So how did Icebox Café at MIA come about?
I always felt, as a traveler and a foodie, that good food at airports was lacking. I didn't understand why, as a traveler, you would need to compromise. These are people with disposable income. So I started inquiring about it no less than eight years ago but MIA was closed to any outsider.
But I never forgot about it. Last year, last August, I decided to try it again and I went online. Within a matter of weeks I was on a mass e-mailing. I sat down with 200 other people, teams of people from Burger King, McDonald's, the biggest franchises in the world. Talk about being a fish out of water! The director came up and started talking about this being the last bid [opportunity] for 10 years. I sat with my attorney and said, is this feasible?
How did you get in there with all those major chains that seem to run the roost?
Airports are limited to mass concessionaires nationwide. This was one of those few opportunities of a lifetime when they decided to open up to entrepreneurs. They wanted to give local entities a chance. Adrian Songer--I don't know his exact title but I think he is the director of concessions at MIA--I think he and his team were responsible for diversifying the bidding base.
How did you alter your menu to fit the concept? Or are the selections entirely different?
AL: It was a mix of taking our top sellers and bringing a part of Icebox Cafe to the airport. It was an adaptation of our product. There were many things we couldn't do.
RS: We had physical limitations. They do not allow you to have a hood there. We treated MIA as a catered event. We truck [meals] over two or three times a day. We brought a lot of our most popular staples that were adaptable.
RS: The curry chicken. It is hugely successful at the airport as well. We have our gado gado there [Editor's note: look for the recipe Monday.]. And we have the largest selection of grab and go items. We wanted to maintain it in our theme, which is healthy, approachable, simple, delicious food.
And you do in-flight meals, too?
RS: Our website has it all. You go on there, order your meal, and we'll have it ready for you in a lunchbox that you can take on your flight.
And those decadent desserts? Robert, are you still baking all these?
RS: I used to do all the baking, until five or six years ago. We have a pastry chef and a baking team of five people.
Just for the cafe?
RS: For both locations. And we do wholesale. We sell to caterers and hotels and other restaurants. It's a lot. Right now we're focusing on our staples, which is 30 products. When people come in and say, 'I can't find anything,' I say, are you kidding? We've got cakes, brownies, tarts, cookies, ice cream cakes... What do you want? And we do throw in wild cards to take advantage of seasonality.
RS: During winter season we'll do pumpkin, ginger, cranberry. Now we do a ginger layer cake with orange buttercream.
Oh my. And what's this legendary "Bomb" I've heard about?
RS: The Bomb was introduced about three or four years after we opened. We were lucky enough to be on the Oprah show in 2006.
How did she find out about you?
RS: We never spent money on PR or advertising. We got a call from one of their producers saying they'd like to come and shoot a documentary here. We literally hung up on them because we thought it was a prank.
Gayle came in and did a wonderful documentary. It was literally one of the highlights of my life. The show was called "The Best Cakes in America."
So why don't I still see this famous "Chocolate Bomb" on your menu?
RS: On my way up for the filming I had to take samples of the cakes that they had photographed. I had boxes with the names of the cakes on the box. So I'm placing them on the security thing and the coconut buttercream goes through, and the strawberry shortcake goes through, and then I see the box with "The Bomb" and I'm like, oh my! I got a pen and scratched it off. It was very funny.
How did you come up with the name?
RS: 'cause it's the bomb! It's just everything you ever want in a chocolate dessert. It's chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and it has a cheesecake brownie baked into it. And then it's covered in bittersweet chocolate ganache.
But you still kept the name even after that TSA moment?
RS: Fast forward to MIA. American Airlines calls and says, "Are you aware you have a cake called 'The Bomb?' And I knew instantly where they were going with this. They're like, 'You really need to change the name of it.' So I thought, should I change the name to Chocolate Explosion? [laughs] We decided on Chocolate Delight.
RS: Yeah, it's wimpy. Very average.
But I bet everyone at the terminal grabs a slab before boarding.
RS: Here's the interesting thing: If you look at the distribution of revenue at the airport, desserts account for no more than 20 percent.
What advice would you give a budding restaurateur, aside from 'Make sure your food doesn't signal potential terrorist activities?'
RS: You have no business getting into the restaurant business unless you know how to do everything. At some point, you'll be asked to do everything. When the dishwasher doesn't show up, you have to jump on the line, clean the bathroom, empty out the grease trap. You have to know your way around the kitchen and leave your ego parked outside. There is a daily attitude adjustment in this industry, anywhere from internal issues to customers complaining. Whether it's legitimate or not, there's an element of truth to it.
Andrea, what advice would you give a future chef?
AL: You have to feel the passion. If you have that passion, follow it. You have to open up to many cuisines. Always have an open mind. Always learn. Even the top chefs keep learning.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
What's the future looking like?
RS: Airports. We would like to expand our base in South Florida. So long as it continues to be fun and enjoyable for us.
Not that you'll be ready to eat more after this holiday weekend, but if you do get a craving for something healthful and nutritious, check back Monday for Icebox's gado gado recipe.