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Behind one couple’s dream to open a boutique hotel in Columbia

Christina Lee Knauss //February 15, 2023//

Behind one couple’s dream to open a boutique hotel in Columbia

Christina Lee Knauss //February 15, 2023//

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Owners of Hotel Trundle, a Columbia boutique hotel with a local focus, plan multiple expansions in the near future to please a growing variety of guests. (Photo/Kickstand Studio)

When Rita Patel and husband Marcus Munse moved to Columbia in 2010, they did so out of economic necessity.

The couple’s dreams of moving to New York City and becoming architects were dashed by the Great Recession. Patel’s parents owned a motel in West Columbia and the couple both took jobs there, plus worked others to make ends meet.

During those challenging times, they never believed they would eventually decide to make Columbia home, and eight years later end up opening their own boutique hotel in the heart of the city’s downtown.

“When we came to Columbia, opening a hotel was not on our radar at all,” owner Rita Patel told SC Biz News in a recent interview. “But we absolutely fell in love with this city and things started to bloom for us. The timing was perfect when we decided to open Hotel Trundle.”

Five years after opening in space that used to be three historic downtown buildings, the 41-room Hotel Trundle has won dozens of national and regional awards and the couple are planning two expansions to offer guests even more unique ways to experience what Trundle — and Columbia — has to offer.

Turning stress into opportunity

Hotel Trundle, like other accommodations nationwide, went through a stressful time during the pandemic in 2020, when it was forced to close for about six weeks. Patel and Munse, however, say some good things came out of that era. They learned how much support they had from the local community and what a strong team of employees they have, and they also got some important new perspectives on travelers’ changing wants and needs.

They learned many guests were seeking out different levels of privacy, ranging from the traditional full-service hotel experience to more private accommodations for both short- and long-term stays.

Munse and Patel saw the potential of a ruined building through the eyes of architects, as they stand it what will become the Flutter Wing. (Photo/Provided) As a result, they decided in 2022 to expand Trundle’s offerings into two new options called Flutter Wing and The Dens. Flutter Wing, slated to open later this year, offers guests a semi-private stay, while The Dens, less than a mile away over in Columbia’s historic Cottontown district, offers a completely private stay.

The Flutter Wing takes its name from a butterfly-themed mural at the main hotel, and also is designed to play off the whimsical nature of the Trundle’s mascot, the unicorn.

It is located around the corner from the main hotel in former retail space at 1544 Main St., adjacent to and above Drake’s Duck-In, a long-time Columbia restaurant. The wing is going into a historic building that served a wide variety of retail businesses in the past, starting with Duffie’s Bookstore (1868-1912) to a beauty salon, shoe store, and Marilyn’s Slipper Shop in 1941.

Five hotel-style guest rooms will be in the 2,500-square-foot new wing, including a large suite that would be ideal for both brides and VIP guests, Patel said. Flutter also will include a private patio, and offer guests both a private key-fob entry and separate parking, while also offering guests full access to all of the main hotel’s amenities.

The Dens, meanwhile, will be located in two duplexes the couple is renovating in the Cottontown area. It will consist of four apartment-style lodging spaces — three one-bedroom and one three-bedroom offering with an office space. Design and construction for that space is being run by the couple, with Marcus handling much of the construction and renovation himself. The Dens is also slated to open this year.

Making ends meet

Hotel Trundle both the original site and the future expansions exists only because Patel and Munse had to radically change their original life plans.

Both graduated from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte with architecture degrees and married in 2010. Munse originally hails from the Charlotte area, while Patel grew up surrounded by the hospitality industry in South Carolina. Her parents were in hospitality for more than 40 years.

When plans to move to New York didn’t work out, they first moved in with Patel’s parents in Orangeburg and then came to Columbia to work in a hotel the Patel family had developed in West Columbia. Rita helped at the front desk while Marcus took on maintenance and other jobs.

The hotel wasn’t their only gig, however. Over the next 24 months, the two worked a total of five jobs. Rita’s jobs included a stint as an “on-call” sales associate with Macy’s at a northeast shopping center.

“We were living on a popcorn-for-dinner budget,” Patel said. “We couldn’t even really afford our first Christmas tree, and they only cost $30 back then. But during the whole time, we never missed a payment on anything.”

Although it wasn’t the easiest of times, the couple quickly started to love its newly adopted home, learning more about what the city had to offer through local events such as the popular Soda City Market held downtown on Saturdays. The Market even became the location of one of their money-making efforts from that era “Daddy-Daughter Chicken Tikka,” a pop-up food stall that featured chicken tikka and other traditional Indian foods.

Rita was eventually able to get a job with a local architectural firm, while Marcus decided he liked the hospitality industry and stayed on working at the hotel. They purchased their first home in the Cottontown district in 2013 and had two children as the years passed.

Hatching a dream

Eventually Rita and Marcus decided they wanted to try their hand at opening their own boutique-style, independent hotel in Columbia that would allow them not only to showcase what the city had to offer but to offer a guest experience unlike any other available in the area.

In 2016, they started looking around for properties and were guided to three buildings along Taylor Street which previously were home to Rose-Talbert Paints, Powell Furniture Co. and a Western Auto Store.

The buildings initially didn’t seem like prime hotel material.

“When we first saw the site it looked like a horror movie — there were drips and puddles everywhere, and things left behind from when part of the space was a storage facility for a local hospital,” Patel said.

But they took a leap of faith, signed a contract for the properties in 2016, and after two years of hard work opened Hotel Trundle in 2018. Patel used her love of interior design to help develop the hotel’s unique art-deco vibe, accented by attention to details that reflect the buildings’ original historic design including exposed brick, stamped tin ceilings, moldings and custom wood trim.

Support for the hotel from both the local community and travelers was quick to develop.

“Everything worked out for us — the timing was perfect and we opened to a supportive atmosphere,” Munse said. “Columbia had not had something like this before and everyone was curious about what we had to offer.”

Putting down roots

The couple are so dedicated to supporting the Columbia area that from the beginning, as many products as possible in use at Hotel Trundle come from local vendors, from artwork on the walls to the craft beer served in the lobby and the coffee served at breakfast. The hotel’s mattresses are made by Best Mattress in West Columbia and are so popular with guests that many come to the front desk and ask where they can purchase the “Trundle mattress.”

If they can’t find items made in Columbia, they try to source them from elsewhere in South Carolina. The pillows, for instance, are made by a company out of Beaufort called Harris Pillows.

The couple’s decision to create a unique lodging experience has paid off. Hotel Trundle has consistently won local, regional and national awards since the year it opened, and in 2021 and ’22 was named one of the Top 10 Best Historic Hotels in the U.S. by readers of USA Today. The hotel has also welcomed celebrity guests including Steve Martin, Vivica Fox and DJ Khaled.

Patel and Munse hope to make even more guests happy when Trundle’s expansions open later this year, and to continue to support the city that allowed them to build their dream.

“We want to continue to grow by understanding what our guests want and need,” Patel said. “We know that a lot of travelers these days are looking for an atmosphere that’s cool and inspiring, and that’s who we’re here for.”