Jeff David Thinks the Fitler Club Is Key to Philadelphia’s Post-Pandemic Rebirth
Jeff David has a definitive list of the most influential trend-setting cities in America, and Philadelphia isn’t on it. There are what he calls the “innovators” (New York), the “early majority” (Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago), and the “late majority” (Austin, Nashville, Boston, Portland). And then there are the laggers. “Philly,” David says, “is a lagger.”
David is telling me this in late spring, in the waning days of the pandemic, over a feast of roasted chicken, grilled asparagus and Neapolitan pizza that he’s ordered for us from the surprisingly busy and loud restaurant at the Fitler Club, the members-only establishment he’s been president of since February 2020. It might seem a slightly odd position to take, seeing as the Fitler Club is intended to be pretty much the opposite of lagging. Since opening in March 2019, it has catered to a young, hip and diverse crowd, leading it to be described — including by this magazine — as the anti-Union League, its more famous and much older private-club counterpart.
Part of the reason the city is a laggard, according to David, is that it’s a desert when it comes to popular brands. “There’s no Equinox or Soho House here,” he says, name-dropping two of the three businesses — the third is WeWork — to which the Fitler Club, with its exercise, social and co-working components, often compares itself. (Better not to dwell too much on WeWork’s implosion. David says its obscene valuation is what tanked it, not the co-working concept itself.)
“While every primary and secondary city is now getting Equinox,” David continues, “Philly is still embracing the Sporting Club,” the gym at the Bellevue that’s been around since the ’80s. He doesn’t have to look far to find another example: The W Hotels chain has been around long enough, he says, to have already “emerged, peaked and valleyed,” yet only now is Philly getting its first location.
Enter the Fitler Club. Housed in a glass rectangle built in 2018 that also contains Aramark’s corporate headquarters, the club is at the westernmost point of Center City, where it looks out on a vista across the river that mostly consists of cranes and other heavy equipment being used to construct the $3.5 billion project known as Schuylkill Yards. Compare that to the Union League, in its 1865 French Renaissance brownstone on Broad Street, just down from City Hall (1901) and the Rotunda Building (1908) that’s now a Ritz-Carlton. The symbolism is obvious. The Fitler Club — with its very much under-construction environs — is meant to be a bastion of “new Philadelphians,” that much-heralded group we’ve been told for the past two decades is on the precipice of fundamentally changing the city.
David’s appraisal of the Philadelphia scene is pretty brave, considering the guy only showed up in town a year and a half ago and quite literally works out of a glass house. Not to mention all the fawning accolades the city has received in recent years: number three place to visit on the 2015 New York Times list of worldwide travel destinations; number one place to visit according to National Geographic; City of the Year in GQ; home to Esquire‘s Best New Restaurant in America. But David insists he doesn’t mean to throw stones; to him, these are simply empirical facts, no different from measuring the temperature outside.
He should know. Before coming on board as the Fitler Club’s president, David, who’s 48, spent more than a decade as a peripatetic hospitality guru, specializing in launching hotels — some of the glitziest hotels on earth. He opened the Viceroy (now a Four Seasons) on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, where the villas cost $20,000 a night, with a 10-night minimum. In 2015, he reopened the Knickerbocker in Times Square and later the Watergate in Washington, D.C., transforming its Nixonian-scandal rep into one of stylishness and glamour. Most recently, he oversaw the grand opening of the Santa Monica Proper, which in 2020 scored a spot on Travel + Leisure’s list of the best hotels in the world. All told, David has helped launch more than $1.7 billion in hotels across the Western Hemisphere. Now he’s in Philly, this lagging city, and has a vision of the Fitler Club, with its appeal to people who in other cities might frequent Soho House, WeWork and Equinox, shepherding us into a new era of post-pandemic relevancy.
“You might have been underdogs, or rough Philly, violent Philly, homeless Philly, whatever stigma you guys are trying to outgrow,” he says. But now, he goes on, “Oh my God, the renaissance is totally happening. Fishtown is totally happening. Everything was like Center City, Old City, right?” He gestures out to the cranes across the river. “Now you’ve got everything on that side of the Schuylkill.” As if to re-emphasize the point, he continues: “It’s totally happening.”
