When my daughter and I stood in the anteroom of the fabled Kleinfeld Bridal store in Manhattan and co-owner Ronnie Rothstein stopped by to chat, the last thing I expected to hear was his love for the city I’ve been calling home for nearly 30 years.
But there he was, unsolicited, reciting his adoration for Carmine’s on PGA Boulevard, the Publix on Donald Ross Road and the Whole Foods Market downtown.
“My brother lives in Boca and my best friend lives in Jupiter. If I could retire, I would move somewhere there. Anywhere,” said the man known to viewers for his frequent appearances on the long-running TLC reality show “Say Yes to the Dress.”
Then he said Yes to the Gardens.
“There’s nothing better than Palm Beach Gardens,” Rothstein said. “Palm Beach Gardens … it’s unbelievable.”
And he backed up his words. Three weeks later he stood outside a Brooklyn Water Bagel in a shopping plaza off of PGA Boulevard.
After missing north county last year because of the pandemic, Rothstein couldn’t wait to come back for Thanksgiving this year for a week of sun, golf and his favorite PGA Boulevard haunts.
“What is there not to love here?” he asks, lifting his arms to indicate the surroundings.
As any good Sunshine State ambassador does, he lists the reasons.
It’s the ease of movement, from the airport to the lack of traffic to going shopping.
“Everything is easy to get to. And you can have the best of anything and it’s 10 minutes away.”
It’s the casual clothing.
“You go to a restaurant, you go anywhere, you can dress any way you want here. It’s very casual. And the professional people here? They’re wearing golf shirts, wearing khakis, they’re wearing jeans. It’s a very different environment.”
And, of course, the weather.
“I laugh when they say it’s cold down here and it’s 60 degrees and in New York, it’s 24.”
Rothstein’s love affair with north county is well-deserved, said Noel Martinez, president and chief executive of the Palm Beach North Chamber.
“With our beautiful beaches, amazing restaurants, and close-knit community, the Palm Beach North region is truly Florida’s Prosperity Coast,” he said. “We are proud that such a successful business person sees the great value in our area.”
And it’s not surprising, Palm Beach Gardens Mayor Rachelle Litt said.
“Palm Beach Gardens is a buzz city all over the country right now,” Litt said, citing the talk from business recruiters. “There’s a reason that the Florida Chamber voted us best city in which to live in 2019. And it’s only gotten better since then.”
How a former ‘M*A*S*H’ star became a Kleinfeld owner
Rothstein could be like so many other New Yorkers who retire to South Florida. But he’s not ready to give up his day job.
His show is entering its 21st season. It’s been copied with spinoffs in Atlanta, Australia and Europe. Viewership in more than 150 countries tops 1.4 million per show.
It all started with a phone call to Mara Urshel, Rothstein’s partner — as in they are unmarried, but a couple.
Urshel had been a longtime executive at Saks Fifth Avenue, building up its women’s private label brands and its women’s sportswear and cosmetics divisions while rising to become the company’s first female senior vice president.
After the death of her second husband, she lived with Rothstein, who had been an investment banker and partnered on deals with the late Wayne Rogers, who played Trapper John on TVs “M*A*S*H” before transitioning from acting to business.
In the mid-1990s she took a consulting gig to turn around the floundering Kleinfeld store, whose original family owners sold it in 1990. Kleinfeld filled seven former Bay Ridge townhomes in Brooklyn and its latest owners, Gordon Brothers Capital, hired Urshel to bring it up to snuff so it could be sold.
Two months later, she urged Rothstein to get with Rogers to buy the business. Gordon was about to shut the store down when the deal closed in 1999, Rothstein said.
While the price was undisclosed, Rothstein said they got an excellent deal.
How ‘Yes to the Guy’ turned into ‘Yes to the Dress’
Urshel urged them to find a larger space in Manhattan. It took three years but “the day we moved to Manhattan, the business had significant double digit increases every year and we haven’t looked back,” Rothstein said.
It’s the size and design of the Manhattan store — allowing them to stock 1,600 to 2,000 dresses — not the TV show, that made the store a success, he maintained.
“We have 28 bridal consultants and 15 accessory consultants. So that means we can take 28 appointments every hour-and-a-half to two hours. We had that before the show and we had that after the show. Instead of taking two or three weeks to get an appointment you may have to wait six or seven weeks. But it’s still the same number of appointments.”
They did the pilot in 2006 under the working title “Kleinfeld Unveiled,” Rothstein said. The show’s current host, Randy Fenoli, who lives part-time in west Boynton Beach, didn’t appear.
At one point in the show, Rothstein said he told a bride “It’s easier to say ‘yes’ to the guy than it is to say ‘yes’ to the dress.”
The producers heard it and called. “We’ve got a name,” they said.
“We didn’t like it,” Rothstein said.
Turning gown shopping into an experience
It turns out “Say Yes to the Dress” has changed the industry.
“It used to be, three people, tops, came with the bride to pick a dress,” he said about not just his store, but shops nationwide. Now it has grown to six to 10 guests and become a special event for the bride and her family, he said.
“It’s a whole cultural shift in what happens when you go buy the dress.”
He credits Urshel with the concept. “We’re not in the retail business, she said, we’re in the experience business.”
“There’s an excitement when you come to Kleinfeld when a girl says yes to the dress and all of a sudden there’s maybe 100 people in the store and everybody’s applauding and congratulating her,” he said. “It’s a sense of theater.”
His flair for theatrics underlies his love of Gardens. But even at 79, he’s not ready to retire to South Florida yet because he still loves his job.
“If you talk to the 6,000 people who own bridal stores around the United States, when they have a good day and people are leaving happy and they get a hug, ‘I feel beautiful’ and the mother says, ‘Thank you for treating my daughter special,’ it’s very rewarding. You really feel well. It’s very fulfilling. And we love that and the staff loves that.”
© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.
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