South Florida, home to many cultures, is fertile ground for a variety of enterprises, especially those involving food.
And when a business succeeds, it often multiplies. These outposts may not be national or international in scope — but that’s often an advantage for their customers, who never find themselves too far from their favorite restaurant.
Here’s a closer look at two South Florida-based mainstays that have managed to stay true to their local roots in our communities while growing into successful, multiunit operations.
Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine
From culinary landmarks like Versailles in Little Havana to mama-and-papa cocinas in strip shopping centers throughout South Florida, there’s no shortage of Cuban restaurants around here. You can grab a hot plate of masas de cerdo (fried pork chunks) served with earthy frijoles negros (black beans) and maduros (fried plantains), or other entrees like ropa vieja (shredded beef) and arroz con pollo (chicken with rice) almost anywhere in our community.
But restaurants, as businesses, have extremely high attrition rates. Many new places close within a year. Surviving and thriving for several decades and expanding? It’s rare, and rarer still for immigrant-run restaurants. But here’s an archetypical American tale of survival and success:
The Las Vegas chain of Cuban restaurants isn’t named after the city in Nevada, said Irina Vilariño.
“It’s a part of Cuba known for growing tobacco,” she said.
One of the Vilariño sisters who manages the expansive operation (“No titles; we’re family.”), Irina said that when her family left Cuba during 1980s Mariel boatlift, her parents had no culinary experience. Patriarch Antonio worked with cattle.
“He was a cowboy,” his daughter laughed.
But after a few struggling years, Antonio Vilariño learned to cook, and the family opened their first restaurant in Hollywood, in 1984. There are now 15 Las Vegas locations in Miami-Dade and Broward, including one in Miami International Airport. Their sole Palm Beach County restaurant, in Delray Beach, was sold this year.
Each Las Vegas location looks a little different; it’s not a cookie-cutter operation. The Plantation restaurant is in a sprawling strip shopping center on Pines Boulevard. In Doral, it’s in a big and beautiful freestanding building on Northwest 41st Street, just off the Turnpike extension, the former home of trendy eatery Chispa.
The common thread of each Las Vegas restaurant, according to Irina Vilariño, is its food and personal feel.
“We learn customers’ names, we know their likes and dislikes, and we value them as people,” she said. “They feel it and know it. We’re always family-friendly and welcoming. It’s the best type of marketing you can do because it’s real and not artificial or forced.”
The food, too, is genuine.
“There’s no central facility that makes black beans or rice and ships it to each locale. Every restaurant does its own cooking,” Vilariño said. “We buy everything from local purveyors, butcher and roast our meat and cook everything we serve. Nothing is canned; nothing is microwaved.
“Our guests can tell the difference.”
TooJay’s Original Gourmet Deli
TooJay’s is essentially a “Jewish” deli. But there’s no pretense toward being kosher or adhering to dietary laws.
“It’s kosher-style,” according to TooJay’s vice president of marketing, Annie Catz. “We’re very clear about that.”
The delis serve numerous non-kosher fare like ham, bacon and shrimp, but the menu is packed with pastrami, corned beef, brisket, lox, smoked whitefish, matzo ball soup, chopped liver and a host of other Yiddishkeit favorites.
Founded in 1981 in Palm Beach by Jay Brown and Mark Jay Katzenberg, the two Jays (the “too” spelling is a joke, Catz says) opened a second location in Palm Beach Gardens a year later, then a third in Lake Worth.
Today TooJay’s, now owned by private equity firm Branford Castle, operates 25 restaurants in Florida, including two in Broward and nine in Palm Beach County, with spots in Orlando, Tampa and the west coast. According to Catz, another TooJay’s is opening soon in Lakeland, and they hope to launch three or four more annually over the next few years. Expansion plans are so far limited to Florida, she said.
TooJay’s growing catering division serves corporate accounts as well as individuals. It’s currently about 15 percent of the business, Catz said. Around Florida, TooJay’s smoked fish and cold-cut platters are the envy of baby namings, condo coffee klatches and company meetings.
Each TooJay’s also boasts a mind-numbing selection of baked goods: bagels, rye bread, pumpernickel, rugelach, Danish, chocolate cakes and sundry other delights. Banana Dream Cake, a TooJay’s signature item, is the top seller among baked offerings.
The company’s bakery and central commissary, near its West Palm Beach corporate headquarters, is responsible for much of the pastries and other food, though most of the menu items are cooked on site at each location, Catz said.
TooJay’s food may not be chic or trendy (or kosher), but it’s reliably consistent and authentic. It’s timeless comfort food, and you don’t have to be of any specific ethnicity to enjoy it.
The menu has grown to include decidedly non-deli items, including wraps, salads and other vegetarian fare.
“The world is changing, and people’s tastes change,” Catz said. “And we want to address that while keeping true to who we are.”