Hospitality: The new Carolina gold
By Patra Taylor
For nearly two centuries, rice production defined the Lowcountry’s economy. The city of Charleston’s three rice mills functioned as vital cogs in that once-thriving commercial industry, supporting the region’s rise to prominence during the colonial era in America.
Today, the Historic Rice Mill Building on Lockwood Drive is the only wholly intact antebellum rice mill remaining on the city peninsula. Built in 1861 to replace the original mill destroyed by fire, the building’s brick exterior, laid in Flemish bond, stands as a testament to its humble commercial beginnings, a hat-tip to the region’s bygone rice age. Yet the building’s classic interior embodies Charleston’s booming 21st-century economic powerhouse —w the hospitality industry.
In contrast to the industrial character of its exterior, the interior of the Historic Rice Mill Building features exposed brick, wide-plank wooden floors, large double windows and pressed-tin ceilings. A popular venue for weddings and other special gatherings, this elegant meeting space also provides an accurate first impression of its resident owner, Michael R. Bennett.
Six years after starting a bicycle and moped rental business on Market Street, Bennett founded Bennett Hospitality in 1983 as a multifaceted full-service real estate and development company, and hospitality and asset management company. In the nearly 40 years since, he’s pursued his life’s work with great passion.
“Visitors have been coming to this area for hundreds of years,” states Bennett, a native Charlestonian. “They come because it’s beautiful and special. Many of us remember the 1960s and 1970s when the city was beautiful and special but there weren’t many job opportunities. Through the leadership of Mayor Joe Riley, the hospitality industry grew, attracting more and more visitors to our city. Early in his tenure, he recognized the economic value of the hospitality industry to the citizens of Charleston and set the stage for those like me to succeed locally.”
The recent pandemic offered a stark reminder of the beautiful and special Charleston before the development of its thriving hospitality industry. “For a time, travel to the city nearly halted,” continues Bennett. “I think everyone in the hospitality industry worked harder and made a lot less during those months. That was the reality in the hotel and restaurant world. We got through that challenging time with the help and cooperation of many people. I, for one, am happy to see the visitors return, to see the city bustling again. It feels good.”
Today, Bennett Hospitality, headquartered in the Historic Rice Mill Building, is one of the largest locally owned development companies in the region. The company develops, construct and manages a wide range of projects, from award-winning resort developments to the redesign and redevelopment of two city blocks that include seven restaurants, as well as a music hall, a golf course and more than 20 hotels located across the Charleston area, Georgia and Montana. These projects were developed with his small team of devoted and hardworking employees and family. Bennett’s son, Jack, a hard worker like his father, shares a passion for the hospitality industry.
“I’m keen on proper and classic architecture, particularly in old Charleston south of the Crosstown,” states Bennett. “In 100 or 200 years, those buildings will still be standing and will look as if they belong with historic buildings from previous centuries. Everybody doesn’t agree with that thinking, but it’s the way I think.”
Bennett’s undeniable penchant for classic design, coupled with his unwavering attention to detail and true appreciation for quality craftsmanship, permeates his projects. Whether his company is creating an intimate meeting venue in a historic structure or building a luxury hotel from the ground up, his properties are bound by Bennett’s innate sense of place, functionality and elegance.
In 2019, Bennett Hospitality opened its flagship property to date. Hotel Bennett, a luxury hotel with European and Charlestonian influences, overlooks Marion Square. According to Bennett, the opening was the culmination of work that spanned half his career as a developer. “It was a huge project,” he says. “It took 20 years from concept to completion, with the last four for the actual construction.”
The hotel’s grand Palladian architecture coupled with its location immediately turned heads throughout the travel and hospitality industry, both nationally and internationally. It was named one of the top five hotel openings in the world by Preferred Hotel, number one of the top new hotels in the world by Condé Nast Traveler, number two on the top 500 hotels list by Travel and Leisure and the number-one luxury hotel in the United States by USA Today. The interior design has also won awards.
To make way for Hotel Bennett, the “modern” Charleston County Library at 404 King had to come down. “I remember Mayor Riley saying to me, ‘Michael, use that pink marble in the building.’” Bennett smiles at the memory. “The pink marble on the façade of the library seemed to be what folks remembered about that building. Since I wanted to honor the request of my lifelong friend and mentor, I agreed.”
Bennett says the pink marble was earmarked for the first-floor ladies’ room — not the one at the front of the house off the lobby, but the ladies’ room at the back of the house.
“One day, I was at my desk sketching on a pad with my pencil …” (Bennett refuses to have a computer on his desk) “… when a replica of a Fabergé egg caught my eye. A friend of mine brought it back to me from Russia, and I always keep on my desk. It is a little jewel with a tiny carriage inside. Looking at that Fabergé egg, it occurred to me I had a space in the hotel lobby that wasn’t being used, and I pictured that Fabergé egg in that space. In the next moment, I knew what I wanted ¾ a ladies’ Fabergé egg bar in the lobby of Hotel Bennett. The plans for the lobby were finished, so I called the architect and designer and described my new vision: ‘And make it a pink Fabergé egg bar.’”
Today, Camellia’s is the main attraction of the lobby of Hotel Bennett. “It features mirrored ceilings and marble floors,” says Bennett, “and of course, the pink marble from the library was used for the bar and all the tables. It’s really quite beautiful.”
Now Charleston’s premier champagne bar, Camellia’s at Hotel Bennett, was recently named “Most Instagrammable Restaurant in South Carolina” by the Food Network.
Bennett owns and operates several fine dining establishments in downtown Charleston. Coast, 39 Rue de Jean, Victor’s Social Club, Virginia’s on King, Vincent Chicco’s Ristorante and Michael’s on the Alley, as well as Good Food Catering, offer food and drink for every taste and venues for every special gathering. Bennett is hesitant to pick a favorite meal or favorite restaurant, but it’s obvious one of his restaurants holds a special place in his heart.
“I grew up eating rice and lima beans,” he says grinning ear to ear. “My mother cooked a family dinner every Sunday, like all Southern mothers did. As her children grew older ¾ me in my early 20s ¾ we wanted to go to the beach on Sundays, so we had our family dinners on Thursdays.”
Bennett pauses as he recalls those many meals with his family that were part of his life for more than 30 years. “We took whoever happened to be with us to dinner. If I was with the brick mason, I’d take the brick mason. If I was with the electricians or the paper hangers, I’d take them. Mayor Riley attended Thursday dinners at my mother’s house. Congressmen, too. My son and I loved it when my mother made us rice and lima beans ¾ it was our favorite thing she fixed. We opened Virginia’s on King in honor of my mother and our family meals together. Rice and lima beans is on the menu there.”
What’s the next big thing in Charleston hospitality industry? According to Bennett, all eyes are on Union Pier. With the S.C. Port Authority ending its contract with Carnival Cruise Line effective in 2024, as much of 74 acres of the pier could be sold off for development.
As the Union Pier scenario plays out, Bennett remains focused on completing 411 Meeting St., another multiyear project for Bennett Hospitality. The project includes a hotel, apartments, residential condominiums and underground parking on three acres.
Also, plans for a boutique hotel in Mount Pleasant remain front and center for Bennett, who describes the $325 million Ferry Wharf located at the foot of the Ravenel Bridge as “the largest development in our community’s history.” Inspired by Mount Pleasant’s Old Village architecture, the design for Bennett’s latest hotel includes retail space on the ground level.
“My hobby is working,” proclaims Bennett. “I love working so much, but when I’m not working, I love to hunt and fish with my family.”
Bennett describes his wife, Amy, as an avid fly fisherman. “She’s certainly better at it than any of my friends or me. My son, Jack, is a hunter. He loves to duck hunt, quail hunt, dove hunt, turkey hunt, deer hunt. He’s quite good at all those things. I’m happy to spend time with either or both fishing and hunting.”
Confucius once said, “Find a job you love, and you’ll never have to work again.” Michael Bennett has certainly done that.
“I’ve always loved the hospitality industry,” he concludes.
A columnist and features correspondent for the Mercury since its early days, Patra Taylor has interviewed numerous Charleston notables including Tucker Carlson, FOX News; Bear Dyke, Washington insider-turned-winemaker; and Philip Claypool, country music singer/songwriter. She currently serves as the Mercury’s managing editor.