Meet the Minds – Hospitality Alliance

May 9, 2018
(Left to right) Kelley Jones, Kevin Lillis, and Brendan McNamara

Kelley Jones (star of the upcoming Food Network show Vegas Restaurant Rehab), Brendan McNamara, and Kevin Lillis all had the hospitality bug, whether it was waiting tables as teenagers, being a busboy, or starting out as a doorman, respectively. After a few fits and starts in other industries, they eventually came back to hospitality with their paths eventually crossing. Now, they’ve launched their own firm, Hospitality Alliance, a bicoastal hospitality management, development, and consulting firm that specializes in everything from nightlife to F&B and hotels, including the Mayfair in Los Angeles and Harborside in Jersey City, New Jersey, amongst others. Here, the trio talks early beginnings, creating unicorn projects, and what’s next for the newly established firm.

Did you always know you wanted to work in hospitality industry? 
Kelley Jones: I started washing dishes and busing tables at a Greek diner in New Jersey at 14  and worked my way up to line cook by the time I graduated high school four year later. I was never good at institutional education but loved the restaurant business because you could learn by doing.

Brendan McNamara: I grew up, quite literally, in the industry, so early on I had mixed emotions about making it my career. For most of my life, my father has been on the finance side of hotels. We moved quite often and spent a lot of time living in hotels when we landed in a new spot. I had my first gig in the industry before I could legally get my driver’s license. I was a busboy at Carmel Valley Ranch in the 1980s—not a bad gig for a young kid. I worked my way up through the ranks there while in high school and then a bit during college.

Kevin Lillis: It took me being thrust into it three times for me to realize it’s where I belonged. First, I was a doorman/bouncer at 19. In my early 20s, I started producing industry networking events, which led to a partnership with Friday Night Fights. I partnered with them for over 200 events over 10 years, and I formed my own company focusing more on the hospitality side. We produced shows [in New York] at Madison Square Garden, Terminal 5, and the Lexington Armory. The third time was in 2008, when I was Dream Hotels’ executive vice president of real estate. In the recession, we weren’t buying or selling real estate, but many of our restaurants were suffering. I inadvertently taught myself a lot more about the industry than I had realized, primarily from planning and executing events. The F&B side became my primary focus.

Gaku Ramen, Burlington, Vermont

How did the three of you come to know one another?
KL: I met Brendan before I joined Dream Hotel Group. [Dream chairman] Sant Chatwal was a client of mine, and I used to coordinate with Brendan to throw events at their hotels. We worked extremely well together while I was with Dream and then Sahara/the Plaza. We hired Kelley’s former company to manage the F&B operations for us at Dream South Beach and our rooftop at 48th Street and 8th Avenue [in New York]. The three of us have such different ways of looking at things, which is why I think we’re such a strong team.

KJ: A few years ago, Kevin approached me with an interest of going out on his own, and it seemed natural that Brendan would join us. And so Hospitality Alliance was born.

Harborside, Jersey City, New Jersey

Why did you decide to start Hospitality Alliance? 
KJ: There was a niche in the industry that was not filled. We are multifunctional in all aspects of the hospitality industry including real estate, branding, marketing, operations, culinary, beverage, human resources, recruiting, and finance. There are not many development management and consulting companies in hospitality that embody all those skill sets.

Can you discuss some of your recent and upcoming projects?
KJ: The Mayfair Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles will open in April 2018, where we are operating all of the F&B, including six venues with four kitchens and five bars. We are also opening Crockett Street Food Hall in Fort Worth, Texas [this summer], with the best boutique food vendors in Fort Worth. We just completed a full operational analysis at Deloitte University in Toronto for Benchmark Resorts and Hotels.

KL: We’re [also] working with Mack Cali on repositioning the Harborside waterfront district of Jersey City, New Jersey.

Is there a challenging project that you are especially proud of?
KL: The Jersey City project with Mack Cali. Their CEO Mike DeMarco is brilliant in his approach to changing a neighborhood that has great fundamentals but has always been considered sleepy from a lack of strong F&B offerings. We’re helping him change that with a multi-year plan that includes a dozen buildings. Being able to change the face of a city like that is pretty exciting.