Or at least, it was. Less than a month into David’s tenure, the pandemic hit. The club shut down completely. One of his first acts as president was to lay off 90 percent of its 270 employees. Whatever road Fitler Club was on — and David insists that with 1,200 memberships pre-pandemic, it was a good one, if not profitable just yet — turned smack into a dead end.
A year later, David thinks Fitler Club can still be everything it was supposed to be, and then some. “We want to be trailblazers; we want to rebuild Philadelphia,” he says. The world, however, has changed. Some of Fitler’s best selling points, like the fact that it provides both work and play under the same roof — or, as David puts it in slightly more ominous Silicon Valley-speak, “There’s no more work-life balance; there’s work-life integration” — may not quite be the draw they once were. If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it was that working from home was kind of nice, yes, but it was also exhausting to have our bedrooms converted into home offices we couldn’t ever leave. Perhaps there’s such a thing as too much work-life integration after all.
And while people are undeniably itching to see each other again — which ought to benefit a club that counts Howie Roseman, Josh Kopelman and Julie Ertz among its members and is keen on selling the social capital that comes with belonging — there is at the same time an open question of whether, after more than a year of being locked away from the outside world, the first place they’ll wish to reconvene is in a private club. Because in spite of that nice branding, the bowling alley, the smoothie stand, the indoor lap pool, and the multiple bars and restaurants, the truth is that a private club is just a different kind of quarantine.
One of David’s favorite books is Hit Makers, by Atlantic writer Derek Thompson, which poses a tantalizing question: What makes a hit a hit? Giving me a summary of the chapter about Adele’s septuple-platinum song “Hello,” David explains how the answer can be broken down almost scientifically. “There were predictors in the industry saying that’s gonna go platinum,” he says, including (according to his summary, anyway) “the octaves, the tone, the sound.” David absorbed a clear message from the anecdote: Record execs have a kind of ESP. They knew they had a giant hit on their hands.
David, who has always possessed a semi-obsessive streak (when he worked for the Knickerbocker, he overnighted in 318 of the hotel’s 330 rooms before opening), has only doubled down in his search for patterns he can analyze. Just today, he spent 40 minutes sitting in the Fitler Club’s garage, which has become increasingly busy of late, surveying traffic. “Life’s an algorithm, right?” he says, as if it’s hardly up for debate.
I ask David to apply the lessons from Hit Makers to the Fitler Club. What’s going to make this project a hit? He responds with one part philosophy, one part enigmatic acronym: “I think people are neophytes and neophiles. Mostly advanced yet approachable — that’s an acronym: MAYA. You say ‘Soho,’ you say ‘Equinox,’ you say ‘WeWork,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, I get it.’ But it’s vastly different. So it’s intriguing and familiar at the same time.”
As David, dressed in an outfit (tortoiseshell Ray-Bans, red-and-white-checked blazer, white button-up shirt, skinny but not too skinny jeans and pink Nikes) that might have been generated by the algorithm for “hip dad aesthetic,” leads me around the club’s 130,000 square feet in the basement of the Aramark building, it’s easy to see the various corporate influences melding together. In what might be called the WeWork corner of the club, there’s a sleek gray common space flanked by concrete pillars and a bookshelf of heavy coffee-table tomes, as well as private glass-walled conference rooms. (Josh Kopelman’s First Round Capital and Mark Cuban Companies are tenants.) In the Equinox section, where an abstract graffiti mural runs the length of the walls, there’s a boxing room painted blood red, a Pilates room, a yoga room, and enough stationary bikes for at least a couple of Tour de France teams. In the Soho House corner, there’s a two-lane bowling alley, two pop-a-shot basketball hoops (one with a Spurs logo to honor San Antonio legend David Robinson, who’s a co-founder), and an upstairs balcony filled with pool tables and more arcade games. There’s even a secret room — “a club within a club,” David calls it — that’s unlocked by a biometric fingerprint scanner and only accessible to investors. Inside that room is one of the club’s three Damien Hirst paintings, along with lockers containing the investors’ personal stashes of alcohol and cigars.
