By Zachary Fagenson
By Bill Citara
By Laine Doss
By Laine Doss
By Carina Ost
By Valeria Nekhim
By Hannah Sentenac
By Carina Ost
Act One really begins three decades ago, in Los Angeles circa 1972, when West Coaster Dennis Max met East Coaster Burt Rapoport. Both were assistant managers in one of the nation's first non-fast food chain restaurants, Victoria Station. They were both on the fast track to becoming regional managers, and they both had the ambition to work for themselves. A year later Max was transferred and Rapoport was assigned to the Northeast, but the two never lost touch, actually forming a marketing consulting company together. Eventually Dave Alderman, the head of their first client, Chuck's Steakhouse Restaurants, asked the pair if they'd be interested in climbing onboard a new venture in Fort Lauderdale. The two performed the proverbial jump at the chance and relocated to South Florida.
Fast-forward to Fort Lauderdale, 1977 (can anyone say culinary wasteland?). But the concept seemed like a good one -- a Mexican eatery called Carlos and Pepe's. Right before the place opened, however, Max and Rapoport had a falling-out with Alderman. “We had philosophical differences,” says Rapoport, “and left a month before the opening.” Max says they split right after the opening. Still, the results were the same: Max and Rapoport sold their stock back to Alderman for $3750 each, maybe a misstep. According to Rapoport in the first year of operation, Carlos and Pepe's grossed a million bucks in pure profit.
Regardless of hindsight the pair was “stuck in South Florida,” as Max puts it, without a restaurant. And little did they know the phrase philosophical differences would become a mainstay in their vocabulary, and that disintegrating partnerships would be par for the course. But they were still interested in launching a place together, and their particular merger seemed to be destined. Rapoport was from a restaurateuring family in Manhattan; Max had a financial background, having graduated with an MBA and worked as a Wall Street broker for four years. So they continued to search for a location, and found one through Dan Duckham, an architect.
Duckham already had a group of five investors searching for a restaurant. Duckham talked Max and Rapoport into joining forces, and the gang of eight opened Raffles in the Dadeland Mall in 1979. The restaurant, which Max calls a “fern bar” à la the kind people hung out in on the West Coast, “had a T.G.I. Friday's kind of theme,” he concedes. “We had fresh food, were real approachable, and featured live jazz from University of Miami [students].” Rapoport concurs: “We were Friday's and Houlihan's with better food. Lots of energy, a great look, and the guys from Miami Sound Machine used to play there.”
Indeed Raffles was such a cash cow the group decided to replicate. By 1982 Max and Rapoport had formed a restaurant company called Creative Restaurants, Inc. Max was president, Rapoport was vice president, and the pair oversaw seven Raffles restaurants in Fort Myers, Orlando, and Atlanta, Georgia. They planned on opening another half-dozen or so. But in 1983 Max and Rapoport had grown tired of the concept.
“By then we had replaced the group with a single partner,” Rapoport explains. “But we were cavalier about success. We thought we couldn't do wrong. We felt invincible. Plus we were partying like crazy -- it was the early Eighties in Miami, after all. So Dennis and I sold all the [Raffles] locations to our partner and left.”
This time they also “went in different directions,” Rapoport says. Take that literally. Rapoport moved to Long Island, where he opened Summerfield's in 1985. The restaurant, which served designer pizzas, pastas, and anything that could be cooked on a mesquite grill, would later become a prototype for the Prezzo chain he would launch with Max upon his return to South Florida in 1988.
As for Max, he had recently married his third wife, Patti, who had majored in fashion and design at the University of Miami. Max and his wife began looking for a restaurant location. “We wanted to do a neighborhood kind of place where we were involved in every detail,” notes Max, by then a veteran of two chains. “We found an old 1930s drugstore in Pompano Beach. And that was Café Max.”
It also was far from a neighborhood kind of place. In fact it was the start of a new kind of restaurant chain: the so-called restaurant group. Wrote Lucy Cooper in the Miami Herald in 1982: “[Their] success is due, in part, to recognizing and capitalizing on a concept whose time had come. Their future may depend on a timely recognition of the winds of change.”
Next week, Act Two, The Rise and Rise of Max and Max : How Dennis and Patti form a nationally admired empire and inspire a local diaspora, surviving the bitter breakup with partner and name-making chef Mark Militello after the launch of their third restaurant. But at what cost? Also, the rise and demise of Militello and Mary Anne Richter: Partners for more than a decade, the pair falls victim again to the Curse of Three. Now they no longer communicate, squabbling over the loyalties of friends and business personnel alike.