Will Chef Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster Harlem Succeed in Overtown?

For the past four years, Samuelsson has worked to transform a long-shuttered Miami landmark into an outpost of Red Rooster Harlem.
For the past four years, Samuelsson has worked to transform a long-shuttered Miami landmark into an outpost of Red Rooster Harlem. Photo courtesy of SOBEWFF

Each year, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival stages a tribute dinner, a black-tie affair at which renowned chefs gather to cook for one of their industry's shining stars. The guest of honor is typically a person who has done the culinary world proud not only through their cooking talents but also via humanitarian efforts. Past recipients include Bobby Flay, Jonathan Waxman, and José Andrés, the last of whom was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize last year for the disaster-relief work of his nonprofit, World Central Kitchen.

This year's honoree, chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson, will bask in the plaudits of his colleagues at a propitious moment. Less than 24 hours after the $500-a-plate dinner Saturday, February 22, Samuelsson will cohost the festival's From Harlem to Overtown Brunch, where attendees will munch on seafood rice and chicken and waffles, sip cocktails and champagne, and get a sneak peek at the New York City-based restaurateur's newest venture: Red Rooster Overtown.

For the past four years, Samuelsson has worked to transform a long-shuttered Miami landmark into an outpost of Red Rooster Harlem, which he opened in its namesake neighborhood to great acclaim in late 2010.

The effort to duplicate that feat in Overtown dates back to late winter 2016, when the Southeast Overtown/Park West Community Redevelopment Agency issued a request for proposals to revitalize a former pool hall at 920 NW Second Ave. that had been owned by legendary Overtown nightlife impresario Clyde Killens and was in the midst of an $850,000 overhaul. A year later, the redevelopment agency's board of directors voted unanimously to sell to Samuelsson's restaurant group, which beat out a handful of rival proposals, including plans submitted by brunchtime favorite Morgans and the since-closed Crescendo Jazz and Blues Lounge on Biscayne Boulevard. The former pool hall's $1.5 million price tag was significantly offset by an Overtown/Park West grant of $1 million to assist with the buildout.

"You are part of a renaissance that's going to mean the most for this neighborhood," redevelopment board chairman Keon Hardemon told the VIPs who gathered at the site in 2018 for an alfresco luncheon, the Associated Press reported. "We want this place to truly be the Harlem of the South."

click to enlarge Red Rooster will occupy the site of a pool hall owned by the late nightlife promoter Clyde Killens. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HISTORYMIAMI MUSEUM
Red Rooster will occupy the site of a pool hall owned by the late nightlife promoter Clyde Killens.
Photo courtesy of HistoryMiami Museum

Overtown is at the precipice of dramatic change. Development from recent booms in downtown to the south and Wynwood to the north is slowly creeping into the area. Late last year, developer Michael Simkins, son of business magnate Leon Simkins, won approval to purchase 14 parcels in the heart of the neighborhood to create the Overtown Culture & Entertainment District, a cluster of art and performance spaces dotted with small parks. Around the same time, according to county property records, Sarkis Izmirlian paid $6.6 million for a shuttered convenience store on Overtown's northern boundary. The billionaire hotelier has yet to divulge his plans for the property.

But no project has garnered more attention than Samuelsson's.

"The history here is iconic. This is the place where Sam Cooke played live, where Muhammad Ali stayed after beating Sonny Liston on Miami Beach," the restaurateur tells New Times in a phone interview. "Red Rooster will be inspired by Overtown and African-American culture. And like Red Rooster Harlem, it's not just about the kitchen or tables — it's about the music, it's about the art, it's about being the place where people come after church, it's about being in the community and of the community."

Born Kassahun Tsegiewas in Addis-Ababa in 1971, Marcus Samuelsson was adopted by a Swedish family and raised in Scandinavia after he was separated from his birth family during the brutal civil war that broke out in Ethiopia when he was an infant. He attended culinary school in Gothenburg and then embarked on a series of internships across Europe before making his way to the United States in 1994 as a stagiaire at New York City's Aquavit. Samuelsson worked his way up the ladder at the Scandinavian restaurant and eventually assumed the role of executive chef. At the age of 24, he became the youngest chef to receive a three-star review from the New York Times. Today his company, the Marcus Samuelsson Group, boasts a dozen restaurant properties in the United States, Canada, Sweden, and Bermuda.