Access to these amenities doesn’t come cheap. The fee structure is set up like a progressive income tax, so that older (and presumably richer) members pay the most: On the high end, dues run $450 a month with a $4,975 initiation fee, plus a $75 monthly food and beverage minimum. On the low end, for members under 30, monthly dues are $225, plus an initiation of $2,250. That’s a good deal cheaper than the Union League, which has a $7,500 initiation fee and $450-a-month dues. David is quick to note that if you’re paying the lowest rates, joining the Fitler Club doesn’t cost much more than a membership to, say, Equinox, which can run upwards of $200 a month.
The club has sought to make itself accessible in other ways. A “Fitler fellowship” program provides free year-long memberships to influential Philadelphians who might not otherwise be able to afford the fees. An in-residence program allows a number of local artists to display their work throughout the space. (A series of photos taken by a Fitler security manager, depicting protests in Center City and in front of the Rizzo statue during the George Floyd uprisings, also hangs on a wall.) Still, it’s hard to fully buy into David’s insistence that the Fitler Club is “of Philadelphia, by Philadelphia, and for Philadelphia.” There are 1,500 paying members, and the rates are cost-prohibitive for huge swaths of the populace. “Of course, a private club is about having an air of exclusivity,” David concedes. “But there’s a big difference between privileged and exclusive.”
Heading up the effort to root out the old ways of privilege is Albert Butler, whose job is to attract diverse members. So far, 25 percent of Fitler Clubbers are people of color. “It’s not just old rich white men smoking cigars in leather chairs,” Butler says (although that did sort of seem to be the vibe in the secret fingerprint-scanner room). “This is a club that’s vibrant, cool and diverse.” On any given day, the club might host a conversation among Black artists in Philadelphia or a panel with influential urbanists.
“We don’t have a demographic; it’s more like a psychographic, where it’s really your mind-set,” David tells me as we walk past the club’s 75-foot lap pool. Based on the people we encounter during the tour, he’s at least right when it comes to age: In the restaurant, the crowd is all crew-cut gray-haired CEO types talking over drinks; in the gym, it looks to be all 20- and 30-something tech and finance types. The Equinox crowd!
Buttressing all of the amenities, the reason David is here in the first place, is the hospitality. He likes to say he’s the “man behind the curtain,” but at least today, David is very much front-and-center-stage; he can scarcely walk 10 feet without dishing out a fist bump and a chipper “Hello” to staff and members alike. Each time we enter or exit an elevator, he bends over slightly and, reaching out to hold the door, sweetly announces, “After you.”
Jeff David didn’t grow up thinking he’d end up in the hospitality business. Born in North Jersey to Filipino immigrants — his father a shoe salesman, his mother a dietician — he dreamed of being a cartoonist for Disney. When he moved out to California for college at UCLA, he did a stint drawing caricatures for $10 apiece at Venice Beach.
In 1992, two years into school and “proverbially broke,” he saw an ad in the classifieds for a dishwasher at the Regent Beverly Wilshire, which he’d heard about in the film Pretty Woman. He applied and got the gig. Thus began a speedy upward trajectory that kept going even though David had no particular desire to spend his life in hospitality. “When I was a dishwasher, I never aspired to be a waiter,” he says. “When I was a waiter, I never aspired to be a manager. When I was a manager, I never aspired to be a GM. I had an artistic mind; I was having fun at what I do, and it paid the bills. And then I just got promoted.” By the time he was 31, he was general manager of the Ocean Edge on Cape Cod.
Being the GM of a luxury hotel is a bit like being a butler for a great English manor back in the 1800s. It requires a difficult balancing act — the ability to invisibly ensure that everything operates according to plan while being ever-present. It also lends itself to a kind of Army-brat lifestyle — that is, if Army bases were located in some of the most desirable vacation spots in the world. After leaving Cape Cod, David went on to hotels in Aspen, Nevis, Palm Springs, Miami and Anguilla, often bringing his wife and son, now 15, along for the ride. (These days, the family stays in Cape Cod, and David, who lives in one of the Fitler Club’s 14 hotel rooms, shares meals and bedtime goodbyes over FaceTime. He drives the six hours back to Massachusetts on weekends.)
