No Ordinary Joe
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.
The barmaid at Fox's Sherron Inn knows that Mr. and Mrs. Fox were the original owners of the timeless neighborhood watering hole, and Sherron was their daughter. But they haven't owned it for a long, long time. Larry Greene, manager of the JJ's American Diner in South Miami, speculates that the original JJ, if there ever was one, is no longer affiliated with the diners, though he did not believe it was the same JJ as the moose who owns the insurance company. On the other hand, Ruth Fertel, owner of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse, is still very active in her business. She acquired Chris's Steakhouse in New Orleans nearly 25 years ago and just didn't feel like dropping the name, even when she opened several other upscale beef-and-tater joints throughout Florida and Louisiana. While Fertel is often found in her restaurants, Chris is not.
Stephen Pharaoh Talkhouse was the last king of the Montauk Indians in New York, a man who was sold into slavery as a child, fought for the Union in the Civil War, and whose ability to walk great distances in short periods of time was the stuff of fable. They say he once hoofed it from New York to Chicago, and that he regularly declined horseback lifts with the explanation that he didn't have the time. When the founders of the Stephen Talkhouse nightclub in South Beach decided to open their first venue a half-dozen years ago in Amagansett, New York, they named it after the Montauk king whose exploits are well known to this day in the Long Island area.
Among active business owners is Charles Alfieri, who got a head start in the hair-replacement business in the early Sixties when he left his job as a junior pressman at the New York Herald Tribune for an apprenticeship with his neighbor's nephew, an Italian wigmaker who had just arrived in New York. "I liked the creativity of it," reminisces Alfieri, who has been thatching peoples' domes ever since.
Alfieri has demonstrated his technique on Good Morning America, the Today Show, and the Merv Griffin Show, where he fitted Arthur Treacher with a unit. Glowing mentions in GQ, Esquire, and the New York Times followed, and Alfieri was hired to write about the best and worst Hollywood hairpieces for the National Enquirer, sort of a Mr. Blackwell for the bald.
Alfieri sold his Manhattan salons to a Japanese company in 1985 and tried to retire to a quiet life in Miami. But restlessness set in after a few years and soon Alfieri's muse led him back into the hair-replacement business. Ironically, the mane man has a full head of hair.
Like Alfieri, Duane Cross, owner of Cross Training, has a full head of hair and is in the business of making people look better, although his methods involve a little more effort on the customer's part. Cross has been managing health clubs since the late Seventies, when he started working out in earnest and supervised the gym at his U.S. Air Force base. After mustering out of the service, Cross enrolled at UM and obtained a self-designed degree in health and fitness management, which he parlayed into a decade of managing, setting up, and consulting with health clubs from Grove Nautilus to Bally's.
Cross maintains that the health club is named more for the workout technique than for the owner. "If we thought just training was the most effective method of training, then we'd call ourselves Just Training. But we don't," he asserts.
Ted Kautz could use a few visits to Cross's gym. "There's two things in life I really enjoy: traveling and drinking beer," reveals the affable proprietor of Ted's Hideaway South on South Beach, and his waistline says the love was not unrequited.
"I didn't really expect the bar to make a lot of money. I wanted a place where I could drink beer with my friends. We attracted a lot of locals because we had cheap beer prices and four pool tables and a rain special A seventeen ounces of Bud draft for a buck any time it rains. Then they started renovating all the old apartment buildings, turning some of them into hotels, some of them into condos. Now we get a real potpourri of lifestyles, especially after midnight. Lots of modeling people. I had to hire a full-time manager, Terry Jackson. He virtually runs the place. I don't spend as much time in the bar as I used to," Kautz confides before calling Jackson over.
"Hey Terry, where was that film crew from, shot that commercial in here?" the owner asks his manager.
"U2. For their video," replies Jackson. "The band wasn't here, just the crew. They used the bar for background while the band played on TV."
Kautz shrugs, genuinely unimpressed. Who needs rock star glamour when you're surrounded by true love?
Bob Arbetter, owner of the hot dog stand of the same name, is another old-timer who loves his work. Arbetter has been in the hot dog business for 30 years. In an average week, he says he sells so many dogs that "truly, I can't count 'em. Quite a few. Thousands. It's a seven-day-a-week business. You've gotta love it if you're gonna get into it, which I do. Our dogs are steamed, our buns are steamed, our onions are cut fresh daily, we make our chili fresh daily with our secret recipe. We've got a new item coming out, with hot relish, so good I don't even want to talk about it. It makes me shake," Arbetter plugs shamelessly.
Arbetter tried to retire, just like Charles Alfieri. The diehard Celtics fan moved to New Hampshire and raked leaves and cheered on Larry Bird for ten years before returning to Miami to reclaim his business in 1990. "I sold it to someone who wasn't working out, so I came back and it's been going gangbusters," he says while stirring chili, outfitted in checked Bermuda shorts, white T-shirt, black socks, and brown cordovans. "We only do dogs, fries, and sodas. Everything we serve is great, fresh goes down fast."
