Steven Kamali is running late. Not Mayor de Blasio late, but tardy enough that I’m ushered into a meeting room at his stylish, contemporary Midtown office and served coffee while I wait. I’m glad, too; it’s some of the best office coffee I’ve ever tasted, a declaration that shouldn’t be surprising: When it comes to food and beverage, there is a reason people seek out the counsel and expertise of Kamali, the CEO of Hospitality House, a consulting business that stretches from conceptual strategy to spatial programming, and calls many of hospitality’s elite clients.
Optimally caffeinated upon meeting Kamali, who is overly apologetic for making me wait, we make our way to his spacious and airy office and settle into the day’s top news: The evening before, Melania Trump delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention that, depending on one’s definition of plagiarism, was eerily similar to a speech given by Michelle Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. This led to discussion of her husband, and had Kamali worked on any of his hotels before. “We’ve had discussions with him,” Kamali told me, “but we’ve never done a project.” What, then, is Donald J. Trump like in person? “He’s not anything like he is on TV,” Kamali said.
The same could be said for Kamali, whose reputation as a nightlife impresario is highly exaggerated. Sure, he had a precision hand in creating the tony experiences found at Hamptons haunts Capri and Ruschmeyer’s, but Nur Khan he is not. And he wouldn’t want it any other way. In fact, he chafes at the mention. “I don’t know where all that came from,” he said, a comment borne not out of bewilderment, but by a desire to present his business with serious regard. One glance at his projects and it’s clear: His clients think of him anything but light.
Food For Thought
The current rundown is impressive, starting first with Marriott International’s new lifestyle but cost-conscious Moxy brand, aimed at the millennial état d’esprit. Kamali and his team are doing the F&B components for about a dozen Moxy hotels, he said.
It comes at a great time in the history of hotel F&B, which continues its revival from throwaway to critical. It used to be neglected, a line on a P&L where breaking even was considered a feat. That’s changed. Food is no longer overlooked, but a focal point, considered as important, maybe more, than a guest’s room experience. It’s Kamali’s job to make sure that experience is on message and on point. “Food is mirroring every single thing that’s happening in the hotel business. As you’re changing the brands of these hotels and you’re changing accommodations, the size of the rooms in which people are sleeping, how they’re checking in—all of that’s integrated into food and beverage,” he said, noting such seminal ideas as checking guests in not at the traditional front desk, but at the bar, which is the case at Moxy hotels. “That means that we’re truly part of your hotel experience from arrival to check-out.”
Other current projects Kamali’s name is tied to include the new Equinox hotel brand, an extension of the widely popular and fashionable health clubs. Kamali calls working on the brand some of his most exciting work, citing his relationship with Equinox CEO Harvey Spevak, whom he calls a “good friend.”
“The challenges about going into the hotel business and developing a new brand are incredibly exciting to me,” Kamali said. “Equinox has an incredible, globally recognized brand. They’ve developed a brand for those that buy into that lifestyle, which now they’re extending through the hotel. The development of a hotel brand from the ground up is not necessarily something that I’ve ever been really a part of.”
While Kamali shows steadfast reverence for the Equinox brand, he will tell you that his own brand got off to a rocky beginning. “I did a really bad job of positioning myself to a large extent, and I realized that naming your company after yourself probably isn’t the best idea,” Kamali said. He is referring to Steven Kamali Hospitality, which, though it still lives at stevenkamali.com, is not how he is positioning his brand moving forward. That will fall under the name Hospitality House and, as Kamali put it, “That’s the company that we’re now doing business as.”
Added Hospitality House COO Nicole Levinson, “Steven is the vision, the founder, but we’re in a major growth mode. It’s not scalable just to have it be Steve anymore, but, of course, Steven always is the presence.”
That’s clear. Kamali is the brand and he’s made a name for himself through hustle, perseverance and clients who know what they are getting when they hire him. Aby Rosen, the often-tabloid-fodder founder of RFR Holding, whose properties include the Gramercy Park Hotel and Paramount Hotel in New York and the W South Beach, once said of Kamali in a Commercial Observer piece: “Anything that has to do with food, restaurants, bars, entertainment, I contact him. He is very in tune with what’s going on. He gets the trends.”
Here’s why, explained Kamali. “When we look at a problem, we look at it from the perspective of, ‘Hey, we’ve done this 500 times before.’ We don’t have to be the smartest people on Earth. We just had to have that experience, and they want to buy into that experience.”
In from the East
How Kamali arrived to where he is today is the classic tale of suburban kid makes good in the big city. Kamali grew up on Long Island, the son of Iranian Jews who immigrated there. “Like most young kids growing up, I had an affinity for New York City—the bright lights, nightlife, dining, entertainment and everything surrounding that was very exciting,” he said.
After college, Kamali went to work for Morris Moinian, a New York developer hotshot whose current properties include The Garden City Hotel on Long Island and the Indigo Chelsea in Manhattan. One of Moinian’s past properties was the Dylan Hotel, where Kamali got his break. At the time, the hotel had a partnership with pop star Britney Spears and her ill-fated NYLA restaurant, which she terminated her relationship with in 2002. The restaurant was a dud, and part of Kamali’s job was to find an F&B solution to replace it. It’s also where he identified his career.
Kamali literally began leafing through renowned restaurant digest Zagat, and talking to people. “I came to the realization that none of these folks had any sort of representation. They had no business advisor.”
After working for Moinian for a year, Kamali had his light-bulb moment: “I wanted to be one of the first people out there to start a restaurant brokerage business, and I did.”
Today, his business has evolved into not only advisory and brokerage, but in recruitment, through the Chef Agency, and also real estate, via Hamptons Hotel Group. Both are affiliate companies of Hospitality House.
“We’ve developed a platform that is able to give people solutions,” Kamali said. “If you come to us prior to acquiring or developing an asset, we’re doing spatial planning; we’re doing programming; we’re assisting you in creating a labor model. Then, if you come to us a little bit further along, you can come to us and say, ‘I have an existing restaurant. It’s not working. What do I do?’ Well, we can help.”
Not losing money in F&B used to be a feat. Not anymore. Today, F&B is viewed as a revenue center, which makes it that much more demanding. And much of the profit is made not just on the quality of food and experience, but on the cost side. That’s where Kamali’s skills come in handy.
“A lot of the work that we do today on the consulting side is advising our clients on how to minimize their food-and-beverage operations to lower labor costs,” he said.
“The reality is that in a lot of urban centers—New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago—the F&B outlet is a driver for bringing people through the doors and putting them into beds. It helps identify the hotel,” Kamali added, citing such standouts as April Bloomfield’s The Breslin, at the Ace Hotel, in New York.
Not only is F&B changing the revenue side, it’s changing the guest experience and guest perceptions of what they want from a hotel. Much of this is being informed by millennials. “What we find to be a good experience no longer is what it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Kamali said. “People don’t necessarily want wait staff hovering over them. They like the experience of ‘let me get my own food and let me get out the door as quickly as I can.’”
Which is precisely why trends such as grab-and-go have not fizzled out. “There’s this instant gratification of ‘I like that, I want that now and I’d like to get to my meeting right away,’” Kamali said. “People enjoy the idea of grabbing and going. It’s become acceptable to change the method of operation from fine dining to casual and grab-and-go.”
This is more and more Kamali’s world: the so-called lifestyle hotels. He fondly cites such brands as Choice Hotels’ Cambria hotels & suites, IHG’s Even Hotels and Hyatt’s Hyatt Place as democratizing the hotel experience. For him, one of the biggest shifts that needs to continue hinges on accessibility. “Everybody deserves to have an elevated experience, and hotel companies are attempting to do that across all segments,” Kamali said. “We’re often perceived as the group that works with the lifestyle hotels and the upper-upscale hotels. I’ve been involved in more Sam Chang New York hotels than I have Four Seasons.” Indeed, Kamali and Hospitality House are working on the F&B programming for the Holiday Inn Lower East Side, owned by Chang’s McSam Hotel Group.
The 35-year-old Kamali is already thinking about the next three decades of his business. “We’re really trying to position ourselves for the next 30 years,” he said. “It almost feels like I’m transitioning from a so-called merchant—and that’s the life that I’ve led, that of a first-generation American.”
Pluck and ambition have undoubtedly played a role in Kamali’s success. He refers to that grit and determination as a “first-generation mentality.” Others have another name for it: “Common sense,” Kamali said. “The pragmatic approach to things is really what our business is about, and a lot of the people that we do business with appreciate that.”