We’ve been around awhile now, and we know a lot of our readers might not have had the opportunity to experience our earlier issues. So we wanted to give you the chance to discover one of our favorite stories from our archive every Friday. Some of them feature actors, musicians, or artists who eventually made it big, talents we are proud to have tapped early in their careers. Some have brilliant writing, and some have beautiful photography. Some have both. But all of them are so great we thought they deserved a second chance. This week we present Derek Blasberg’s Fall 2008 profile of King & Grove founder Ben Pundole—before King & Grove. Before you head to our favorite new Williamsburg pool, find out a little bit more about the man who made it all possible below.
NIGHTLIFE IMPRESARIO BEN PUNDOLE LEFT LONDON TO TAKE ON THE MOST EXCITING SPOTS IN THE WORLD. GONE ARE THE DAYS OF SLINGING DRINKS FOR DAMIEN HIRST. HE NOW EXTENDS HIS VISION TO SOME OF THE MOST EXCLUSIVE PARTIES AROUND, FROM NEW YORK TO MIAMI AND EVERYWHERE IN BETWEEN. WHEREVER CELEBRITIES MINGLE AND PARTIES RAGE HARD INTO THE NIGHT, PUNDOLE IS NEVER FAR BEHIND
Allow me to set the scene: it’s a dreary, damp night in London and myself and some friends have decided to have a nightcap at the recently opened Bungalow 8, the black and white striped hotspot in the basement of the St Martins Lane Hotel. The hero of this tale, a Mr. Ben Pundole, who is the king of this fair club, is sharing our table, as is a collection of young English scenesters. Joining us last is a rather drunken, crass, brash young woman who had spent much time putting together an unconvincing disheveled ’50s pinup look and a butch, closely shorn haircut. At some point during the evening I found myself in an aside with this stupid girl, telling her perhaps too bluntly that she amused no one with her forced shocking behavior and ridiculous demeanor. Not long after this chat, while I am in a conversation with someone else, this pint-sized skank stands up, teeters forwards and back on the heels that make her just over five feet tall, and winds up and slapped me across the face. An open handed slap. Across the face. Across my face!
So here I am, a pretentious young fashion professional who cares about his reputation and appearance probably too much, not only being physically abused by an undesirable woman, but also being embarrassed by one. What transpired afterwards is a little blurry—I remember a moment of shock, some laughter from around the room, and a stream of vulgarities coming forth from my mouth that lasted a few minutes—but somehow, and this is the remarkable part, everything was back to normal a few moments after the slap sound finished echoing through the club. The lovely Pundole, who had been wooed by Amy Sacco to get the British outpost of her infamous Manhattan nightclub up and running, had booted the tramp out, soothed my rage, set us up with another drink and had us in giggles again, as if the episode had never happened. (He also made an attempt at defending her behavior by pointing out that she was the daughter of a famous actor and had substance abuse and behavior issues—but if every celebrity daughter in Bungalow 8 could go around slapping people in the face when they were on drugs it would be quite an epidemic.)
Herein lies the real skill of Mr. Ben Pundole. A young man who learned bar and hotel hospitality on the job and climbed the ranks from baby faced bartender to VP at an international luxury hotel chain in just a decade and a half, Pundole has become the face of a new type of hotel experience. He makes sure his people are where they’re supposed to be, that his places are taken care of in an ever-appropriate manner, and that the good people are having a good time. Blending the boutique hotel with the international hospitality industry, he’s forged a niche of his own.
The son of a mother who owned a catering company and a father who owned a small hotel, Pundole says he had “no real escape from the hospitality industry;” that’s why, after his A-levels, he headed down to Central London to “take on the world” at his first job at The Groucho Club, the elite members dining and watering hole in London’s Soho area. “I was your average lackey,” Pundole remembers, “running around changing light bulbs, serving food and counting linens. But all I wanted to be in my life was a bartender at The Groucho Club.”
The VIP clientele at Groucho became Pundole’s friends; “I was this kid slinging drinks for Damien Hirst, the boys from Oasis, Blur,” he explains. “And I got to know them really well.” He says he wasn’t aware of their fame when he first met them, but in time, they would become mentors of sorts. “That’s where I established a lot of connections and friendships—and professionally, over the years, they have become very important and helped me grow and establish my views on society and art and life in general. They’ve become invaluable.”
At 21, Pundole was promoted to manager. At 22, he was courted by London’s first boutique hotel, the Metropolitan on Old Park Lane, hired first as a consultant and then as general manager. This is where some of the features we now know of the modern nightclub were born, including specially-designed uniforms (Donna Karan provided the Met Bar with its waitress wear); the idea of a membership committee and the hierarchy of members’ perks, including preferred seating, concierge service, and anywhere access; specialty drinks lists; and compilation music CDs for sale.
