Behind the Scenes at Miami Spice: "A Way to Celebrate All Restaurants"

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On August 1, Miami Spice will return. The program, which runs through the end of September, offers prix fixe lunches and dinners at many fine Miami-area restaurants ($23 for lunch; $39 for dinner). It's designed to encourage tourists and residents to dine out at Miami establishments and is also a boon for restaurateurs, who get a revenue boost during the traditionally slow summer season. 

According to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB), which spearheads the program, 150 restaurants are expected to participate in this year's Miami Spice. That number has decreased the past few years, even with the staggering number of new restaurants that open annually. In 2014, for instance, 174 restaurants participated in Miami Spice, and 200 were part of the program in 2013.  

Rolando Aedo, senior vice president of marketing and tourism for GMCVB, says Miami Spice is not necessarily a numbers game about how many restaurants the bureau can sign. "I wouldn't correlate the number of restaurants opening [in Miami] with the number of restaurants in Spice. Whether the number is 140 or 150 or 180, we're not predetermining it. We don't set a number. This is about quality and not quantity. Some participating restaurants would say that there are too many participants now, because they feel there's a fixed pie and the slices get smaller as more restaurants come on board. But our tourism continues to grow, and our resident population continues to grow. "

Aedo says the main vision is to showcase the city's high-end restaurants. "We wanted to introduce these luxury restaurants that, in many cases, tourists and locals wouldn't normally take in but would explore if compelled by a great value."

An argument can be made that Miami Spice's exclusivity helps only the largest restaurants that likely don't need the push to get through the summer doldrums, when but included in the program could mean the difference between life and death to a small-restaurant owner. "That's a valid comment," Aedo concedes. "We won't always make everyone happy, but our guiding principle is to put the consumer first. Consumers are looking for a compelling reason to dine out. Most of our participating restaurants offer a 30 to 50 percent saving versus a restaurant that could be only a few dollars less. Miami Spice is driven by tremendous value. 

"I totally get that the hippest, trendiest restaurants may not be the most expensive, and that's a good thing. We're trying to find a way to celebrate all restaurants. That in addition to these great restaurants that are participating in this program, there are other wonderful places, and some of them might be an exceptional value, like a great little restaurant on Calle Ocho. We will be celebrating other culinary events, like the Taste of the Caribbean. We do recognize that the program can swing businesses, so we want to be sensitive to that, but we're using the consumer as a primary guiding principle. This is a work in progress."

A few years ago, Miami Spice tried out a two-tiered system as a way to accommodate restaurants that fell below the $50-per-person average that's calculated as one of the benchmarks for a restaurant's inclusion in Miami Spice. But Aedo says dual pricing led to some confusion in the marketplace. "We're back to a one-tiered pricing system."

So how, exactly, does a restaurant make the cut? One factor is the above-mentioned dining average. "We try to be as objective as possible. We look at the menus. We literally have someone who's adding up and averaging all items in the appetizer, entrée, and dessert categories. We put this together and there's a cutoff, and that's the starting point." The GMCVB also uses traditional and social media to seek out the newest and trendiest restaurants. There is one thing the bureau leaves to the professionals. "We don't approve the menus because we want to empower the restaurants to be as creative as possible." Aedo says that in the end, it's the diners who drive up the quality of the restaurant's offerings. "The consumer is pretty savvy, and they do their own analysis on Miami Spice. Two restaurants with two identical prices may have vastly different menus, so Miami Spice self-regulates to some extent."

Restaurants must also be members of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. Nonmembers are not, however, immediately disqualified. "If they're not a partner, we'll work with them to package their membership with the Miami Spice fees." Participation fees vary from about $700 to $900, and the funds are reinvested into the program. The bureau spends upward of a half-million dollars. "One hundred percent of the participation money is used for marketing, not just locally and regionally, but on a national level."

Aedo says that, this year, the bureau will look to find ways to keep up with Miami's ever-evolving culinary community. "We're going into our planning cycle, and this is at the top of our list because food is such a compelling reason for people to travel. Our local craft beer scene has gone from zero to 100, and there are some unique dining experiences in Little Puerto Rico in Wynwood or out at Paradise Farms in Homestead. There's a lot of internal discussion, not just about Miami Spice, but overall, how are we talking about Miami's dining scene? It's wonderful that we have these amazing restaurants with celebrity chefs, but it's amazing that we are home-growing smaller Miami restaurants and farms. Although relatively young, Miami is rich in culture and heritage, and food is one of those amazing things that bind people together. The short-term commitment is that we will be integrating and finding a way to make people aware of all the culinary offerings in this city. The good news is that Miami can deliver on just about everyone's expectations."

Miami Spice's official site, with a list of participating restaurants, is expected to launch by the first week of July. 

In the meantime, Miami Spice's mash-up series returns. On Tuesday, June 30, at 7 p.m., Michelle Bernstein will host chef Michael Pirolo (of Macchialina) at Cena by Michy for a three-course meal of duos, previewing items from their respective Miami Spice menus. The price is $65 per person (excluding tax and gratuity) and includes a complimentary pour of Stella Artois and one complimentary glass each of Terrazas Reserva Chardonnay and Terrazas Reserva Malbec. Other dinners will be announced at a later date.

New Times' Iron Fork allows you to get a first taste of many Miami Spice restaurants under one roof. This official Miami Spice kickoff event, presented by the Miami Downtown Development Authority, will take over the Hyatt Regency Miami/James L. Knight Center Thursday, July 30, and will include a Fork Off between two of South Florida's most formidable chefs — Eileen Andrade of Finka Table & Tap and MC Kitchen's Dena Marino — as well as a newly announced oyster-shucking competition among Mignonette, J&G Grill, Lure Fishbar, the Oceanaire Seafood Room, and the soon-to-open Izzy's.

Advance-purchase, general-admission tickets are available through June 30 and cost $45. The price climbs to $50 July 1 through July 29 and increases to $65 at the door (while supplies last). GA tickets allow entry to Iron Fork from 7 to 10 p.m. and include unlimited samplings of food from dozens of Miami's finest establishments. Advance-purchase VIP tickets cost $75 through June 30; regular-priced VIP tickets are $85 July 1 through July 29; and VIP tickets at the door cost $100 (while supplies last). To purchase tickets, visit newtimesironfork.com.

Follow Laine Doss on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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