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.