In the '90s, no sight was more welcome among angst-ridden suburban teens than the Greek diner disguised in neon and palm fronds known as Miami Subs. For decades, the Magic City has been a Petri dish for successful fast-food franchises to experiment with off-beat concepts to take to mass market. From Burger King to Pollo Tropical, several iconic eateries had their start as local chains. However, Miami Subs' time in the cultural consciousness was cut short long before it hit its prime.
For awhile, like the Metromover and the Seaquarium, Miami Subs seemed to be going the way of other bloated remnants of the town's Reaganite boom years. But ardent fans of all things tzatziki are rejoicing now that the Miami chain is under new management, which plans to inject some life into a franchise chain that used to supply Madonna and friends with wings and Dom Perignon through a drive-thru window conveniently open at 3 a.m.
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Miami Subs got its start as a local upscale sandwich shop called Mr. Submarine in Key West. After its initial owners sold and franchised their business, the company experienced a boom in the '90s. By that time, they had expanded their menu to include grilled items like wings, burgers, and their now-famous Philly cheesesteaks. Eventually the boom turned to bust as times changed and customers began leaving the brand. In the early 2000s, Miami Subs had overgrown its market and was acquired by the national hot-dog franchise Nathan's Famous.
Enter Richard Chwatt, an investment banker from New York who specializes in revitalizing once-iconic brands. "I was attracted to certain high-profile companies that had some past glamor and sex appeal I was looking to re-create," Chwatt tells Short Order. "In the '80s I got involved with Grossinger's Hotel in the Catskill Mountains, mostly just so my mother could say her son owned Grossinger's, but we brought some much-needed life back to their operation."
As a businessman, Chwatt has staked a claim in finding the hidden potential in brands that have seen better days. At first he went into Miami Subs as a lender, but eventually he decided to take over and manage the turnaround.
Design projection for Miami Grill.
Courtesy of Kobi Karp
The chain underwent a massive rebranding as the New Miami Subs. Chwatt quickly realized he needed to get his franchisees on board and whipped them into shape by letting them know they could either "renovate, relocate, or terminate" their contracts.
It wasn't long before the Chwatt takeover began attracting some attention. In 2012, Miami native Armando Christian Perez, AKA Pitbull, came on board as a full partner in the business.
"He's a really subtle guy; you're not gonna see him holding up one of our hamburgers," Chwatt says about his partner. With Pitbull now on the board, the company decided to take the rebrand a step further with Miami Grill.
Richard Chwatt and Pitbull
Courtesy of Miami Subs
Pitbull was instrumental in the design of Miami Grill. These new, more upscale locations will pump SoBe club-esque beats, boast large plasma-screen TV sets for sporting events, and offer Dom Perignon as a throwback to the early days of the brand. For the Miami rapper-turned-hitmaker, the rebrand from Miami Subs to Miami Grill seemed as natural as going from Mr. 305 to Mr. Worldwide.
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"Go Worldwide" is the company's new spiritual mantra. With locations planned as far as Myanmar, Malaysia, and the Middle East, there's practically no stopping Chwatt's ambitions. In the next five years, they plan to have more than 5,000 locations, the first of which is set to open next month in Cutler Bay. For a chain that seemed on the brink of gustatory doom a couple of years ago, that is no small feet.
Whether Chwatt and his team can recapture Miami Subs' glory days remains to be seen. What is certain is that the chain deserves its day in the collective nostalgic glow of other '90s Miami hot spots.