“It wasn’t London’s Who’s Who,” Pundole says now of the Met bar. “It was the world’s Who’s Who. It was a tiny room, and about five nights out of the week it was just nuts. Nuts!” In London, the cocktail scene was just exploding, and Pundole was on the forefront of it. This is where he would sit, drink, and mingle with Bono, Lenny Kravitz, Kate Moss, Kevin Spacey, and Madonna. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” Pundole sighs. “I just knew how to look after people.”
Two years later he helped Saks Fifth Avenue put on an event in New York that restaged the Met Bar in the retail mecca’s Manhattan location and featured 20 of England’s most promising design talents, including Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen. There he met Amy Sacco, who invited him to her then hotspot, Lot 61, the day after and immediately offered him a job. He took it, and moved to New York at the age of 24.
In Manhattan, things continued to escalate. Pundole teases now that his training at the Groucho was a good prep course—“but nothing can really prepare you for an Amy Sacco or an Ian Schrager.” While managing Lot 61, Madonna, a friend from the Met days, paid Ben a visit and said that she and Schrager were going to do a nightclub in London, and asked if Ben would oversee it. “Who says no to Madonna?” Pundole muses. The project was never fully realized, but the introduction to Schrager was a fortuitous one. For the next six years Pundole was the hotel legend’s “go-to kid,” Schrager’s right hand who helped decide on cocktail menus, lighting, uniforms, music, attendants, interior décor, and the size of the floral arrangements. He was the one who booked Mark Ronson at the Hudson Bar in New York, or his sister Samantha at the St Martins Lane in London and the Clifton Hotel in San Francisco. In the course of his self-administered, on-the-job education in the art of hotel management, “working for Ian was my graduate program.” Schrager brought him into meetings that a junior assistant in their mid-20s shouldn’t be in, and gave him an invaluable insight into the industry that Schrager pioneered. “Ian was a one man show, and he did this all himself,” Pundole says. “He’s a genius. He created an industry and, as a young man, all I wanted to do was work for him. To this day I have the greatest respect for that man.”
Schrager sent Pundole to Miami for two and a half years to work on The Shore Club in South Beach. When Schrager sold the majority of his hotels to the Morgans Hotel Group, Pundole continued at the conglomerate when the CEO offered him a job in New York overseeing all bars and concepts. He is currently a Vice President at the Morgans Hotel Group, and is in charge of all the nightlife and entertainment that goes on at the chain’s properties around the world. A few years ago, again with Sacco and St Martins Lane, he got the British version of Bungalow 8 up and running, making sure that it was full of pretty people and that when devastatingly handsome guests, like me, get manhandled by bull dykes the situation is handled properly.
“I’m not the best nightlife guy, or the best hotel guy,” Pundole reasons. “But I’m the best at marrying the two.”
Hearing Pundole talk about the boutique hotel industry, it’s clear that he is just as intrigued and impassioned by it as when he was mixing drinks at The Groucho Club. “I love what I do, annoyingly enough,” he says. “I grew up in this industry, I grew up in the business. It’s not the hours that make the difference, it’s the connections.” A perfect example of these fancy connections is The Florida Room in Miami, in which Pundole teamed up with Lenny Kravitz, another friend from the Met Bar days, for design and promotion.
Pundole says that we haven’t seen the end of the burgeoning boutique market. “It’s still growing, it’s still aspirational. We’re still selling CDs in the lobby and putting bars in the hotels.” The only difference, according to Pundole, is that now people have to fulfill their promises. “I would hedge a bet that the hospitality industry will never see a huge boom again in traditional hotels,” he says. “There used to be a lot of pomp and circumstance, however, which wasn’t backed up with service in product. But now service and quality are far more important. No more smoke and mirrors.”
The trick for Pundole is to constantly put himself in the shoes of a guest, and to constantly remind himself of his roots. “I am overly courteous, and I remember where I came from. I know I don’t have any formal education. I’m grateful. I care about our customer, our experience, and the future of our company.”
The good news is that Pundole’s vision is growing, with fresh hotels and bars opening in cities like Boston, South Beach, New York, and Las Vegas. And the better news, for me and anyone else who’s been bitchslapped by drunken social climbing jackasses, is that since that troll hit me, I haven’t had to pay for my drinks. You see, Pundole knows how to take care of his people. According to the man himself, no matter what happens in the hotel industry, “taking care of people, and treating them the way I want to be treated, will always be paramount.”