Season Opener: A Double-Header

In general Miami Spice heated up late-summer dining

Or, perhaps, simply starting it. Miami Spice certainly helped put at least one new restaurant in solid standing for the coming season. Cyril Amini, general manager for Carmen the Restaurant, which opened in the spring, says that "the waitstaff loved the Miami Spice Month [MSM] because of the amount of business it generated in August. The slow month of August became actually a busy month, partially because of the MSM." He credits it only halfway, though, because chef-owner Carmen Gonzalez took the opportunity to do as Haas suggests and met the promo head-on. Rather than serving the same three courses during the month(s), Gonzalez changed the Spice menu every two or three days. When Amini saw repeat customers taking advantage of it, he put together a call list and phoned them every time the menu was revised.

Nor did Carmen the Restaurant lose money by gussying up the Spice. "MSM guests would on average spend a lot more on wine, liquors, drinks, and after-dinner drinks. I remember one MSM table of four guests, in for a Tuesday dinner, which had five bottles of wine!" Amini remarks. In general, he figures, "The lunch MSM would have in 70 percent of the cases a glass of wine and about 30 percent of them would get a cup of specialty coffee such as Illy espresso or cappuccino [not included in the MSM]. A majority of the night MSM would really enjoy their dinner and spend the extra dollar on a nice bottle of wine."

Crystal Café chef-owner Klime Kovaceski also saw potential hurdles and went the extra gastronomic mile to jump them. "[Miami Spice] did bring lots of customers, but nine out of ten chose my 'Spice Deluxe,' which is four courses, plus a bottle of wine, for $79," he says. Many of us in the industry did something similar. For instance, Amini, who went to Blue Door at the Delano to experience the flavors of the competition, took advantage of the promotion by ordering the Spice menu, then adding on two other courses to make it a multicourse tasting event. When the patrons themselves participate, it's a good sign that a promotion might have some perennial staying power.

Going strictly by the final tally, the only eye-rolling that happened at Tuscan Steak was done in amazement: Out of all the restaurants involved, Tuscan sold the most Miami Spice menu covers for dinner. At 2846, that's 1500 more than its closest competitor, Don Shula's. "To have numbers on the rise instead of flat-lining during the summer months is incredible. We even got new regulars -- several customers that originally came in for Miami Spice returned three, four times for Spice and have come back since [the promotion ended]," Haas says.

In terms of both the numerals and the recruiting power, Azul, which Haas admits was the restaurant about which the GMCVB received the most complaints last year, did a complete turnaround and took the lunch blue ribbon with 1800 Miami Spice prix-fixe meals sold. Restaurant chef Michelle Bernstein calls the promotion "a gift for us, wrapped up in a big package filled with diners who came in to have long, leisurely lunches, [the likes of which] I haven't seen in years. Tables of women celebrating each other, toasting with wine and lunching on three-course meals. Businessmen finally trying out our quick service, experiencing Azul for the first time for light meals. And best of all, people that never even tried Azul before, maybe because it's always been over their budget or has too 'chic' a reputation."

Alexandra Wensley, director of communications for the Mandarin Oriental, Miami, is slightly more circumspect but no less enthusiastic. "Azul was at full capacity levels all week during the summer months. It also gave us a great chance to give the local community a taste of Azul at a favorable price. We were very pleased with the results and look forward to participating again next year," she says emphatically. In fact the management at Azul was so thrilled with the Spice luncheon turnout that "Michelle's Way," a three-course set lunch menu for $25, has now been installed as a regular feature, available Monday through Friday.

Still some high-end restaurants might as well have not participated in the promotion. Aria at the Ritz-Carlton, Key Biscayne, for example, sold only sixteen Miami Spice menus during the entire two-month event. Likewise Bizcaya Grill at the Ritz-Carlton, Coconut Grove did very small percentages. And according to owner Alan Roth, "Rumi did not benefit much from this year's program. Last year was great for us. It was too bad that [this year] it did not live up to the previous year."

There were, naturally, also some complaints, both from patrons and proprietors. Some were expected -- diners encountered smaller portions, boring dishes, sighing waiters. David Bernad sums it up: "Overall I love the concept, but I think restaurants need to offer more comprehensive menus to get people excited." Others found discerning the hours tricky, as many restaurants were only serving Spice menus during weekdays. To find a directory of who was doing what when, you had to log on to the Spice Website, wherein lay another problem. If you didn't happen to know the URL, which was attached this year to the Taste of the Nation address, and entered Miami Spice in a search engine, you came up with a direction that sent you straight to porn.

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