"It's not just about the kitchen — it's about being in the community and of the community."

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When Samuelsson inaugurated his first Red Rooster, Harlem was in the midst of a massive transformation that saw the increasing affluence of polished Midtown Manhattan whitewash its way northward. Thanks in no small part to Samuelsson's savvy, good intentions, and good timing, his restaurant on Lenox Avenue became synonymous with the effort to preserve Harlem's historic soul even as downtown encroached. He combined his global take on soul food with a supper club and exhibition space. And he partnered with local job-training programs to hire employees from the neighborhood, which gained him a reputation as a cultural Johnny Appleseed, spreading good works and goodwill wherever he went.

"The racial and ethnic variety in the vast bar and loft-like dining room are virtually unrivaled," the New York Times food critic Sam Sifton marveled in a 2011 review of Red Rooster Harlem. "The restaurant may not be the best to open in New York City this year (though the food is good). But it will surely be counted as among the most important. It is that rarest of cultural enterprises, one that supports not just the idea or promise of diversity, but diversity itself."

But Overtown isn't Harlem.

For one thing, beginning in the 1960s, public-works and urban-renewal projects have caused the neighborhood's mass to collapse into its center like a dying star. And despite its designation as an official historic district, Overtown contains only a small handful of the kinds of historic sites that might attract inquisitive visitors by the busload. (There's the Lyric Theater, a 400-seat space constructed in 1913 that helped earn the neighborhood the nickname Little Broadway; the Ward Rooming House, where nonwhites sought lodgings during the segregation era; and the Dana A. Dorsey House, home to the city's first black millionaire.) And sporadic preservation efforts over the decades have staunched neither the spread of blight nor the more recent financial invasion by deep-pocketed developers.

Of course, history can't be erased, even if demolition can tear down its physical manifestations and paved them over. For the first half of the 20th Century, the vibrant neighborhood was known, rightly, as the Harlem of the South. (It was originally known by the more prosaic designation Colored Town.) It would have been no surprise back then to bump into Zora Neale Hurston or W.E.B. Du Bois. Iconic black performers such as Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, and Sammy Davis Jr. repaired to Overtown after visiting the Miami Beach resorts where they were allowed to play but not to stay.

Clyde Killens, who died in 2004 at the age of 95, earned the sobriquet "Mr. Entertainment" for his success in drawing performing talent to the neighborhood in the 1950s and '60s. A native of Valdosta, Georgia, Killens came to Miami in 1924. In spite of the changes that overtook Overtown, Killens never moved out of his home at 173 NW 11th St.

Toward the end of Killens' life, his home became a visual record of his exploits. In a 1999 story, the Sun Sentinel's Robert George noted the retired promoter had "constructed a four-foot cardboard partition in the middle of his living room and covered it with decades-old promotional shots of Sam Cooke and Redd Foxx and Dionne Warwick. His dozens of scrapbooks are filled with tickets and newspaper reviews, relics of his business and reminders of how this slum was once a place of bright lights and zoot suits, nightclubs and jazz, Ella and Duke."

"This is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in South Florida. It's a gold mine."

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Construction of I-95 and the Dolphin Expressway drove a thick concrete "X" through the neighborhood in the 1960s. That act of automobile-age butchery is commonly viewed as the blow that killed Overtown, but it might be more accurate to call it the coup de grâce. In truth, government-sponsored segregation had been decimating the neighborhood for decades.

"Under the New Deal's federally sponsored public housing program, local authorities established segregated public housing projects," urban historian Raymond A. Mohl noted in a 2001 issue of Florida Historical Quarterly. "In the post-World War II years, old agendas for racial segregation continued to be carried out under still newer government programs."

By the time the interstate arrived, Mohl wrote, public officials were well along in a campaign to move blacks to other parts of the county, and little low- or moderate-income housing remained. The decline in property-tax revenue, coupled with booms in nearby enclaves such as downtown and Brickell, funneled away financial resources. By 2000, Overtown's population had fallen to fewer than 10,000 residents, compared to 40,000 during its heyday. (By 2010, the figure had dropped below 7,000.)

