By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
This past month, in an effort to boost the business, the partners hired Donald Usher and changed the menu to Caribbean.
Now they're considering a name change, too. "It's a learning experience. I guess we were a little slow catching on," O'Keefe says, gazing at the empty seats, at the cloaked throngs hustling by along Ocean Drive. "It's just getting through the first year that's hard. If you get through the first year, you're all set. At least that's what they tell me down here."
There was once a time, not very long ago, when activity in the local restaurant industry meant a menu change at Wolfie's. And for heady debate, local food fiends would guess the early-bird special at the Rascal House. "Even five years ago," observes Alan Richman, GQ magazine's food and wine columnist, "Miami was the black hole of dining."
But all that has changed. National restaurant critics and food writers say once-vibrant dining capitals such as New York and Los Angeles have stagnated. Other major markets -- Chicago, Boston, Washington, Dallas, and Houston included -- are merely sputtering along. (The exception is San Francisco, which remains relatively healthy.) "I'll tell you how bad it is up here," groans GQ's Richman, speaking from Manhattan. "People spent six months in a tizzy over who was going to be the new chef at Le Cirque, and everyone who eats there is so old they can't taste the food."
Not so in Miami. Nowhere in the nation is the dining landscape transforming as quickly as it is here. That change is most radically evident in tumultuous and combustible South Beach; restaurant industry experts say that the area has experienced more recent growth per square mile than anywhere else in the U.S. Coral Gables, of course, was always regarded as the de facto gastronomic center of Dade County, and it still offers a relatively traditional view of fine dining preferred by the charity-ball circuit and the Miami elite. But the Gables establishments, some of which have been in existence since the Seventies, have shifted increasingly to the back of the dining room as the glitzy and exuberant enterprises of South Beach commandeer the prime tables like ill-mannered teenagers.
One simple and vivid measure of the Beach's growth as a food nexus is Ocean Drive: in 1985 only one sit-down restaurant (located in the Cardozo Hotel at Thirteenth Street) was open on the block; there are now more than 30. According to City of Miami Beach statistics, more than 80 full-service restaurants currently operate in the triangle between Dade Boulevard, the bay, and the ocean.
And a lot of people are looking for someone else to do the cooking: a 1992 survey by the National Restaurant Association, a trade association for the food-service industry, found that out of every dollar Dade residents spend on food, 52.1 cents go to restaurants. (By comparison, Bostonians spend 49.5 cents, New Yorkers 48.9 cents, and San Franciscans 48 cents out of every dollar. The national average is 42 cents.) And that doesn't even begin to calculate the dollars dished out by hungry tourists.
Yes, there's a fortune to be made somewhere in those numbers, but the question is how? And where? And serving what? There certainly hasn't been a shortage of people trying to find the answers. Says Andrew Delaplaine, the editor of the Beach weekly Wire and an industry refugee himself: "It's difficult to walk a block in South Beach and not find someone who was involved in the restaurant business."
Restaurateurs fancy themselves as pretty daring people. On the scale of courage, the average restaurant proprietor places himself right up toward the top, somewhere between smoke jumper and mercenary soldier. Fighter pilot? They have parachutes! Inner-city police officers? They have guaranteed salaries and pension plans! Without much prompting, restaurant owners will rattle off statistics telling just how brave they are to fool around in a business like theirs. Eight out of ten restaurants fail in their first two years, they say; only one will see its fifth birthday. They brag about these numbers, seeming to thrive on the threat of failure.
Indeed, restaurants are as perilously fragile as a souffle. An endless array of circumstances can cause a place to collapse, including culinary inconsistency, a confused concept, unflattering press, disorganized management, awful service, unfavorable weather, and just plain terrible food. Too often, industry specialists say, people enter the business with a limited knowledge of what they're doing. While hairdressers need to pass certification exams and cabbies are required to have chauffeur's licenses, anybody can serve food with the right building permits and enough money. "People talk about the riskiness of the restaurant business, but that's because they don't know it," scoffs Mike Hearst, professor of restaurant management at Florida International University and past president of the National Restaurant Association. "Many people go in on the basis of a good idea and a good location, and they like food."
Usually, Hearst stresses, that's not enough.
Attracted by the gold-rush mentality that has governed the past few years of South Beach development, dozens of entrepreneurs have stumbled onto the Beach carrying satchels of cash and grand strategies to reap the elusive spoils of the restaurant wars. Some of their ventures were critical raves and wildly popular. Others were stillborn. Most lost a lot of money. A stroll through Miami Beach's food-service graveyard offers insight into the vagaries of the trade: