Spiced to Taste
Jeremy Eaton

Spiced to Taste

Skepticism, I'm told, is an unattractive trait. Well, call me homely and be done with it. My nature refuses to allow me to take things at face value and endorse them blindly, which is why I voiced initial doubts about the inaugural Miami Spice project, a month-long promotion that concluded a few weeks ago.

Miami Spice was a joint venture, a "marketing partnership," between the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB) and American Express. The idea was to simultaneously draw local customers into untried restaurants and to lure back loyal diners, who may be a little short in the portfolio these days. For $29.99, excluding tax, gratuity, and all the little extras like, say, a glass of iced tea, diners would enjoy a three-course meal, which was supposed to be representative of an eatery's typical menu.

I was concerned that the promo would fall flat as a bungled soufflé for several reasons. For starters, the food media didn't find out about the August 1 launch date until mid-July, when press releases were finally sent out. Given the week or so a newspaper or magazine story takes most of us to put together, and the lead time it takes for publication, that meant the reading public probably wouldn't be notified until after the start of the event. Not exactly a healthy launch.

In addition I was dismayed to log on to the Miami Spice Website in July only to find fewer than twenty restaurants had registered for the program. I had learned about the promo accidentally a couple of weeks earlier, at the 20th Anniversary Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen, where I was handed a flyer promising that "more than 75 of Miami's best restaurants [will be] celebrating the city's passion for food and life by enticing visitors with incredible savings on signature dishes throughout the month of August."

In fact some prominent members of the culinary community who wish to remain off the record hadn't even been approached yet. Other high-end places chose not to participate because they felt they couldn't represent their restaurants fairly given the price parameters. And according to industry insiders who'd worked in the trade during New York's restaurant week before moving to Miami, sometimes restaurants felt pressured to participate -- to look like good sports -- even when they didn't have the desire. So they would designate just a few tables as available for the promotion, and if those tables were reserved, the promo would be "sold out" for the night.

On the other hand, one or two establishments were actually listed on press and advertisement materials without their chef-owners' explicit permission, and consequently weren't ready for the diners who requested the Miami Spice prix fixe. So given the seeming disorganization, some of my trepidations actually proved prescient. When the month began I polled colleagues, associates, and friends, all members of the Live-to-Eat Club, and discovered that none really knew what the deal offered. Sometimes even the staff seemed bewildered. In mid-August I went to Monty's Stone Crab Restaurant, located on the marina at Miami Beach, and asked to see the Miami Spice menu. The waiter looked at me oddly. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said.

Nor had more than 75 restaurants been signed. And of the 50-odd that were signed, a good few were chains such as Chart House and Capital Grille. Were these restaurants really indicative of the Miami dining scene?

As it turned out, however, the generic steak-house links of the city experienced some of the most Miami Spice success. Mary Emmons Dhanji, a server at Capital Grille, told me that the dining rooms were seeing more life in August alone than they'd been looking at all summer. After dining there, I could see why: This was value. Imagine what a regular steak costs you there, and it comes à la carte. But for the base price of $29.99, you received a full-size steak, choice of soup or salad, two side dishes, and dessert. Add tax, tip, and two glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon with your cut, and you're talking $50 a head where it might ordinarily cost you $100 minimum.

And indeed, after a sputtering start, both patrons and diners warmed up to the Miami Spice idea as surely as the temperature and humidity increased during the month. The info started to spread by word-of-mouth, but was also helped out by the full-page ads the GMCVB took in area outlets. I thought the smartest restaurateurs were those who didn't depend on the GMCVB to do their marketing for them, but worked proactively to ensure potential customers knew the drill. For instance the management at both Bolero Bar & Grill and Tuscan Steak sent out e-mail reminders. The former won me over with sheer persistency. I hadn't dined at this Cuban-Caribbean restaurant before Miami Spice, but after being lured by its commitment to the event and sampling the sirloin with chimichurri, I'm ready to go back and pay regular prices.

As for the latter, I would have appreciated a bit more frankness. Tuscan Steak, whose GM Steve Haas even helped to coordinate the promo, published the menu so we could salivate properly for the grilled salmon and Gorgonzola gnocchi. But China Grill Management, who runs the place, neglected to disclose the caveat -- the steak house was only serving the Miami Spice menu from 6:00 till 8:00 p.m. on slow days. If you wanted a bargain on a Friday or Saturday night, you could fuhgeddaboutit.

Indeed the restaurants that patrons appreciated most were those that did not run Miami Spice like an early-bird special or treat Spice diners like nontipping tourists. Todd Wernstrom, executive editor of The Wine News, noted that initially, when he asked for the prix fixe in eateries like Baleen, "I got the distinct sense at first that the servers were perhaps a bit unhappy. It took a little too long for water to be filled. It's not like we were second-class citizens. But we certainly weren't first class or even business class. I really got a sense of, 'Oh. Well, welcome.' Of course," he continued, "they thawed out when I asked for the wine list and ordered a $100 bottle." Nevertheless Wernstrom noticed that the portions at Baleen were very small, and that the dishes from which he had to choose didn't seem to be on the regular menu.

Wernstrom had positive experiences at Nemo, a regular hangout of his, and Pacific Time, where the prix fixe was included as an insert in the regular menu. Best of all, at Ortanique on the Mile, the staff "was practically licking me from head to toe," he reported. Likewise cookbook author Linda Gassenheimer appreciated the fact that no one sneered when she ordered the prix fixe at Aria in the Key Biscayne Ritz-Carlton, and was delighted that Azul had the Miami Spice menu on the table, so she didn't have to feel cheap should someone overhear her request it.

As the month started to wind down, some restaurateurs felt the promotion had been such a fabulous community effort that they didn't want it to end. Jonathan Eismann of Pacific Time told me he'd conferred with Pascal Oudin of Pascal's on Ponce, and that they'd both agreed to extend their Miami Spice menus into the middle of September. A short while later, GMCVB president and CEO William Talbert made a formal announcement via press release. "We got dozens of phone calls from restaurants who said our pilot program was a tremendous home run for them last month," Talbert said. "There was a lot more traffic in many of our establishments during a traditionally slower period. The public loved it so much, we decided to extend it for two more weeks to give people one more chance to take advantage of it before it begins again next summer."

And fortunately it will be an annual happening. "We're very pleased by how the Miami Spice promotion played out, especially since it was our first year. We got a lot of great feedback, which we're using to improve the program and bring it to the next level," GMCVB associate vice president of media relations Jeanne Sullivan wrote me in an e-mail. "We're talking with potential partners to expand the program next year. Our goal is to eventually, over time, make Miami Spice a national promotion to get people to book [vacations] here during a traditionally slower time for hotels and restaurants."

Nor, thanks to another affair that debuted only last year, will she have to travel to Aspen to win national attention. What better way to promote Miami Spice than at the Miami Wine & Food Festival, a three-day party that has the potential to make even the most skeptical of us into something resembling true believers?


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