Landlord Scott Robins said that both before and after Kane, he turned away easily a dozen restaurateurs interested in the space. He either didn’t believe in the management, the chef or the concept. But with DeRosa and Reginbogin, he embraced their vision.
“I don’t rent space to people I don’t think are going to survive,” Robins said. “These guys had the background and the Miami Beach experience. I felt Jamie’s food was unique and different. I wanted to give them a chance because they have earned the opportunity. That is the kind of tenant I want, someone who is going to put their heart and soul into it.”
Tongue & Cheek is about fulfilling a dream for DeRosa, 40, and Reginbogin, 34. The two have known each other through the industry over the years and worked together most recently at Tudor House in Miami Beach. But for both of them, running a restaurant didn’t start out as an initial career choice.
DeRosa worked as a cook at Outback Steakhouse in high school and college just for extra cash, while majoring in criminal law at the University of Florida. After dropping out because he hated it, DeRosa found his calling in the late 1990s working at Chef Allen Susser’s restaurant in Aventura while going to culinary school at Johnson & Wales. Over the years, his culinary career has taken a winding road from South Florida to California, England and China with high-profile positions at Chef Wolfgang Puck’s empire in Florida and California and stints at Fat Duck in England, Campanile in Los Angeles and most recently Iron Chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s Tudor House in South Beach.
Reginbogin studied political science at the University of Southern California, and his first job was working in mergers and acquisitions during the .com boom. But when the boom turned to bust, he ended up begging for a three-month internship at Houston’s in Century City, Calif., as a waiter, where after proving himself he went on to cut his teeth in the chain’s industry-leading management program. Over the years he has been a general manager or regional manager at high-profile restaurants in New York, Los Angeles and Miami including Tao, Blue Water Grill, Sugarcane Raw Bar and the South Beach opening of Estiatorio Milos.
“We’ve seen a lot of what works and what doesn’t,” Reginbogin said. “That should account for something, at least giving us a steady platform to build on.”
Working together at Tudor House, a concept that lasted about a year in Miami Beach, further cemented the pair’s desire to become restaurant owners rather than operators. At Tudor, they lived through the challenges of having to juggle the interests of too many different parties, including a hotel owner, management company and celebrity chef. Reginbogin left Tudor House to open Milos and DeRosa left after Zakarian announced he was pulling out of the partnership with the Dream Hotel.
“It reiterated the fact that if we’re going to do all the work and put everything we have into a concept it should be our own,” DeRosa said.
Their skills complement each other with DeRosa presiding over the kitchen and Reginbogin the operations of the dining room, as well as taking the lead on financial matters. But together they have made all the major decisions on everything from the branding to the design of the restaurant.
“You have to have the Yin and the Yang to make it work,” DeRosa said. “It’s the separation of church and state.”
They have spent a lot of time focusing on the little details like the restaurant’s five signature characters that appear everywhere from the coasters to T-shirts worn by the wait staff and doggy bags for the leftovers. There’s the horse dressed in a business suit with designer glasses, who represents Reginbogin, and the ox with a top hat, who is DeRosa. There’s also a cigarette-smoking bunny girl (DeRosa’s wife), an owl with a top hat and a woman with a parasol who is also part octopus.
That humor also carries through to the apparel pins the servers will wear and that customers will be able to take home with them. They have catchy slogans like “Don’t sweat the technique” and “B-O: Bourbon-omics. You never share Bourbon.” Don’t be surprised if you find hip hop slogans from Rapper’s Delight or other popular songs hanging on the walls.
“Everything with Tongue & Cheek has to have a little fun with it,” said Alex Martinez, creative director and principal with Deep Sleep Studio, which designed all of the restaurant’s branding. “What I tried was to take 1920s and 1930s classic elegance and infuse it with some humor.”
They wanted to bring the same edginess to the employees’ uniforms with T-shirts, denim aprons and trucker-style caps designed by Flavour Gallery, a Los Angeles company best known for designing apparel for such premier events as the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and TV personality Andrew Zimmern.
The Tongue & Cheek apparel will be the first restaurant merchandise available for sale on Flavour Gallery’s website.
“We wanted to create apparel that looked like something you would see off the rack and is on point with what’s going on in contemporary fashion trends,” said Alfredo Malatesta, owner of Flavour Gallery. “We think the designs are cool enough that our fan base will respond to them.”
That kind of branding could only help build Tongue & Cheek’s name recognition on a long-term basis.
But for the early stages of the opening, the focus is on building buzz through social media. Tongue & Cheek has its own Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, plus the website at tandcmiami.com. DeRosa and Reginbogin are also active on social media. They hired a local social media consultant because they wanted to be sure to maximize their exposure and engagement with potential customers.
“Real time news is what everyone is looking for,” DeRosa said. “If you do it properly and tease things it build excitement. If we can put out three, four or five posts a day we’re building a relationship with people and they’re getting excited about the product. It’s another form of guerilla marketing without having to put people on the street corner with signs that say, ‘Eat Here.’ ”
The big question is will social media, branding and traditional public relations bring people into the restaurant?
The goal is for Tongue & Cheek to generate $3 million to $3.5 million in revenue during its first year. Projections call for operating losses during the first three months but after six months to be generating a profit of 18 percent to 20 percent, a level they estimate they will need to be successful, Reginbogin said.
He’s tried to be conservative in his projections and keep costs in line with industry norms. “I’m always a glass is half empty guy,” Reginbogin said. “If the bar business happens, brunch gets hot or the late night takes off, it’s all a bonus.”
Industry experts contacted by The Herald agree that Tongue & Cheek’s numbers are in the ballpark. A restaurant’s prime costs — food, paper, beverages, labor and benefits — should be 60 percent or less of revenues with some variations depending on the concept, said Dean Haskell, an industry consultant with National Retail Concept Partners, whose career has included stints as both a restaurant operator and Wall Street analyst.
At $900,000 for start-up costs, Tongue & Cheek is keeping costs well below the average, considering new restaurants can run anywhere from $1.8 million to $5 million, Haskell said.
“You want to hit a 30 percent return on your investment; if you spend $900,000 you want to bring $300,000 to the bottom line,” Haskell said. “The goal is to move toward that as quickly as possible because it shows that the concept is sustainable and replicable.”
Any new restaurant should have enough cash on hand to pay rent and labor for three months.
“The number one problem with most restaurant start-ups is under capitalization,” Haskell said. “If you’re under capitalized you’re going to start cutting costs here and there, and the customers are going to see it. That’s counterproductive to what you’re trying to do. It starts a downward cycle that’s very hard to turn around.”