Arbetter was one of the first fast-food enterprises to open on Bird Road, a thoroughfare that is now choking with them. For many years it was just Arbetter's Hot Dogs and Frankie's Pizza. Owner Frankie Pasquarella opened his pizzeria on Bird Road in the mid-Fifties after moving down from Steubenville, Ohio, and began running a parlor across from UM in 1954. Frankie is another who had an eye for real estate value; he bought the shopping center next door to his pizza parlor, where his daughter Renee now runs the Samson and Delilah beauty salon.
Frankie's is a classic family-run business; another daughter, Roxanne, often sells pies in front of the big red-and-white sign that advertises the pizzeria as the "Home of Roxanne Pasquarella, Miss Tall Florida and Miss Florida International, 1978." Renee, a dark-eyed stunner with an infectious smile, thinks the business is what keeps her father alive. "He had a stroke in 1981, but it hasn't slowed him down at all. He's a typical Italian man, always comes in, still runs things. I wish I had half his energy."
Michael Cozzoli's family started out in the grocery business in 1929, then branched into pizza when they realized there were no pizza shops in the big shopping malls that had just begun to dot the South Florida landscape. "In those days, the competition was mostly homespun operations using premade shells and applying their sauce with a paintbrush. We brought down New York-style pizza, we used only fresh mozzarella cheese," remembers Cozzoli, who has a house in New York but spends about three weeks out of every month taking care of business in South Florida. "Most of our stores were in malls. No delivery. Today we've got franchises in Curaaao, Guatemala, Ecuador. But most of our business is still in Miami."
While Cozzoli's empire has spread to encompass franchises in several countries, Gil Capa has enough to worry about with one small restaurant in the Sabal Chase area: Gil Capa's Bistro. Capa insists on preparing every dish himself, and his exquisite food, his trademark moustache, his quick wit, and his capriciousness have attained near-folkloric status. This past July he relocated to Kendall from his original site on 71st Street on Normandy Isle, where he had been for eighteen years, and was welcomed to the neighborhood by Hurricane Andrew.
Capa is an art lover in the broadest sense of the word. Several original works by local artist Gene Massin adorn the bistro's walls. Dozens of books lie around the men's room, sharing space with boxes of reel-to-reel tapes and CDs. Pavarotti is a favorite. Capa once closed the restaurant to attend the famed tenor's performance and proudly displays photos of himself in the master's company. Food, opera, classical music, movies A Capa is passionate about all of it. "If they don't like my food," he says, "I'll forgive them. But if they don't like the music, we're enemies."
Serious eight ball and straight pool fanatics would be well advised to try not to think of Jillian's Billiard Club as a pool hall, even if trick-shot wizard Steve Mizerak was there for the grand opening. Visualize it instead as a Bennigan's with pool tables. Founder Gillian Foster ("J" looked better in the logo) still owns a piece of it, along with her husband Steve. The company posits itself as a "unique entertainment alternative," does not admit the scruffily clad (no torn jeans), and caters to an upscale clientele with emphasis on food and beverages rather than wagering and fisticuffs. If that sounds like heresy, consider this: Jillian's is a fast-growing, publicly traded company listed on the Over-the-Counter stock exchange.
"We're a strange place for a guitar store," opines Carl Hefley of Ed's Guitars (4047 SW 96th Ave.), referring to eclectic touches such as an Art Deco bar in the acoustic guitar room, a long-defunct telephone switchboard, and a growing family of stuffed Muppet and plastic Transformer figurines scattered throughout the premises. Owner Ed Oleck spends a lot of time on the road these days, scouring trade shows for vintage instruments to sell overseas A old Fender Stratocasters, Gibson Les Pauls, and the like. It's a relatively new chore for Ed, who used to sit back and wait for customers to walk in off the street with instruments for sale. Ed would shell out a couple of hundred bucks, mark the guitars up a hundred or so more, and turn them over like penny candy. Nowadays, with the cheap dollar intersecting with pent-up demand in Europe and Japan, the classic American electric axes are in extremely short supply. Guitars that were worth $200 or $300 in the mid-Eighties are now selling for more than a thousand. And Ed has been forced to leave the comfy confines of his shop to track them down.
"Nobody was that smart," responds Mac Klein of Mac's Club Deuce when asked if he foresaw the recent turnaround in South Beach's fortunes. "If I could've, I'd have bought every building I could get my hands on." As it is, Klein will have to content himself with owning the bar that was such an essential part of Miami Vice that the crew held their series-ending wrap party there. Deuce may flirt with overexposure now that the international set has discovered it, but Mac Klein is still the same guy he was when he bought the place 29 years ago, a genuine character whose vivacious barmaid Dot compares him to George Burns and who still occasionally feels impelled to, in Dot's words, "throw people out bodily."
When they tell you business is going to the dogs at Lulu's, the popular South Beach eatery with the Elvis motif, it's not necessarily a bad thing. You see, Lulu herself is a real dog. As in canine. She's owner Gabi Hakman's mutt.
The King is a palpable presence at Lulu's. "One couple were married in the Elvis loft [the second floor] with two cardboard cutouts of Elvis flanking the justice of the peace. The wedding cake was two loaves of uncut cornbread," says Bill Keen, Hakman's partner. "We've had several couples married there. Lots of hardcore Elvis fans come by. One guy had so much Elvis memorabilia that his wife couldn't take it any more; he gave it to us so he could come by and visit it."
As for Lulu's favorite Elvis song, don't ask.
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