We're going through the whole branding process right now, and we're also looking at Miami and Los Angeles.

JD: You've been involved in a lot of great hotels and nightlife spaces -- SkyBar at the Shore Club, the Florida Room at the Delano, Good Units beneath the Hudson Hotel. What do you think it takes to create a successful brand in 2011?

BP: People are looking for authenticity and consistency. The economic crisis has changed the way people view value.You could come and have a $20 burger or you could spend $2,000 on a whole experience. The important thing is that you come away having spent the $20 or the $2,000 and that you feel you've received good value. That's why I think the future of the design-lifestyle-boutique hotel industry is that three-and-a-half star luxury market that the Bowery and Ace [hotels] do so well.

JD: You've said that Ruschmeyer's rusticity was almost a response to the economic crisis.

BP: Gone are the days when you walked into a hotel lobby and expected to be wowed by its sparseness. Now you want something that's a little more functional, like Bowery or the Ace. Those two are good examples of properties that will last because they're quite substantial in their programming.

JD: As someone who has worked in both fields, why do you think hotels and nightlife have been so linked over the past few years?

BP: Because of Ian Schrager. He created that model of translating a nightclub into a hotel. That creates a profile for the property and it drives a great deal of revenue. But, sadly, it's inevitably short-lived. It's a little dated to think that model will work well in the future. I'm not saying you can't have a nightlife component, but don't make the whole hotel about that. We'll always have a little party spot, but it's not going to be our main focus. We have a very firm PR strategy -- no gossip items, no celebrity outreach, no crazy event press. There are nightlife elements at both Surf Lodge and Ruschmeyer's, but it's not what's driving the business.

JD: So you're not into being known for the celebrity-disaster factor.

BP: The new generation sees right through it. I guess I'm not the most exciting person to interview because I'm not doing a three-tiered, rooftop-swimming-pool topless-nightlife entity. I mean, look at the Ace. You don't think, oh I've got to go there tonight. Sure, it's got parties, but it doesn't put them at the forefront of its philosophy. There's health and wellness, retail, activities, food and beverage -- it doesn't have to be nightlife to attract the right crowd.

JD: You're from London originally, and you got your start at the Groucho Club.

BP: I worked there from the age of 19 for four-and-a-half years. I was a cellarman there, doing all the shitty jobs. It was a hell of a training. I gave up my university place to spend those four years at the Groucho Club.

JD: Then you ended up at Met Bar.

BP: Yep. I met some incredibly high-profile creative people there. Then we replicated the Met Bar at an event in New York called "The British Invasion" where 20 British designers -- people like Matthew Williamson, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen -- exhibited at Saks Fifth Avenue. That's where I met Amy Sacco. She brought me to the States three months later to run her first place, Lot 61. I did that for a year before being approached by Madonna, actually, who I'd gotten to know pretty well at the Met Bar. She was planning on being involved in a project with Ian Schrager, which ended up not getting licensed. But she introduced me to Ian, who took me on. And I worked with him after. I think I just gave you my whole background. I think I actually aged while I said that.

JD: What do you like about the business? You've said that people get involved in nightlife and hotels because they want to live a certain way.

BP: People get involved in hospitality for the wrong reasons. One of the main focuses of King & Grove is to breathe some true hospitality back into the hospitality business. If you mention that you're in the service industry to certain people in the boutique hotel world, they'll turn their noses upat you. But that's what we're in. People will come once to take a look at the place, twice to try the food, but they won't return after that unless they feel a genuine hospitable spirit from the staff. I remember when I worked for Ian, there was a real magic in the air. You really wanted everything to help contribute to that magic continuing. If I can get anywhere near to creating that, then we've certainly succeeded.

JD: That's what success means to you?

BP: Yeah. To create interesting projects with exciting people. And to build a hotel company that exudes hospitality and service, but at the same time has a lot of style and substance. It seems like I want it all. But I think it's possible.

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