Wonder Woman Barclay Graebner Has Four Restaurants and Six Kids

Wonder Woman Barclay Graebner Has Four Restaurants and Six Kids
Illustration by Sam R. Kennedy / samrkennedyart.com
Illustration by Sam R. Kennedy / samrkennedyart.com

In December 2015, Barclay Graebner was in a frenzy. The owner of Morgans Restaurant had to keep track not only of a kitchen overwhelmed by thousands of visitors for Art Basel, but also the Annex, a breezy indoor-outdoor lounge/restaurant/bar located under a billowing tent nearby.

"I was just sitting down to breakfast at Morgans," the 41-year-old recalls. "Then I started hallucinating."

She was rushed to the hospital for an emergency C-section and three hours later gave birth to Jax Effs, who is now 20 months and her sixth child. The striking brunette with a narrow, angular face reminiscent of Jennifer Garner's squirmed in bed at homewhile her employeestended to the chaos of feeding the swollen crowd.

She waited ten days after surgery, just long enough for her doctor to take the staples out, before punching back in at Morgans.

"I came back first thing in the morning, as soon as I could," she says.

There was a slight hitch, though. Every two or so hours, she would steal away to an empty table or a spot on the shaded patio to nurse her newborn son, who spent his first days of life strapped to her back.

The frenetic pace and juggling family and restaurant life persist today. In early June, she opened her third place in a year, Sherwood's Bistro & Bar (8291 NE Second Ave., Miami; 786-359-4030), a hip spot in what was once a crumbling building on NE Second Avenue at the northern tip of Little Haiti. Her days begin around 8 or 9 a.m. and often last until midnight. There's little planned family time, no matter how much the kids — who range in age from 2 to 14 — ask for it. Canceled plans are a regular part of life.

"You can't own a restaurant and not be constantly involved," Graebner says. "I'm my own bookkeeper; I run my own paychecks. My chef and I do all the menus."

Though her kids — four boys and two girls — often join her at the restaurants, they spend more time with their nanny, Hexi Oblada, who has worked for Graebner from morning until night for the past 15 years.

Graebner's first marriage ended in divorce, and she recently separated from her second husband. In the case of the first marriage, she acknowledges that some combination of immaturity and the frenetic pace of restaurant life might have contributed to the end of the relationship, but she believes her energy and willingness to always take on another project teach an important lesson to her brood.

"Sometimes, as a mother, you're like, Fuck, a nanny raises my kids, but I think I teach the kids so much by being me," she says. "I have 88 employees I have to deal with, I'm responsible for their lives, and the older kids are starting to get that."

Born and raised in Westport, Connecticut, Graebner was the youngest of four children. Her father Clark was a top professional tennis player who once ranked seventh in the nation and sought to make her a citizen of the world. He also taught her to be competitive and hard-driving. "He made me play tennis, golf, badminton," she says. "As just a kid, I knew how to play every kind of card game; I knew about cigars, wine, everything."

That is, everything except academics. She barely made it through high school. The young troublemaker spent a semester at the University of Montana before flunking out and then enrolled at Mount Vernon College outside Washington, D.C., where she couldn't complete a full semester.

A job cooking and serving at the luxury grocer Dean & DeLuca in D.C. turned everything around. "It was like heaven," she beams. "They had the best fish, meat, all the cool spices, and the most beautiful produce."

Inspired, she relocated in early 1999 to New York City to enroll in Annemarie Colbin's Natural Gourmet Cookery School, known nationally as one of the first teaching centers to extol the benefits of unadulterated, unprocessed food.

"I can build something and get it up and running, but then what am I going to do?"

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After completing the four-month program, she and then-boyfriend Eduardo Silva moved to Miami, where he had family, and the pair believed they could get a restaurant up and running on the cheap.

So at the age of 19, Graebner and Silva opened Española Way's Blu Dog Café, where they served homey dishes. Her cookies, including oatmeal cranberry, peanut butter, and sugar, quickly became the stuff of legend and can still be found in her restaurants today.

"It was a neighborhood place where you could expect the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 365 days a year," she says. "That's my concept in everything I do."

Soon she kindled a romance with her pastry chef, Juan Corporan, which turned into a hasty marriage that her parents opposed. So at 22, she and a man 12 years her senior wed on the old South Pointe Pier before about 40 friends. Her parents weren't invited. Her first child, a son named Theseus, was born in 2002 just as Graebner and Corporan were closing Blu Dog.

"It was a very seasonal place, and I never really gave it the attention it deserved," she says.

They opened Blu Dog Bakery later that year on the edge of Liberty City and soon began supplying thousands of pastries, croissants, and other sweets to hotels up and down Collins Avenue, including the Eden Roc.

All the while, Theseus, like the five siblings who would follow him, was strapped to his mother's back until he could crawl. Though the children could be found playing around her businesses, she would just as often pass them to Oblada for much of their care. "It's something I had to think really hard about," Graebner says, "And in the beginning, it felt unfair to the kids."

Yet things quickly began to unravel. At the bakery, she, Corporan, and a skeleton crew would churn out thousands of pastries between midnight and dawn. Then they delivered the goods, cleaned the place, and started all over. Meanwhile, two more children — Morgan and Jorja, who are now 13 and 12 years old — joined the family even as the couple's marriage cracked.

"It was awful," Graebner says. "I got married too young, when I shouldn't have gotten married."

The bakery closed in 2004, and the pair was divorced by 2005. She spent the following two years opening a nail salon and a sprawling children's play place/daycare center on Biscayne Boulevard just south of the MiMo District. Her incessant need to begin anew provides a glimpse into Graebner's mindset as a businesswoman.

"I can build something and get it up and running," she says, "but then what am I going to do? Sit there and run it? That drives me out of my mind."

In the meantime, she was scouring the city for another project. In 2006, she opened a raw-food counter in a building called the Coop across from what is now the Shops at Midtown Miami. People would drive from as far as West Palm Beach for her raw burgers, cheesecakes, and crackers. In 2007, as the Coop was preparing to shutter, she came across a house on the corner of North Miami Avenue and NE 29th Street that was built in the 1930s and, though oddly laid out, seemed the perfect space for her next project.

click to enlarge Barclay Graebner: "I can build something... but then what am I going to do? Sit there and run it? That drives me out of my mind." - PHOTO BY CANDACEWEST.COM
Barclay Graebner: "I can build something... but then what am I going to do? Sit there and run it? That drives me out of my mind."
Photo by CandaceWest.com

Soon she had signed a lease and began transforming the building into what would become Morgans Restaurant (28 NE 29th St., Miami; 305-573-9678) in honor of her mother, whose maiden name was Morgan, and her first daughter.

"Both of my mother's parents died the year we started building Morgans," Graebner says. "So the name was obvious."

At the same time, as a newly single mother, she also noticed the kids reaching an age where it just wasn't fair to them to spend hours a week with her at the restaurant. They needed to move around, to interact, to play, and to be on a somewhat normal nap schedule.

"Everyone from the bakery days remembers my kids when they were little, but at some point they needed to do things other kids do," she says.

As the place was coming together, she was introduced, by way of mutual friend and professional boxer Lennox Lewis, to Jamaican film producer Richie Effs. The pair shared a love of the outdoors and spent a summer together fishing the days away while living on Poinciana Island, just south of Sunny Isles Beach.

"She was straight; she was honest," Effs says. "When it comes to her business, she comes off ruthless, but she's really kind, and she'll go beyond anything to help anybody."

In 2007, as Graebner and Effs were pouring their money and lives into what would become Morgans, their first son, Jagger, joined the family, bringing the number of children to four. Zion arrived in 2009.

In 2010, they opened the pale-lavender building with a sprawling patio and midcentury-modern interior. It was filled with lacquered wood tables, incongruous oval lamps, and white bucket chairs. The place soon became one of the city's most popular brunch spots with dishes like mascarpone-and-raspberry-stuffed French toast and chicken-and-waffle sandwiches.

The next year, she looked to transplant that success to Miami Beach, where she and Effs took over the old Joe Allen's space. The move proved to be a disaster.

