The Inside Scoop on Miami Spice From Steven Haas

​Miami Spice starts Monday, August 1 and runs through September 30. All over South Florida, people are buying larger clothes in anticipation of this two-month-long promotion where over one hundred of Miami's best restaurants open their doors for specially priced three-course menus. At $35 for dinner and $22 for lunch, most Miami Spice menus are good values, but we started asking just how are restaurants chosen to participate?

We went to the source for answers. Steven Haas is both a restaurateur (the recently opened City Hall is his latest endeavor) and the board chairman of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, which hosts and markets Miami Spice. We chatted with Haas about the history of Miami Spice, how a restaurant is chosen and how best to navigate the waters.

New Times: How does a restaurant become a part of Miami Spice? Do they ask or do you offer them a "place at the table", so to speak?

Steven Haas: Both. Many restaurants come to us when they open. Miami Spice is a great marketing tool for a restaurant. Part of the requirements of a restaurant to participate in Miami Spice, is that they have a good Zagat rating. Also, the restaurant needs to show that it's a really good value at the Miami Spice price point. For instance, if you're charging $35 for a price fixe dinner at a very low end restaurant, it's not a good value because it's what you would spend for dinner already. Miami Spice wants restaurants that provide a good value, have a good reputation, and are invested in our community.

If a restaurant is interested in participating, we go online and look at the menu. We do the homework on the restaurant itself and during Miami Spice we eat at the restaurant. Last year, I went to 20 restaurants. I gained 20 pounds last year. That's a lot of eating! We also want to make sure the restaurants are embracing the program. We shop the restaurants. There's a charge to be in Miami Spice. I think its $900 or $995 to be in the program. We didn't charge at first, but the only way to get restaurants to embrace the program is to charge. Then they take ownership and really work to promote their Spice menu.

We spend hundreds of thousands to advertise and market the program. We don't raise enough money for it, but the benefit is introducing these restaurants to a new audience and reintroducing favorites to Miami residents and out-of-town guests.

How did Miami Spice start? I know the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau had success with their Restaurant Week. Did you get the idea from them?

It started right after 9/11; I had come from New York. Remember how numb we were? It was a very strange time for everyone. That year was one of the worst years in the restaurant industry. Restaurant week worked in New York and I wanted to take it to Miami, but take it to a bigger scale. We had to get people back into restaurants in order for the restaurants to survive. I set up a meeting with the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, American Express and The Miami Herald. I told them my idea and they embraced it.

Miami Spice has really grown in the past few years, as has the entire restaurant scene in Miami. Will it continue to grow or do you find you want to hold back? To keep it exclusive?

We had 54 restaurants when we started the program. We now have 110. And that's the way I want it. I don't want every restaurant in Miami to participate. I want the number manageable with great restaurants that provide a good value.

Let's talk about the restaurant "vetting" process. Do you eat at the restaurants as Steven Haas or do you walk in incognito like a secret shopper or food critic?

We just show up. It's really secret shopping,

Aren't you recognized? I would think there's a picture of you in every kitchen in Miami.

Yes and no. Some people recognize me, some people don't. That's why I go to a lot of restaurants where people don't know me. I'll try to eat at restaurants out of my neighborhood or new restaurants where I have a smaller chance of being noticed. If I have a bad experience, imagine what someone else's experience will be.

Some restaurants seem to be more successful with the program, offering a substantial menu and some restaurants just seem like they're in it in spirit only. What does it take for a restaurant to make the most of the Miami Spice experience?

If a restaurant embraces the program, where the waiter presents the Spice menu to patrons, and they tell people that they have to come back and try the Spice menu, that's the businesses that are successful with the program.

When Red The Steakhouse opened, they were competing against Prime One Twelve and DeVito. They embraced the Miami Spice program, and it was very successful for them. It introduced a new audience to their food.

One of the good things about the program is that you can go online and choose what restaurant to go to based on the menu. The best advertising a restaurant could possibly do to have people come in and eat and tell all their friends. The restaurants that offer the higher priced items are the ones that have the best response to the program.

What happens if a person feels they didn't have the best Miami Spice experience. That, say they didn't feel there was value in the menu selection or they were offered the Spice menu only grudgingly?

We do deal with complaints and we respond to all of them. We take the calls, we sit and talk and whatever it takes to correct the situation, we will do to correct the situation.

With over one hundred restaurants participating, what's the best strategy to navigate Miami Spice?

The best strategy to navigate Miami Spice is to keep going to the website and look up every restaurant's menu. That way, you know what to expect so that there are no surprises when you're dining. Know which restaurants have restrictions. Some restaurants offer dinner only or lunch only on weekdays.

So let's get down to the nitty gritty. What restaurants would you say are the best values?

I'm going to say the best value is the Miami Spice lunch at Azul. For $22 it's such a great value. Smith & Wollensky and China Grill are two other restaurants that stand out in my mind as outstanding values.

What about City Hall?

Of course! City Hall will participate in Miami Spice. I'm going to have to bring out the big guns, won't I? (laughing)

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