The Mayfair Hotel, Los Angeles

What do you find are the most challenging and exciting aspects of your job? 
KJ: Even though we are serious about what we do, we don’t take ourselves very seriously. There is always something new and interesting in our industry and its important to constantly be a student of your craft.

BM: I believe a huge part of travel and dining out is about new experiences. If you’re unwilling to divert from the typical path every once and awhile, you really need to get out more.
Having said all of that, proposed changes to how things are typically done should fulfill two important qualifications: It shouldn’t be operationally difficult or budget-busting and if it stretches the budget, then the press and traffic ROI had better be there.

What is the most important thing to remember when developing a restaurant?
KJ: In terms of branding, it’s important that the brand pops and doesn’t have to be explained. A successful brand is not trendy as trends have a shelf life. As far as interiors, design is critical but must also be functional. As an operator, I love design, but the design has to have a long shelf life, so function always trumps form.

BM: We all strive to create an entity that becomes part of the zeitgeist and an instant icon that has staying power, and while successfully doing so is satisfying, it’s not always the reality or the intent of all concepts. It used to be said that good branding is all about knowing your audience, and while that is true, some of the most groundbreaking concepts are ones the public knew they wanted.

KL: We’re taking care of people, and for most a night out is a special occasion itself. They want a good time, they want to enjoy themselves and have fun. If they’re walking in our doors, they’re trusting us to give them that experience. It’s important to be consistent in communicating what that experience will be so that it’s effortless for the guest to determine if that is a fit for what they are looking for at that moment.

The Mayfair Hotel, Los Angeles

What are some of the restaurant trends you are paying attention to? Or would like to get rid of?
KJ: The trends I’m paying attention to are speed scratch mixology, the craft beer movement, and seasonal, local, and sustainable food sources.

BM: It makes me sad that many hotels are killing roomservice. I want to develop a roomservice platform that is an elevated takeout experience. It will be disposable yet sustainable and at a pricing structure that increases consumer appeal and order volume so that it becomes a viable revenue stream and not just a necessary evil.

KL: The trend I’d like to get rid of is the cookie-cutter design approach to so many food halls and markets, like polished concrete floors, white subway tile, exposed ceilings, and eclectic or inspirational art.

Who is someone you admire in the industry?
KJ: Alain Ducasse. I had the pleasure of opening a Las Vegas and New York restaurant with him, and at the time, he was the most celebrated Michelin Star chef in the world. As a chef, I was in awe of his skill and his grace.

BM: [Ian] Schrager and [Andre] Balazs were my first career heroes because they didn’t always do what was traditionally bankable. They pushed norms and proved that the usual way wasn’t the only or best way.

KL: Jean Louis Palladin for changing how our industry looks at the quality and seasonality of high-quality ingredients.

What would be your dream project and why?
KJ: My dream project would be to open a bed and breakfast in Tuscany with a little 40-seat trattoria that I would live in.

KL: I am trying to put the pieces together for that now in trying to renovate, open, and operate my own boutique hotel. It utilizes all I’ve worked on and learned. It would be the first time I get to put everything together.

If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be? Where would you eat and what would you be having? 
BM: Mine is more of a dinner party. At the table would be Tom Ford, Steve Jobs, Anna Wintour, Ian Schrager, Jacques Garcia, Philippe Starck, George Michael, John F. Kennedy, JFK Jr., Yohji Yamamoto, Mick Jagger, Katherine Hepburn, Lady Gaga, and Hillary Clinton. We’d be eating cheeseburgers near midnight with a great red wine at one of the restaurants at the hotel I have yet to build. It would feel a lot like dining at the Hotel Costes though, and it would be 1999 so we could smoke at the table.

KL: My cousin Matthew. We were extremely close, reached many milestones together, and often wrestled with life’s mysteries together. He was going to attend the University of Virginia, but passed away after we graduated high school. I still keep Matthew’s picture in the top drawer of my desk. He reminds me to take nothing for granted, and that so long as I’m on this earth to make my own luck and not waste opportunities. Exceptional or unique dining experiences were extremely rare for both of us growing up, so I’d love to share that with him over true Omakase.

If you weren’t working in this field, what would you be doing? 
KJ: I would be a drummer in a rock ‘n’ roll band.

BM: Either designing clothes or cars, or both.

KL: I would work with high school kids.