"I did more business [on the Beach] than I did in Wynwood, but the rent was something I couldn't ever afford," she says. The restaurant also suffered constant flooding. They tried revamping it and rechristening it Georgia's Union in 2012, but that stripped-down concept with dishes such as duck and dumplings and Cornish game hen didn't work either.

After that, Graebner and Effs married, and she seemed to go into hibernation. However, Effs says, such a state of affairs was untenable even if it gave her more time to spend with her growing children. "With Barclay, if she isn't creating something, she goes crazy," he explains. "With every project, once it's done and it's up and running, she has to find something else to do."

The pause was critical, Graebner adds, to figure out what would come next. "My thing is finding little, tiny restaurants in real neighborhoods where I can have one person work the front and two guys work in the kitchen," she says.

The restaurants need constant attention no matter how successful they've become.

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Such is what can be found in North Bay Village, where she opened Black Sheep (1884 79th St. Cswy., North Bay Village; 305-763-8468) at the beginning of this year. It's a pocket-size spot — nestled in the same aging plaza that houses the Happy Stork Liquor Store — where she serves the city's best breakfast sandwich ($8) on spongy brioche that oozes runny yolk and gooey American cheese, as well as sophisticated dishes like pillowy ricotta gnocchi in a rich, herbaceous cream sauce speckled with crushed pistachios ($14) .

Soon she realized the area offered few dining options, so she doubled down in late July and opened Tacos vs. Burritos (1888b John F. Kennedy Cswy., North Bay Village; 786-838-5011) in a casual space. Her idea was basic food such as tacos ($3), sopes ($3), burritos ($5), and tostadas ($3) filled out with carne asada and carnitas in addition to tongue and tripe.

"I'm really satisfied with everything, but there are definitely things I still want to do that are quirky little concepts," Graebner says. "If the right space for them comes up, I don't hesitate."

And this past June, after three years of work, she opened Sherwood's Bistro & Bar on the northern end of Little Haiti. Graebner has invested nearly $600,000 into the once-ramshackle building with the expectation that developers will gentrify the area into the city's next most sought-after zip code. A 10,000-square-foot food hall with vendors such as Taquiza, Cake Thai, and the omakase sushi spot Myumi slated to open this coming winter might just prove her right.

That restaurant is her most interesting to date. The whole mackerel ($18) is pan-fried until it develops a crisp shell that encases succulently oily meat freshened up with the pop of diced tomato. The Second Avenue skillet ($12) offers milky burrata flowing over roasted hunks of eggplant dressed with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nut chutney. The restaurant overflows with vintage tables, mismatched chairs, and aging candlesticks and orange glass water pitchers quaintly arranged on weathered credenzas.

Sherwood's is the restaurant closest to Graebner's Miami Shores home, and it's here where her day winds down, usually with 2-year-old Jax in tow. But at some point, the baby has to sleep. And as the night wears on, Effs or the nanny (one of her highest-paid employees) stops by to pick him up, leaving Graebner to finish the evening wondering which of her son's firsts she might have missed.

The endless demands of owning and running the businesses while raising a young family contributed to the end of her first marriage. And today, her marriage to Effs, who produced the Jamaican gangster cult classic Shottas, starring Wyclef Jean and Ky-Mani Marley, is in trouble, though they continue running their restaurants and caring for the children together.

Graebner says one of the greatest difficulties of her life is planning. The restaurants are engrossing, all-consuming businesses that need constant attention no matter how long they've been open or how successful they've become.

"You can't leave it anybody's hands, not even for a night," she says. Even at a place like Morgans that boasts a troupe of regulars, servers forget to do little things like place candles on the table at night, she says. But making sure every detail is right comes at a hefty cost. Workdays last 14 hours, and there are only brief patches of time each week to take her kids to the beach. And sometimes, the restaurants get in the way of even those fleeting moments.

"I know I'll definitely miss a lot of things by not being home, but I'm the provider," she says. "When the cat's away, the mice will play, and when you own a restaurant, you can never afford that."

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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