It was at Anguilla that David experienced his most frequent brushes with fame. He once introduced Paul McCartney to Michael Jordan, and has the photos — taken aboard Jordan’s private plane, which is painted Carolina blue and has an enormous Jumpman logo on the tail — to prove it. He played three-on-three basketball with Shaquille O’Neal. He made a cameo in an episode of Real Housewives of Atlanta in which two of the stars flirted with him — David diplomatically tried to inform them he was married — and mused about what attractive children they would produce together.
“I had a lot of imposter syndrome,” David says. Unlike old-school English butlers, however, who were meant to act more like human service drones than individuated people, David had a unique ability to actually befriend some of his über-famous guests — people like NBA Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning, with whom he’s still close today. Those friendships provided an induction into a private club of a different kind: that of celebrity and power.
When David moved to D.C. in 2016 to open the Watergate, it was Mourning who told him about a group of guys who got together to play pickup basketball. One of those “guys” on occasion was Barack Obama. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Jeff.’ He said, ‘Hi, I’m Barack.’ We fist-bumped, and that was the extent of it,” David says. Another time, when someone had to drop out of a Roc Nation charity basketball game at the Barclays Center, one of David’s buddies from the music label invited him to play instead. That’s how he found himself on the court with Chris Brown, Kevin Durant, Terrell Owens, DJ Khaled and a host of other A-list celebrities. (A clip from the game of Chris Brown crossing over David and sending him tumbling to the floor ended up on Page Six.)
“I don’t know how this shit comes about,” David says. “I’m like Forrest Gump.” His mentor, Scott Case, a co-founder of Priceline, has a different theory as to why the rich and famous seem to gravitate to David. “High-performing people recognize high-performing talent, and Jeff is high-performing talent,” he says. It helps that David isn’t one to get starstruck. “If you’re the janitor or CEO of a company or a Grammy award-winner or an Oscar winner, he’s going to treat you the same,” says Mourning. “That’s one of the things I love about him. He’s so genuine and so kind. He has this peaceful spirit about him.”
In 2018, after more than a decade spent popping from one luxury hotel to the next, David started to feel like he was running circles in a hamster wheel. He’d spent so much time catering to the elite of the elite — people who already had everything they could possibly dream of — that he started to feel stasis set in. And unlike his former elite clientele, who tended to “rest on their laurels now that they’re at the top of the mountain,” he says, “I kind of went to the top of the mountain and hated the view.”
Seeking new inspiration, David turned his attention to entrepreneurs. These people, he realized, were constantly innovating and never satisfied. He decided to become one himself. He founded his own start-up, a hospitality consultancy, and took on a series of unorthodox projects, like a private jet company and an eco-friendly floating-house development in Miami. Fitler Club, with its roster of entrepreneurial investors, including David Gutstadt (the club’s co-founder, who, you guessed it, is a former Equinox exec), David Robinson (now a venture capitalist), Michael Forman (of Franklin Square investments), and Jeff Benjamin (of Vetri and Urban Outfitters), had obvious appeal.
If you’ve been following the chronology closely, you may have noticed something a bit off in our story. Jeff David opens hotels. The Fitler Club had been open for almost a year by the time he came on as president. David isn’t someone you bring in when things are running smoothly; David is the guy who sets things on the right path and then leaves. Read between the lines: In the Fitler Club’s early days, something must not have been quite right.
I ask David if that’s true. “New shoes always hurt,” he says by way of explanation. “The people that first bought into the club, based on hard-hat tours of an unfinished building and renderings, started to get service issues. There was the proverbial, ‘You sold us the dream and we’re living the nightmare.’ Where’s that pool we were promised? All that kind of stuff. It disenchanted some of the initial early adopters.”
Part of the problem was that there wasn’t anyone on staff who had experience marrying together hotel accommodations, a private gym, a restaurant, a co-working space and a social space. David did. “I call it first-time sex — you’re just clumsy, and you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing until you get good at it,” he says. “The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing. It’s a common flaw when opening a hotel without any type of corporate structure that’s done it before.” Dean Adler, a real estate developer who owns the Aramark building and is an investor in the Fitler Club, puts it a little more diplomatically: “The owners recognized that the concept was great but that something was missing as well.” Inside the club, the joke came to be that Jeff Benjamin and David Gutstadt, the COO and CEO, respectively, were taking a back seat to a guy named Jeff David.
