Chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn had hoped to open Naiyara, his modern Thai restaurant in Miami Beach, before Art Basel — to get a piece of the visiting crowds and their spendy ways. Permitting delays pushed Naiyara’s debut to mid-December, but Arreeratn said he didn’t need the Basel tourists: Locals have been flooding his restaurant in its nascent days.
“We didn’t know it, but we opened at exactly the right time,” said Arreeratn, better known as Chef Bee. “We have 120 seats, and my challenge right now isn’t filling them, it’s getting everyone a seat. If the locals continue to support us, we can stay this busy in the off-season, I am positive.”
Naiyara is one of 627 restaurants to open in Miami-Dade County in 2015, more than in any other county in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation. That’s about 1.7 openings a day. Orange County, home to top tourist attractions like Disney World and Universal Studios, came in second with 424 new restaurants; Broward County was third with 336.
The number of new openings here was up slightly from 2014, when 598 restaurants opened in Miami-Dade. And the pace of openings has increased in recent months, after a summer slowdown that saw the closings of more than 20 high-profile Miami-Dade restaurants.
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The state business-regulation department does not provide data on closures. But about 25 percent of independently owned restaurants close within the first year of operation, according to a frequently cited Ohio State University study as well as further research by Restaurant Startup & Growth magazine.
The county’s restaurant growth mirrors that of the state, which added about 4,200 new restaurants in 2015. Florida is home to about 40,000 restaurants that employ more than 940,000 people and accounted for an estimated $36.4 billion in 2015 sales, according to the National Restaurant Association.
“In 2016, we expect continued growth of Florida’s fantastic restaurant industry, which is among the top in the nation,” said Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
Miami restaurants typically push to open ahead of the tourist-heavy winter months and their big-draw events: Art Basel, Miami Marathon, Miami International Boat Show and the South Beach Wine and Food Festival among them.
Brian Nasajon and Ben Potts, like Chef Bee, wanted to open their Beaker & Gray restaurant in Wynwood at least a few weeks before Art Basel but suffered construction delays. When their Certificate of Occupancy was granted on the eve of the art show, Nasajon said they jumped at the opportunity to open in the thick of things.
“We did a limited menu so we wouldn’t get our butts kicked, and we just went for it,” said Nasajon, chef and partner of Beaker & Gray. “We’ve been slammed straight through. But a good slammed, not like, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’ ”
Added Potts, the restaurant’s bar manager and partner: “Now we know what it’s like to open a restaurant in the busiest time of the year. We just keep using the feedback we get to review what we’re doing and create a better environment for our guests.”
Nasajon and Potts agreed that a late summer or early fall opening would be ideal in South Florida, to give a restaurant time to get its footing before the season picks up. And they echoed Chef Bee’s sentiment about relying on locals to get their restaurant through the summer months.
“I think not being on the Beach really helps us in that we get a lot more local traffic all year where we are,” Nasajon said. “As long as we work hard now to gain people’s confidence, we hope that the locals will keep coming back during the slow season.”
BEYOND THE BEACH
Trendy Wynwood and South Beach aren’t the only neighborhoods adding new restaurants. Eaters have been packing the 235-seat Pisco y Nazca, which opened in November at The Palms at Town & Country in Kendall. The Peruvian restaurant, from the owners of Bulla Gastrobar in Coral Gables, has plans to open a Doral location in 2016.
We hope that the locals will keep coming back during the slow season.
Brian Nasajon, chef-owner of Beaker & Gray in Wynwood
Several mixed-use developments planned along the Miami River call for ambitious restaurant projects. One of the first new restaurants, River Yacht Club, is aiming to open by February, in time for the Boat Show.
Located in the former Finnegan’s River space at 401 SW Third Ave., River Yacht Club will feature a public restaurant run by chef Michael Lewis (previously with Zuma) and a members-only marina. Behind the project is New York-based Chetrit Group, which, along with local developer Ari Pearl, paid about $100 million for six acres of Miami River land in 2014, including where River Yacht Club sits. It’s part of a $1 billion makeover Pearl and Chetrit have drawn up for that river stretch of Little Havana.
“Things have come a long way on the Miami River since Garcia’s pioneered the culinary scene in this area,” Lewis said. “With several restaurant openings on the horizon, this historic neighborhood is happening to say the least. For us, being at the forefront of this renewal brings about a certain excitement that will be translated into the property in its entirety.”
In Miami Beach, Chef Bee said he has also found an excitement buzzing in the Sunset Harbour neighborhood, a concentration of restaurants that includes Pubbelly, Icebox Cafe, La Moderna, Tequiztlan, Barceloneta, Lucali, Burger & Beer Joint, Jugofresh, Sunset Juice Cafe, True Loaf, Sardinia and a forthcoming seafood spot from chefs Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth.
“It’s like our little island of chef-driven restaurants,” Chef Bee said. “It reminds me of Lincoln Road 10 years ago.”
The Bradenton Herald contributed to this report.