Q&A with CEO of Sushi Samba: On a roll in South Florida


Shimon Bokovza

•  Title: Founder and chief executive, Samba Brands Management.

•  Career: At age 21, built Israel’s first ski resort; opened restaurants Harvest, Apropos and Amazon Club in Philadelphia, Amazon Village in New York and Yellowfin Restaurant at the Amazon in Sag Harbor, N.Y.; has since opened seven SUSHISAMBA restaurants (in New York, Miami Beach, London, Chicago, Las Vegas and Coral Gables) with partners Danielle Billera and Matthew Johnson. The company also owns and operates SUGARCANE in Midtown Miami.

•  Born: Tunisia

•  Age: 64

•  Education: Bachelor’s degree from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, 1979.

•  Lives in: New York

•  Personal: Married 14 years to company’s managing partner, Danielle Billera; four children, including two from a previous marriage.

•  Hobbies: Avid runner and art enthusiast with a particular interest in graffiti.


Shimon Bokovza may not be well known in South Florida, but his SUSHISAMBA and SUGARCANE restaurants have flourished here.

Bokovza, the founder and chief executive of Samba Brands Management, opened the first SUSHISAMBA in New York in 1999 with partners Danielle Billera — who is also his wife — and Matthew Johnson. SUSHISAMBA branched out to Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road in 2001, and last week, the company opened its seventh SUSHISAMBA at the Westin Colonnade Hotel, at 180 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables.

Samba Brands also owns and operates SUGARCANE in Midtown Miami and plans to open another as-yet-undisclosed restaurant in South Florida by the end of the year.

We met Bokovza — who lives in New York, but visits Miami frequently — at his new Coral Gables restaurant as workers were completing the interior renovations. He later emailed his responses to these questions.

Q. How did your interest in food and food service begin? Was your family involved in the restaurant business?

My interest in food started from childhood, watching my mom prepare family meals. Cooking at home with my family was when everyone came together; I will always cherish these memories.

Q. You went on to study restaurant management - did you always intend to open restaurants?

I always had a passion for hospitality, but my experience at Cornell gave me invaluable insight into the industry. It was a critical platform for building SUSHISAMBA into the brand that it is today.

Q. You opened the first Sushi Samba in New York in 1999 with your partners Matthew Johnson and Danielle Billera. What is the concept of Sushi Samba and what is the cuisine?

That is correct, although we trademarked the name in 1996. The idea for SUSHISAMBA was born when I traveled to Brazil in 1991 and was struck by how many Japanese people live in Brazil, specifically Sao Paulo. The first thing that came to mind was wow, this is sushi-samba.

Together with Danielle Billera and Matthew Johnson we introduced the first SUSHISAMBA location in 1999. SUSHISAMBA celebrates the culture and cuisine of Japan, Brazil and Peru. SUSHISAMBA’s menus offer an inventive culmination of three cuisines. Guests are treated to Brazilian Churrasco and Moqueca, Peruvian Anticuchos and Seviches; and Japanese tempura and sushi. The open kitchen and fiery robata grill offer brilliantly roasted and flavored meats, vegetables and fish that capture the culinary prowess that has made SUSHISAMBA a success for over 13 years.

There are currently seven SUSHISAMBA locations: two in New York (1999 and 2000), one in Miami Beach (2001), Chicago (2003), Las Vegas (The Shoppes at The Palazzo, 2008), London (2012) and now Coral Gables.

Q. Your first SUSHISAMBA outside of New York was Miami Beach, you later opened SUGARCANE, and just last week you opened one in Coral Gables. How important is South Florida to your brand?

South Florida and Miami are a very important market for us. We opened Miami Beach right after September 11th, 2001, and that was a very tough opening. However, it was amazing to see how the community came together and embraced us.

The Coral Gables opening signals the arrival of Samba Brand Management’s third restaurant in the region, which includes the internationally acclaimed SUSHISAMBA Miami Beach and the James Beard nominated SUGARCANE raw bar grill. With plans for a fourth, soon to be announced restaurant we are solidifying Miami as our No. 1 market in the United States. South Florida is a major international hub, a cultural and business destination and we want to be a part of it.

Q. Why did you choose Coral Gables — what was it about Coral Gables that attracted you?

Coral Gables is an affluent community with deep South American roots, which makes it a very attractive market for us. It’s also a banking capital of the South, centrally located, with close proximity to the Miami airport, Port of Miami and Downtown Miami. We had a great opportunity to open in the Westin Colonnade Hotel, it was a prime location and a beautiful space, we are proud to be calling Coral Gables our new home.

Q. How did you redesign the space in Coral Gables?

We completely transformed the space, added much more light, and of course SUSHISAMBA signature colors which are most notable in the ceiling design. Award-winning architectural firm CetraRuddy designed the restaurant’s 6,500-square-foot space, complete with a lounge, two bars, alfresco dining and a premier event space. The restaurant features the only robata grill in the Gables, and an outdoor bar, also the first in the Gables.

Q. What is the concept of SUGARCANE, and overall, how many people do you employ in South Florida?

SUGARCANE raw bar grill is located in the heart of Miami’s emerging Midtown district at 3252 NE First Ave. The restaurant is inspired by international influences and South American spirit, led by executive chef and partner Timon Balloo. Three distinct kitchens — robata, hot and raw bar unite for a fresh take on tradition and a unique culmination of flavors. Embarking on a quest for the simple pleasures of life: eating well, kicking back and celebrating with friends – the concept focuses on a ‘shared experience’ through its menu: eclectic small plates, artisanal cocktails, and an extensive rum selection. With 4,200-square-feet of interior space, an impressive outdoor terrace, a private dining area, and indoor/outdoor bars – SUGARCANE raw bar grill is the perfect venue for any day.

SUGARCANE has been celebrated locally with a three star review from The Miami Herald; a nod for “Best New Restaurant,” and “Best Up-and-Coming Chef” from the Miami New Times; and the titles, “Restaurant of the Year” and “Chef of the Year” (Miami) by Eater. On a national level, the restaurant earned recognition as a semi-finalist for “Best New Restaurant” by the James Beard Foundation and Balloo received a nomination for “The People’s Best New Chef” from Food & Wine magazine in 2011. Most recently, Balloo was honored as Distinguished Visiting Chef by Johnson & Wales University, not to mention the restaurant received a AAA Four Diamond rating for 2013.

Currently between three locations, Samba Brands Management employs over 200 people in South Florida, with plans for further expansion.

Q. Can you tell me about the company’s total revenues?

About $60 million in revenues in 2012, up 18 percent from 2011.

Q. What is your next step? I understand you plan to open another restaurant in South Florida by the end of the year? Please tell me about that and any other plans globally.

We are planning on opening a fourth location in South Florida by the end of the year, which will be announced soon. Unfortunately, I am unable to discuss this further at this time.

Globally we are looking at further expansion in the U.S. – specifically New York, as well as Europe and Asia.

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