Just as David got to fixing the club, though, the pandemic hit. Ninety percent of catering and events revenue evaporated; 20 percent of co-working tenants canceled. More than $5 million in business on the books: all gone. David had to transition into full-scale survival mode. The club applied for and received two PPP loans, totaling nearly $4 million. David spent hours calling members who had booked events, begging them to keep their deposits with the club. He made a plea to members to keep paying their monthly dues, not only to help keep the lights on, but so he could support laid-off staff with a food bank set up in the now-vacant events space. He continued to pay for their health insurance. He lent out the club’s lightweight gym equipment to members. He turned the restaurant into a takeout joint. Meanwhile, he continued to live at the club five days a week, away from his family. “It was like The Shining,” he says. “I was the only one living here.”
“We were watching huge established brands, like Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City, close for good. We were probably the biggest poster child of ‘They’re not gonna make it.’ But we did.”
As the club made it through the initial shock of the pandemic, David tried to imagine ways it could operate on a scaled-back basis. When the city brought back outdoor gyms, he moved the club’s equipment to a terrace that normally was part of the restaurant. He began purchasing heaters so he could set up outdoor dining in the cooler months. He bought igloos for a luxe outdoor dining “pod” setup. More than 80 percent of the club’s members kept paying dues.
“The mortality rate of something one year old vs. 20 years old is astonishing,” David says; odds normally favor the well-established, though that was no guarantee in a pandemic. “We were watching huge established brands, like Gramercy Park Hotel in New York City, close for good. We were probably the biggest poster child of ‘They’re not gonna make it.’ But we did.”
Though the Fitler Club hasn’t been fully operational in more than a year, virtually all the members I spoke to had positive things to say about it. Tyrone Dixon, a 36-year-old Black entrepreneur who received one of the Fitler fellowships, benefited from making connections at the club, having struck up a series of conversations with Josh Kopelman at the gym. “I’d have never gotten next to a Josh Kopelman,” he says. “Now, we have it to where I can reach out and I can schedule a pitch.” Others say Fitler was a haven during the pandemic — one of the few places they could take their kids or grab a meal and feel relatively safe. I spoke to some of the club’s Black members, who praised the club’s commitment to diversity, including specific programming — events like pop-ups with Black chefs and DJs — and a generally inclusive atmosphere. “I don’t feel like I’m looking over my shoulder every two seconds when I’m talking at the Fitler,” says Matthew Stitt, the former chief financial officer under the Kenney administration.
These are the kinds of narratives David hopes will bring people back into the fold as the pandemic wanes. The club is currently adding some 40 new members each month — almost the same rate as before the pandemic. Weddings, David says, are booked every weekend until 2022. People are already scheduling corporate holiday parties at the club. And despite the fact that it’s incredibly easy — especially in a city as snob-averse as Philadelphia — to scoff at the entire notion of a private club, David isn’t worried. “I think what’s resonating is the word ‘value,’” he says. “If people find value in it, then the elitism is gone.” (I’m not so sure, but one nice thing about a private club is that you never have to come face-to-face with anyone who disagrees.)
Dixon, whose free membership expired in March, decided against converting to a paid membership — for now. The pandemic made him realize that many of his past relationships felt transactional: “Before, it felt like you had to have work and social relationships coincide in order to succeed.” Now, he’s not convinced.
But David is confident almost everyone will decide to stay, eventually. Especially after the pandemic, he says, the club “brings back, in an old-school, primitive way, talking to people over a drink, sharing the same sofa.” He likens it to the “anti-Tinder.” And for all the speculation about what impact new technology like Zoom might have on networking, or how the desire to separate work life from home life might disrupt a place built on being a one-stop shop, David says there’s not a single trend that suggests people want anything other than what they used to have.
It’s a pretty convincing argument at this precise moment. It’s getting late on a Thursday night. Music is blaring over the speakers. A group of young people is dining next to us at the restaurant, and a cacophonous wave of voices bounces across the room. That’s step one: getting people back in the club. Step two — turning it into “a leader and the epitome of the city” — is harder. David, however, believes it can be done. The club, he says, “needs a guy that has no ego, but global wisdom, to teach them how to do it.” An outsider. Him. “I think,” he says, “I’m what this city needs.”
Published as “Inside Man” in the July 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.