Perhaps even more insidious, the highway project and its fallout made black leaders suspicious of their white counterparts, causing them to regard all future endeavors from the outside as incursions.

"As one Miami Herald reporter put it in 1983, 'a whole generation of wary black leaders suspect the latest redevelopment plans are the final land grab in a long history of official deceit,'" Mohl wrote.

Forty years later, the climate of suspicion persists.

click to enlarge A rendering of the interior of Red Rooster Overtown. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SALADINO DESIGN STUDIOS
A rendering of the interior of Red Rooster Overtown.
Photo courtesy of Saladino Design Studios

"It just sounds like a bunch of hot air," says Karim Bryant, who along with his wife, Nicole Gates, opened Lil Greenhouse Grill on NW Third Avenue in early 2017. "You invested all this money into this guy to bring people into the neighborhood when somebody already in the neighborhood who is from the neighborhood is doing the same thing?"

Bryant has earned critical praise in the local press for his neo-soul cuisine and recently hosted no less a personage than Oprah Winfrey. But existential peril constantly looms: Bryant nearly had to close down late last year after falling more than $40,000 behind on rent. Still, he appears determined to stay put and show the world what Overtown is truly about.

"The media puts a bad label on it, but this is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in South Florida," Bryant says. "It's a gold mine."

He's not exaggerating about the "gold mine" part.

"My lease is up in two years, and right now there's nowhere for a restaurant to go," Bryant explains. "All of the property has been taken up by outside influences, boarded up, and is expensive as hell. What is a regular person supposed to do?"

Shirley Meadows knows the feeling. She opened Two Guys Restaurant in Overtown 30 years ago to capitalize on her soul-food skills and to spend more time with her now-late husband, Harold. Meadows questions whether any of Red Rooster's customers will spill over to a down-home establishment whose menu standbys include smothered pork chops ($8), cracked conch and fries ($13), and slow-cooked oxtail ($13).

"It's a high-class restaurant, and everyone is itching to know what will happen," Meadows says of Samuelsson's impending arrival. "Everybody is welcome here, but the crowd that visits his place might not benefit mine."

Though she and other Overtown incumbents hope that a visit to Red Rooster might lead Samuelsson's fan base to explore the rest of the neighborhood, few are convinced. "We're trying to look at the positive side," Meadows says.

Starex Smith, whose blog, the Hungry Black Man, celebrates black-owned businesses in South Florida, is more optimistic. He believes Samuelsson's arrival might spur his neighbors to up their game. He also considers Red Rooster to be an enterprise Miami's black community can rally around and one whose success might invite further investment.

"They don't have to serve what Red Rooster is going to serve, but how do you become a competitive partner in an ecosystem that's been forgotten about and is now experiencing this sort of renaissance?" posits Smith, who cofounded the coworking venture A Space Called Tribe in Overtown and also owns Ice Cream Heaven, a frozen-treats shop in Miami Gardens. "You have Groovin' Bean Coffee Bar & Lounge. You have J9 Smoothie Bar & Grill — a little sandwich-and-wrap shop from the son of the Jackson Soul Food family," which opened its landmark restaurant on NW Third Avenue in 1946. "When you have someone like Marcus that's bringing that type of notoriety, it can be a good thing."

"We're a Latin American company working with a black group and a white developer to celebrate Overtown."

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Karim Bryant says he welcomes the challenge, even as he remains skeptical of the city agency that helped bankroll Samuelsson's effort.

"I'm going to put pressure on them," the chef says of Overtown/Park West. "I want more restaurants in the area — that's only going to help us, and I'm good with anything that's good for the neighborhood. But right now, it's all fair game. And in Miami, they'll love you one week and forget about you the next. You have to keep it 100."

Representatives from Overtown/Park West did not return calls and emails seeking comment for this story.

The terms of Samuelsson's deal with the city require that the site operate as a restaurant for at least 15 years and that if Samuelsson sells the business within seven years, he must return the grant money. (If he sells after seven years but before ten years have elapsed, the arrangement requires him to return half the money.)

