By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
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At first glance it looks as though this year's season claimed more than its share of restaurant victims. Of the places that went out of business in recent months, several of them appeared to be high-end, well-funded untouchables: Mayya, Thoa's on Ponce, Petrossian, Jada. But out of all of them, only one -- Mayya -- went into permanent seasonal slump. The rest had opened the previous year, which disqualifies them from the running.
Yet Mayya's flop was so fabulous it seems to have tainted the restaurant industry's point of view. Many insiders are currently considering this season (1) unsuccessful and (2) boring -- despite the solid, even exciting addition of eateries like the Strand, Mark's South Beach, B.E.D., and Bambú to the scene. So just what is it about Mayya's failure that is so overwhelmingly captivating? The simple fact that it should have been a rousing success.
Look at the ingredients: a seasoned restaurateur (Yuca founder Ephrain Vega); a famous coproprietor (baseball player Billy Bean); a well-trained chef (Guillermo Tellez, Charlie Trotter's protégé from Chicago); an ideal location (Lincoln Road); a sound culinary concept (gourmet Mexican fare); and a whopping infusion of cash (two million dollars). The skeptics, myself included, were hard-pressed to believe such a recipe would produce a soufflé that would fall faster than Superman loaded down with kryptonite.
In fact the jaded crowd actually was psyched enough about Mayya's forthcoming appearance to attend a welcoming barbecue for Tellez, who arrived during the summer to work on the menu and finalize dishes. The party was held outside at the Albion, the hotel in which Mayya was anchored, while the restaurant was still under renovation. Too bad Tellez's appearance wasn't as memorable as the sheet cake the staff wheeled out in his honor. Just as the proprietors had made the presentation, the skies opened up and doused the butter cream with a typical SoFlo storm. An omen, maybe, or just another South Beach excuse for us all to enjoy a Donna Summer moment: "Someone left the cake out in the rain ..."
Perhaps, industry insiders suggest, therein lay the problem. Though Tellez was wooed and feted (clearly meant to be the diva here), he quickly became overshadowed by certain events that had nothing at all to do with restaurant-business-as-usual stuff: Billy Bean came out of the closet. Public-relations reps point to the New York Times articles about Bean and his interviews with TV journalists like Diane Sawyer as a grave tactical error. Sure, fifteen minutes of fame can easily boost a restaurant to great culinary heights -- if the fish-eye lens is on the food, service, and whatnot. Bean's candid talk about his issues being a gay male in the macho sports world had zero to do with Mayya, and everything to do with reclaiming the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
Of course that's only one speculation. Another is that the two-story eatery, which was split into a café and a dining room, complete with two separate menus, suffered from an identity crisis along with its coproprietor. The number of options -- Do you want to sit in the café? In the dining room? Upstairs? Downstairs? -- had diners scratching their heads. Mayya seemed to be the equivalent of a teenager when asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. The answer? "I don't know yet, but I do know I want to be really successful and famous and make a lot of money."
As for the décor, it didn't come close to matching the direction of the dishes -- an important point if you like restaurant experiences to be gestalt. Paula Block, a veteran chef of another locally famous failure (South Beach Brasserie), points out that "[there was] no warmth about the place, and Mexican -- even Mexico City style -- is meant to be a very earthy cuisine with a warm feel to it." Mayya's huge storefront windows and abundance of cool metal materials were not exactly reminiscent of a comfy hacienda.
Then, too, high-profile places such as Mayya rely on reviews from both local and national critics to lure the dining public, and in this area it also wobbled. While lauding the taste of the fare, the reviewers were less than kind when it came to the tiny portions and tony prices. To be fair Mayya took steps to respond constructively to criticism. First, portion sizes were increased. Then the café menu and dining room menu were fused into one, and prices were reduced (a little). Mayya even began hosting wine luncheons for the press in an attempt to woo us back.
But the eatery couldn't do much about the gossip that began to filter out: reports of in-fighting and personality clashes. Indeed these rumors were confirmed when Vega and his publicist parted ways, and when he fired Tellez. In South Florida Gourmet, Vega blamed Mayya's decline on the chef's culinary vision, despite Vega's original and very public enthusiasm for it. In turn Tellez fought with Vega, who is alleged to have a formidable temper, over several issues, including requests to cut back on the quality of ingredients he was using. New Times even received an e-mail from a bitter Mayya insider, accusing Bean of being completely inexperienced as well as arrogant, "favor[ing] the gay scene more than the customers."
In truth Mayya faced an uphill battle. A restaurant isn't going to make anyone rich, unless you're a mogul who buys and sells or the place is like Joe's Stone Crab, a 100-year-old gold mine. Even with a modest input of cash (say $200,000 to open properly), a restaurant will struggle to break even in its first year. When millions of dollars are involved, the restaurant hardly is going to break even, let alone turn a profit, for years. It's exponential: Increase the investment and the chances to fail are significantly greater because you start with that much more (1) debt, (2) investors wanting to see some action, and (3) pressure to prove the eatery was worth so much brouhaha to begin with. Once a restaurant wastes millions of dollars, it's difficult to get anything back other than prestige or local fame. As investment opportunities go, restaurants are big-time losers, and Mayya's backers and proprietors would have been better off playing stocks, even in the current bear market.
Despite all the analysis and reasoning, when it comes to defining why a certain restaurant succeeds or fails, the stock analogy works as well as any other. A consumer can do as much research as he wants. But in the end whether the client bites depends on what kind of vibe the product is giving off. In Mayya's case the vibe was less vibrant than it was vitriolic. And we didn't bite.