Food Industry

Sunset Harbour Developer Scott Robins: It's Never the Chef, It's the Business Guy

For years, developer Scott Robins and his half-brother Craig Robins, along with others such as the late Tony Goldman and Mark Soyka, helped lift South Beach out of abject obscurity. They played a big role in making it the crowded tourist mecca it is today. Lately, his longtime business partner turned Miami Beach mayor, Philip Levine, has pulled Robins into the public eye.

"When you’re close politically and when you try to get things done politically, invariably you upset a group of people," Robins says. The Robins family has been well connected throughout Miami since patriarch Gerald Robins, who made a fortune in New York City real estate, relocated south in the 1950s.

Levine, whose former company Onboard Media was reportedly worth $85 million in 2000 when it was acquired by Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, has long partnered with Robins for Beach development projects.

The latest Robins family domination traces to the late 1990s. Back then, Scott, now 52, and Craig split their business under opaque terms. Scott kept the company's South Beach holdings, while Craig went on to foment the Design District into the posh monstrosity it is today. Since then, the two have never overlapped geographically. "There's no noncompete," Scott promised. 

In the ensuing years, he went on to amass nearly 400,000 square feet of property spread across more than a dozen Beach buildings. They hold almost 20 restaurants, including many of the eateries on Española Way. Then there are the Sunset Harbour Shops. Robins and Levine began massing properties in the neighborhood about a decade ago, when the area was mostly small warehouses. At the time, there was barely more than the now-closed Joe Allen Restaurant and Purdy Lounge

"We saw a lot of these other major streets in Miami Beach gentrifying, and there really started to be no place for locals," Robins said. "All of these streets became very highly tourist-oriented, difficult to park at, and hard to access."

So as Collins Avenue and Lincoln Road became flooded with pricey real estate and big chains, Robins sought to paddle in the other direction. "For us, it was really about finding nonnational tenants where everyone knew the proprietor was very closely involved in his business," Robins says.

The Brooklyn pizzeria Lucali was the first great coup. Sometime in 2012, Robins and Levine were approached by Dominic Cavagnuolo, whose cousin, Mark Iacono, opened the New York spot in 2006. "He came up to me and said, 'My cousin is the best pizza guy in New York; he would be incredible in this area,'" Robins recalls. Lucali's pricey yet pristine pies — along with the burgeoning Pubbelly Restaurant Group — paved the way for a slate of neighborhood spots that helped make the area a mecca for diners, apartment hunters, and restaurateurs alike.

Panther Coffee soon followed. Lately, Robins scored another big coup by attracting Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, also known as Chef Bee, who recently opened NaiYaRa in the 70,000-square-foot development. Yardbird's former chef Jeff McInnis is also planning a rooftop restaurant in Sunset Harbour. 

Yet Robins has also specialized in reliable, less glamorous restaurants that don't often grab much ink in the local food media. Take Española Way's Hosteria Romana. "It's been there 15 years, minimum," Robins says. 

Generally, he says he looks for people who can run a business better than they can cook. "‘I look for the guy I believe knows how to manage," he adds. "If you have that guy, he could cook almost any kind of food and he'll be successful."

And Robins may soon be looking for more of them for properties off the Beach. Earlier this year, his company sold a Washington Avenue property for $18.6 million. Months earlier, he and Levine put a 17th Street office building in Miami Beach on the market for $30 million. So with the potential of having nearly $50 million on hand (plus whatever Levine might throw in), Robins has been eyeing properties off the island and near Craig's area for the first time in years.

"Miami Beach at this point is pretty built-out," he says. "We’re looking in Miami, in Allapattah, Wynwood; we love downtown." 

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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