The 13,000-square-foot restaurant might be the brainchild of an out-of-towner, but its root system is all about Miami.

The space was designed by Saladino Design Studios, which is headquartered in Little Haiti. The Coconut Grove-based Grove Bay Hospitality Group — whose portfolio includes Jeremy Ford's Stubborn Seed and the Janine Booth/Jeff McInnis restaurant Stiltsville Fish Bar in South Beach and Giorgio Rapicavoli's Glass & Vine in Peacock Park — will oversee the restaurant's day-to-day operations. And along with Samuelsson and the restaurateur's longtime business partner Derek Fleming, Miami developer Michael Simkins is a registered agent of the venture's Florida company, Marcus Samuelsson Development Group LLC.

Grove Bay co-CEO Ignacio Garcia-Menocal traces his relationship with Samuelsson to an out-of-the-blue phone call.

"We all know Marcus and have followed his success, but we were taken aback when he called about the project," Garcia-Menocal recalls. Samuelsson invited him and his partner and co-CEO Francesco Balli to hear him pitch his vision at the restaurant site, which at the time was operating as an art gallery. "Honestly, it took us about five seconds for us to say yes," Garcia-Menocal tells New Times.

"The neat thing is you have these different groups coming together," he adds, noting the project represents a veritable melting pot unto itself. "We're a Latin American company working with a black group and a white developer to come together and celebrate Overtown."

Characterizing Red Rooster as unique among Grove Bay's partnerships, Garcia-Menocal points to Samuelsson's track record as a stakeholder in the communities where he operates.

"We know what Marcus did with Red Rooster in Harlem, and we know what he plans to do in Overtown," he says, noting that 70 percent of Samuelsson's Harlem staff members live in the community where they work. The restaurant buys from local purveyors and hosts community cooking classes. And Samuelsson cochairs Careers through Culinary Arts Program, an enrichment system for underserved youth, and he coproduces Harlem EatUp!, an annual festival that celebrates the neighborhood's food, art, and culture.

Garcia-Menocal hopes to replicate the same sense of goodwill in Overtown, beginning with hiring as many locals as possible to fill the restaurant's 120 job openings. "We had great success in hosting job fairs, and we've reached out to the local high school," the Grove Bay co-CEO says. "We're offering good-paying jobs to the local community. If we're able to staff 70 percent of these jobs locally, we did a great job of hiring people."

Garcia-Menocal has already hired Miami-based consultant Donnamarie Baptiste as Red Rooster's director of arts and culture, curating local art for display, hiring local musicians to perform in the space, and networking with neighborhood residents and houses of worship.

"Quite frankly, what makes Red Rooster Harlem so successful is that it's become the heart of Harlem," Garcia-Menocal says. "Our hope is that our Overtown location grows into that role locally. We're going to open this restaurant very humbly, and we will listen to what locals say. The local community will tell us what they want the restaurant to be."

That said, he's keenly aware that a James Beard Award winner dishing up gourmet soul food in Overtown is bound to be viewed as an interloper.

"We've had so many discussions on this topic: How do we make it price-sensitive so the local community can enjoy it? How can we make it approachable?" Garcia-Menocal says. "It's not an easy question to answer, because we do have certain costs, though we are extremely sensitive that we do the right thing for the community."

He promises that prices will be "approachable" and adds that Red Rooster will open a casual creamery next door. Most of all, he says, he is convinced Samuelsson will prove to be Red Rooster's own best ambassador.

"I've had the pleasure to spend time with Marcus, and he's an amazing human. The guy really cares. I can't tell you how many trips he's taken to Miami to visit not just Overtown but Little Haiti and Little Havana. It's superimportant for him to be part of the community. I believe he means exactly what he says."

Samuelsson, meanwhile, would prefer to concentrate on opening.

"Making the connection between the restaurant, the staff, purveyors, and the city is our job, and outside parties have an opinion," says the chef, who celebrated his 49th birthday in January. "We have to focus on making it as great a restaurant as we can and making as many jobs as we possibly can. It's been something we've been working on for four years, and we're finally on the doorstep."

Food editor Laine Doss contributed to this story.

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Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
Contact: Zachary Fagenson