When I stepped onto Ocean Ave. in South Beach, Florida last Friday morning I immediately thought I had made a mistake in 1992 when I passed on the possible purchase of a one bedroom oceanside condo for a mere $60,000.00.
If I had moved forward on the purchase back then, the negotiations could have been stymied, since my restaurant empire was merely a seed of a thought and the $60,000.00 was a vast sum of money to a fledgling restaurateur who had was faced with expansion hurdles.
The ultimate plan was to open in Florida to avoid the Minnesota seasonality and boost winter cash flow. At the time, there were few restaurants open on Ocean and Gianni was still parading fashion in front of his mansion. The place was hot- on fire- and the few hotels that did offer accommodations were affordably priced piazzas for the masses.
Today, things have changed. A lot.
The mystique still hovers. The perception of beauty lurks around every umbrella. However, the beach has become a stop off for many of the sea-going passengers waiting to embark on a short ocean-going jaunt upon one of the many cruise liners that have boosted Miami´s port popularity over the past two decades. More competition for the small unit operator.
Back in South Beach, the real estate market is suffering while gelato sales seem to be up. In many some cases hotels are negotiating rooms, Ocean Ave. sidewalks are cluttered with tables, spotted with "For Lease´ signs, sporting hostess hucksters hounding passers-by with menu deals, half priced drinks, and the possibilities that for a few bucks you can get "eight Bloody Mary´s for the price of four."
Beautiful. High rents, perceptions abound of P. Diddy sidewalk strolling while the Rolls waits with driver and entourage. Visions of Gloria Estefan, poolside at the fabulous Delano and possibly Mick, Rod or Sylvester all add to the glamour that once boosted South Beach to the top of the food chain and the covers of every fashion mag on the shelf.
Those days do exist. But only from January to mid- March when the New York celebs and suits high-tail it on Jet Blue or other cheap flights to take advantage of the Brazilian string duos that so many hard bodies seem to sport on the beach filled with cabanas, lounge chairs, and hostesses recovering from those special two-for pricing wars.
There is a war going on in Miami. And the crime rate is high. Especially along restaurant row where one bartender claimed his boss pays thirty-thousand dollars a month rent and is in very bad health because of the stress. Considering the place was suffering from a leak spotted ceiling, a bartender scoping out e-bay on the house computer, and a sidewalk only casually filled with sippers savoring the sounds of Vadim, this gent was losing the battle of the drink special flyer.
Adding to the carnival atmosphere- as in State Fair- not Rio- is the entrée display tray neatly perched outside of each café on Ocean. Whether you desire a mound of Prawns atop basil infused mashed, a Coconut Shrimp plate surrounded by pineapple of the roasted variety, or Salmon poached to perfection amid a bed of Couscous, there isn´t anything that the culinary window shopper can´t find on this Boulevard of Bistro dreams.
As history proves, nothing sells like service. When I asked one of the hawkers how long she has been shouting – "Enjoy two dinners for the price of one" -she simply stated she was not a hawker, but a host working to fill the restaurant. However, as soon as the busy season begins she will just show people to a table since the crowds will alleviate the lull.
And, once the touristas return drink prices double, the entrée tray becomes less full and the bartender will have no time for e-bay. Vadim will play his soothing sax and the owners will feel less stress.
Just when you thought you had it tough"?¦