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Season Opener: A Double-Header

Jeremy Eaton

Our October is the rest of the nation's March -- a month of transition, a medium for change, and a means for projection. It may be less scientifically precise than the National Hurricane Center, but what happens in October is frequently a more fundamentally accurate reading of the culinary currents that are headed for Miami.

Depending on which restaurateur or chef to whom you speak, this October's wind patterns were either hurricane strength, the stuff of metaphorical lions, or mere breezes that dribbled in like newborn lambs not yet fat enough to even be considered for the babiest of chops. The latter opinion comes from the folks who, for the most part, experienced a very slow summer and had little success boosting their customer base with Miami Spice Month's double order of August and September. Miami Spice, as most of us will recall, is a program that was launched in 2002 by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB), inducing local restaurants to offer prix-fixe, three-course lunches and/or dinners during the month of August. The motivation being, of course, to both lure new customers into restaurants they may not have had the luxury of sampling yet and repay regulars with a good, solid meal deal.

Last year, momentum was slow. Due to a lack of local, pre-event advertising, it seemed that mostly industry insiders -- the salespeople who supply the restaurants' wine programs, for instance, or waitstaff on their nights off -- were the ones who knew about the promotion enough to take advantage. But once word began to spread among the public, less like frozen peanut butter and more like room-temperature marmalade, consumer response was determined sufficient to extend the program into September.

Ditto summer 2003. This past August saw GMCVB's Miami Spice joining forces with Chef Allen Susser's pet project, Share Our Strength/Taste of the Nation, and bringing key co-sponsors like Wachovia and American Express to the table. So before it even began, the program had received added interest from the restaurant industry as well as achieved fiscal growth, two marks of potential success.

But again initial reaction from the dining public was, in a word, hesitant. The third week of August had already started before aficionado-oriented friends began asking me where to go, at which point I realized, to my chagrin, that I myself had yet to sample a Spice menu. I instantly made reparation and hied off to Pacific Time, where I was seduced by too many new menu items to even consider going for the Spice. On the other hand, however, chef-proprietor Jonathan Eismann certainly reached his summertime goal either way -- he got my business.

A couple of other friends and colleagues had the same good intentions toward Miami Spice, but also wound up on epicurean tangents. Linda Horkitz, executive editor at Onboard Media, went to Ortanique on the Mile for the Spice prix-fixe but "ended up not using the discount," she reports. "The prices were better [à la carte] because we shared an appetizer and didn't have dessert."

Richard Murray of the Treister Murray Agency experienced Miami Spice three times -- sort of. He says, "The ironic thing is, in each of the three instances, we made selections from the regular menu, not the special Miami Spice menu. But Miami Spice did drive us to the restaurant and got us to try out new [ones] we might otherwise not have visited." Likewise, the director of the Miami International Wine Fair, David Bernad, notes that he "ended up ordering items not included in the special menu, which I guess worked to the advantage of the participating restaurant."

Embracing the promotion is the key, says co-chair of the event and Tuscan Steak House general manager Steve Haas. "The staff has to hand out the [Miami Spice] menus willingly. They can't roll their eyes when customers request them."

Not presenting disdain along with the Spice menu is one way, but another is to go out of your way to make the Spice customer comfy. While I was sitting at the bar at Pacific Time, no less than half a dozen would-be patrons inquired about Spice. None of them was treated to the telltale SoBe sneer. Rather, the hosts at the front of the house eagerly explained the deal to each diner, talking it up like pro salespeople.

Nemo owner Myles Chefetz agrees that the returns increase when you respect, or even cater to, the Miami Spice customer. "It is my understanding that certain restaurants created smaller portions of standard menu items to accommodate the lower price point," he notes. "We did not do that at Nemo, which was greatly appreciated by the patrons. We had an even greater response than last year."

The Forge's director of operations, Joseph Day, also saw a goodly amount of traffic: "We had even more people coming into the restaurant [this year] to experience the Spice menu. It is so encouraging to see people come in for Miami Spice who may not have come in otherwise and to see those guests return to the restaurant after the experience. The program over the summer draws a price-conscious crowd to enjoy the very best of Miami's cuisine. The key to Miami Spice is remaining consistent to the program."

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.

But to fix problems, you have to be vocal about them, which is precisely what those who have embraced Miami Spice Month are starting to be. Kovaceski, for one, has some excellent ideas: "Miami Spice brings people from Broward and Boca, but we should be able to pull from Baltimore, Berlin, and Bogotá. My Spice Deluxe is just one idea. I'm sure others have many more. How about if the city really 'spices' it up and waived the taxes on those dinners? Maybe the airlines could use promotional tie-ins with this project, and bring it national attention. It really could be way bigger. Miami Spice is a great idea, but it needs to grow to retain people's interest."

Next week: Does the month that came in like a lion leave like a lamb? Only if your name is Mary ...

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