Roger Duarte and Sam Gorenstein believe ceviche will be the new sushi. Endeavor Miami is betting that Duarte and Gorenstein are the pair of founders to make it so.
Duarte and Gorenstein teamed up to bootstrap and open the first My Ceviche restaurant in South Beach in 2012, offering a fresh take on fast-casual dining. The restaurant business, which offers a variety of affordable, made-to-order ceviches, salads, tacos and burritos, has quickly expanded to a second location in the Brickell area, 1250 S. Miami Ave., and now employs 36 people.
Two more locations are on the runway for this year — one in South Miami set to open this spring and another one at Miami International Airport in the summer. “It’s in the D Terminal which we are extremely excited about; we have 50,000 passengers passing there a day,” said Duarte. “As for a cash flow and branding perspective, it’s a home run.”
Duarte, 30, who left the world of high finance in 2008 to open George Stone Crab before My Ceviche, and Gorenstein, 29, who was an award-winning chef at BLT Steak, Michael’s Genuine and other restaurants, want to scale their business nationally. That’s where Endeavor, a global nonprofit that supports high-growth entrepreneurship, can help. Endeavor, which opened its first U.S. office in Miami last year, chose My Ceviche’s founders as one of its first “Endeavor Entrepreneurs” from South Florida.
“We’re both hungry and we both know there is a lot to learn and we listen,” said Duarte, who grew up in Mexico. “We believe in Endeavor and how they can help take a business at a certain inflection point to a $100 million business.”
While a restaurant company is not your typical high-growth business, “My Ceviche is dead-on in terms of market trends right now,” said Ernest Bachrach, Endeavor board member and managing partner at Advent International private equity firm. “People are nutrition-conscious, and My Ceviche is fast and affordable. The menu is eclectic — not your typical fast-casual.” He also said that “the entrepreneurs know food, know fish and how to sell to consumers. They also have a clear understanding of mission and a strong sense of microeconomics. They know their numbers.”
Throughout the Endeavor selection process late last year, the co-founders were challenged at every turn: Are they thinking big enough? And if they think they are, think bigger. “Endeavor also made us look at our business in deeper ways than we would have — structure, procedures, policies and organization,” said Gorenstein, who grew up in Colombia. “We are now building a road map for growth.”
Part of that effort is putting in place an executive team and, as Endeavor board member and tech entrepreneur Manny Medina advised, an operational manual so detailed a new owner can learn how to run the business in a few days.
“We created a strategy to play to win. We never opened to just have one store. We thought big and believed in ourselves,” said Duarte.
Although Duarte and Gorenstein both grew up with ceviche, they took a scientific approach into choosing a business, Duarte said. They looked where the biggest growth was — fast casual — and which segment had the biggest market share — tacos and burritos. To ensure their business visions and leadership styles were compatible, Duarte said the co-founders “dated” for about four months before deciding to go into business together.
The first location, in South Beach, is a funky takeout window next to the International Youth Hostel. That has enabled the founders to focus particularly on the quality and selection of food. They take pride in sourcing locally with the freshest products available — and they deliver on the beach. With the Brickell location, it was an opportunity to create the atmosphere they wanted the stores to convey and create the brand. “There is something very Miami about My Ceviche,” said Bachrach.
As they grew, the entrepreneurs listened to their customers. Gorenstein noticed people wanted rice to scoop up the juice, for instance, and invented a “Ceviche Bowl” — a choice of ceviche atop a bed of mixed lettuce, coconut jasmine rice or cilantro quinoa and dressed up with extra mango, avocado and lime roasted-jalapeño mayo — so people could have a complete healthy lunch under $10: “It’s the perfect marriage for ceviche.”
Also a popular offering in the under $10 category: a seafood burrito. To appeal to families and large groups where everyone may not want seafood, they added chicken. Quinoa and cold-pressed organic juices also were added.
“First of all, I am a foodie so my standards are high. My Ceviche is fresh, healthy and priced right, and it’s quick. It has all the right ingredients,” said Todd Leoni, a real estate investor and one of My Ceviche’s first customers on South Beach who now eats at the Brickell location three or four times a month. “To be honest, I would eat there more often if it were closer to me — I’m always telling them that,” he said, adding that customer service is always top-notch.
Bachrach said that in five years, My Ceviche could have both corporate-owned stores and a franchise network from coast to coast. “I have seen companies go from 100 to 10,000 employees — there is a lot you can do in five years. This could be a very substantial business,” he said.
For now, Duarte and Gorenstein plan to perfect the model over the next eight to 10 local openings. Noting that just 10 years ago sushi was not to be found in a supermarket, Gorenstein said My Ceviche plans to offer refrigerated grab-and-go items at the new airport location: “We want to be known as the guys who brought ceviche to the masses.”
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg