Prime One Twelve's Myles Chefetz: "Big Pink Was a Struggle in the Beginning"

Mention South Beach diner Big Pink to Miami locals and chances are they have a story to tell. And though it might be something as wholesome as a post-beach meal with the kids, it may also be a tale of 3 a.m. debauchery. That's because the pink building in South of Fifth has been an institution for nearly 19 years, offering 200-some items, including all-day breakfast to crowds both young and old, sober and trashed. (The restaurant is open till 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday.)

So why would owner Myles Chefetz and his team change things? "We owe it to our clientele to make things better and try to add a gourmet touch," Chefetz says.

Among the new items is Buffalo chicken pizza ($14.25), topped with crisp Buffalo chicken chunks, mozzarella, crumbled blue cheese, and spicy Buffalo sauce. There's also churrasco pizza ($15.75), featuring grilled skirt steak, sweet plantains, black beans, mozzarella, and chimichurri. New entrées include fried chicken and biscuit ($17.50) and salmon eggs Benedict ($15.50). Chefetz, who is also the man behind the wildly successful steakhouse Prime One Twelve and its siblings Prime Italian and Prime Fish, says Big Pink now has six to seven eggs Benedict options, whereas before it had only one. Pass the hollandaise, please. 

The diner has also hopped on the kale train with a chopped kale salad ($14.50), featuring Fuji apples, celery, dried cranberries, walnuts, and poppyseed dressing. Another leafy addition is the Waldorf chicken salad ($14.50), starring grilled chicken, apples, red onion, dried cranberries, and crushed walnuts.

However, why tinker with a winning formula? Chefetz, a Miami restaurateur and New Times 2014 culinary all-star who knows a thing or two about creating hit eateries, answers that question and others. 

New Times:  What made you decide to update the menu at Big Pink?
Myles Chefetz: The answer is we’re constantly trying to evolve. The market changes and things change in general with food, and comfort foods specifically, so you need new ideas to keep it fresh. We opened in December 1996, so the restaurant will be 19 years old this December. Big Pink has become such a huge breakfast and lunch spot and a breakfast-all-day spot. I've also recently started to travel a bit more because since I moved here, I’ve been working so much, but now I’ve been traveling a bit and trying cool breakfast places. I’ll get an idea and I’ll work with the chef on creating it and tweaking the presentation and flavor profile. 

Big Pink is so different from your other food concepts. What led you to open it?
I had Nemo, and that was my first restaurant that opened, in January 1995 in the space where Prime Fish is today on First Street and Collins Avenue. Michael Schwartz was my chef/partner at the time at Nemo, and he helped me open Big Pink in December 1996. At the time, there was nowhere to go and get a good burger, and that area was somewhat barren. There were no restaurants except for Joe’s, and we thought this would be a good everyday eatery. Nemo was an eclectic mix of a lot of different cuisines and was a hotspot back in the day, but in terms of a high-end diner, there was nothing down here except really News Café

Big Pink is South of Fifth royalty. Why do you think it has attained such cult status in Miami?
It’s a lot of things to a lot of people, so it covers a very diverse population of eaters. Some people only know Big Pink for late nights after the nightclubs, and some people only know it for breakfast, and some only know it for lunch. People have very different experiences there. I talk to them all the time, and they’ll say I only eat the chicken and waffles or I only eat the rotisserie chicken salad sandwich or I only go there for the desserts. People have their specific reasons for going there at different times. But I think the reason why it's so popular is there are a lot of barriers to entry because it’s such a hard concept to pull off because there are so many menu items. I’m down there tasting 30 to 40 things every morning, like homemade dressings because everything is made from scratch and I have to make sure it’s right. It’s not like tasting ten things. There are so many ways to go wrong that most people don’t open restaurants like that unless you’re the Cheesecake Factory and you have it down to a science, but otherwise people don’t really open restaurants with 200 items. It’s hard to manage, the costs are high labor-wise. I have my fantasies of only having 20 items on the menu and not having to worry so much, but the diversity is part of what makes it so popular. You can go there and get a pizza, and it’s not a pizza place; you can go there and get pasta, and it’s not an Italian restaurant; you can go there and get eggs at anytime of the day. 

Has the menu been so massive from day one?
No, it wasn’t. When we first opened, it was more of an extension of Nemo, and the menu was one page with a small pasta section, and it maybe had 30 to 40 items. But it was my feeling that it needed to become more diverse, so it has really changed and evolved and gotten better over the years. And it wasn’t successful when we first opened. It didn’t do well, and it didn’t really start doing well until about 2002, when I really turned the corner and I expanded the menu and changed a lot of things. It was always a struggle at the beginning. We also didn’t have the density of people we have here today. We didn’t have the hotels like the Marriott and the Bentley. Early on, it was just a cool little hangout.

Everyone I ask seems to have a Big Pink story. Do you have one you can share?
I hope they’re good stories! There was a rock band called the Band in the '60s and '70s, and they made these tapes in a basement of a house in Woodstock called the Big Pink House. One of the albums was called Music From Big Pink, and that album became famous because Bob Dylan worked on the album with them. Anyway, I had a sous-chef at Nemo who said if I ever owned that pink building, I would have to call it Big Pink because of the album. We also filmed a segment from There's Something About Mary at the restaurant. I think the funny story is just the name for me.

You’ve been a leader in the Miami restaurant industry for a long time. What are some changes you’ve noticed in the restaurant scene here, and how do they affect your businesses?
All the changes are for the better. The more restaurants there are, the more people come to the area. Competition is good — it keeps me more on my toes — and, for instance, with Prime One Twelve, we’ve been on top for almost 11 years, and the more steakhouses that open here, the more it pushes us to stay sharp and to be better than the others. More restaurants means more people; it's the same principles as retail. Although a lot of restaurants have gone out of business in Miami lately. 

How do you ensure your restaurants stand the test of time in today’s rapidly changing climate?
I’ve been here 20 years after moving from New York. I’m in the restaurants all day. A lot of these restaurants that open and close, they're from absentee owners or they’re offshoots of other successful restaurants that don’t necessarily translate well in Miami. You have to be here; the restaurant business is that way. I never assume we’ll be successful from one day to the next, so I’m always surprised when we are. It’s a tough business.

Are any projects planned for Big Pink or your other restaurants?
I’m working on a to-go operation for Prime One Twelve. I can’t disclose the location, but it’s very close to Prime One Twelve. And I’m working on Prime Private, which is a catering leg of the Prime restaurants. We’ll have an event space that will mirror the Prime experience for large corporate and social events. I'm not looking into off-premise catering right now, but maybe in the future.  

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Valeria Nekhim was born in the Ukraine and raised in Montreal. She has lived in Manhattan and Miami. Her favorite part of food writing is learning the stories of chefs and restaurateurs.