By Chuck Strouse
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Miami is teeming with successful, hard-working businesspeople whose establishments are integral threads in the fabric of our daily lives. Yet at times it seems that unless they throw a decadent, $700,000 coming-out party, nobody pays them any mind. We pass their fiefdoms every day on the way to work, eat their food, drink their booze, wear their clothes, sport their tattoos, apply for their mortgages, even get spied on by their investigators. But how much do we really know about the folks behind the name on the sign? Take Joe, for example.
According to the Southern Bell telephone directory, Joe (alias Joey, Joseph, and Jose) has amassed an incredibly diverse portfolio that includes three car lots, six auto repair shops, eight barber shops/beauty salons, eleven eateries, five clothing stores, and 31 other enterprises, ranging from a music video machine with traveling DJs to a Mobil gas station. Through it all, he's somehow managed to keep a low profile, in spite of the fact that all of these businesses bear his name.
Unlike Joe, most entrepreneurs are not seasoned tycoons. Betty has a bakery and a barber shop. Veronica's got a beauty salon, a boutique, and a fashion store. Archie's into realty and repairs. Neither Reggie nor Jughead went into business for himself, but Moose did all right with the lodges. For every Ricky's Records there's a Sonia's Hearing Aids Center. Not to mention Jumbo, Tiny, Big John, Little Stan, Fast Sam, Porky, Piggy, Peggy, Poggenpohl, and Pubenza. And what would Joe say about the people who changed their name just to get their business listed in the front of the phone book? Does anyone believe there are really 49 Miami-area proprietors born with the surname Aachen? Maybe they didn't really modify their names so much as annex them, as in the case of A Aachen Aah Aalst Aardvard Aaron Aba Abaca Abogado Advocacy Office of Larry Sparks, PA. Competition is not nearly so keen for the back of the book, but anyone who wanted to shoot for the absolute last listing would be wise to immediately hire John Zzzzop.
Like Joe, there is a plethora of would-be magnates and moguls in the Miami area from the old school, folks who put their name on the door because it means something. Then again, there are a few who keep a name on a business because it used to mean something, and still others who never existed at all or whose employees don't have a clue as to who they are.
At Don-Z Pawnshop, for example, an employee who declines to identify himself brusquely offers this explanation for his company's name: "The name to the place is the name to the place. That's all. There's nobody by that name over here." At Gil's Spot an equally guarded bartender speculates that Gil is "just a name" that has nothing to do with present ownership. And for those of us who grew up believing that "Little Burkie" loved us all, the curt telephone manner of the prevailing management at Austin Burke, which is now owned by "Little Burkie" junior ("I'mtoobusyyougottacallbackthanks[click]"), is a far cry from the warm reception we'd have expected from the guy who just wanted to save the world money on suits, suits, suits!
An alarming number of thriving businesses bear the names of owners who long ago sold out, moved on, or otherwise passed along their concerns. Most of Miami's barbecued-rib bigwigs fit this scenario. Tony Roma was probably the most famous of the rack, but Tony's restaurants are now part of a sprawling international chain run by a huge corporation headquartered in Dallas. They've got an 800 number and few, if any, of their employees ever met Tony. Bobby Rubino used to work for Tony, then started his own place with a partner fronting most of the cash. Bobby split more than a decade ago; his partner passed away and left the barbecuing to his grandkids.
And then there was Shorty, a Georgia cracker with a taste for hickory-flavored barbecue and a knack for real estate investment. He started easing out of the day-to-day operation of Shorty's restaurant after a fire burned it to the ground in 1971, and sold out completely in 1980. But he squirrelled away enough profits to buy several prime real estate parcels along Dixie Highway and retire to a comfortable life in Marathon. Meanwhile, several of his employees have stayed on to work for the new guys, who, in turn, have committed to doing things Shorty's way A simple menu, informal surroundings, and lots of hickory wood trucked down from Gainesville. No 800 number.
Up the road from Shorty's is Alice's Day Off, a women's retail swimwear outlet. But if you go there, don't ask for Alice. According to owner Rick Cohen, the name is based on the legend of an old French woman who worked in the garment industry. Her name was Alice, and her hobby was taking scraps of clothing from the factory where she toiled and making bathing suits out of them. Eventually she began selling her handiwork at the beach, and it became so popular that Alice started putting a sign out whenever she had free time, advertising her day off. Then came the Judith Krantz novel, the miniseries, and the spot on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. And Cohen's store.