Not bad for a man who dropped out of his junior year at the University of Indiana to pursue a career in real estate. Mr. Kamali was the son of Persian Jews who immigrated to New York. He grew up in a modest household—his mother worked in residential real estate and his father in the antiques and oriental rugs trade—and admits it disheartened his family when he decided to drop out of college while less than a year shy of graduating. “I almost didn’t graduate from high school, either,” he said. “My parents were terribly disappointed, [but] it worked out. I’m fine.”
He left Indiana and decamped to New York City to work with Morris Moinian and the Dylan Hotel, a 107-key Beaux-Arts hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Broke yet ambitious, the then-21-year-old Mr. Kamali was allowed to stay at the hotel most of the time while also tasked with making sure operations ran smoothly, from the elevators to the kitchen staff.
“I got really great hands-on experience there, and it really opened me up to a lot of different aspects of the hotel industry, and it also opened me up to the incredibly different aspects to the restaurant business,” he said.
The hotel was dealing with the failure of Nyla, pop princess Britney Spears’ Cajun-inspired restaurant. The Dylan needed a new restaurant destination. Benjamin Steakhouse came in to replace the restaurant, but Mr. Kamali barely stuck around long enough to see it through: After spending nine months with Mr. Moinian, he had decided to strike out on his own.
“I guess I was one of the individuals who didn’t have the privilege of a family business that I can go into, and I wasn’t privileged as far as resources, so brokerage was the one way where I could pick up a phone and literally grab a Zagat and start calling people and say, ‘Would you consider selling your restaurant?’” he said.
“It was then I realized that there weren’t really options for you to pick up the phone and find somebody who could provide a full-service solution,” he remembered.
He racked up a slew of deals, totaling 150 in number, that saw him working with frat-friendly saloons in Murray Hill. He moved on to more sophisticated projects, helping former employees from The World Trade Center’s Windows of the World open up Colors, a restaurant on Lafayette Street. He worked with restaurateurs Jeffrey Chodorow, Giuseppe Cipriani and Stephen Starr.
He also cultivated a hospitality and restaurant advisory wing for his business, helping hoteliers and developers make critical decisions in the art direction and financing of their projects.
“Our brokerage firm has really come out of the forefront of what people know us for, but our advisory business makes up 85 percent of our revenues,” he said.