No one will tell you the restaurant business is easy. But it rarely seems this hard.
More than 20 high-profile restaurants have closed in Miami-Dade in recent weeks, outpacing the clip of new openings and putting operators on edge as they head into the year’s slowest months.
The closures have snuffed out restaurants big and small — from a celebrity chef’s 400-seater in South Beach (Siena Tavern) to a mom-and-pop seafood spot in North Miami (Fish Fish) — at various price brackets and serving all kinds of food. No place, it seems, is immune.
“It’s a bloodbath,” said Chris Sommers, co-owner of Pi Pizzeria, a St. Louis-based chain that closed at 124 Collins Ave. in Miami Beach last week after fewer than three months in business.
“Our timing was bad, opening with the start of the slow season, but this is obviously unusual,” Sommers said. “Perhaps we could have persevered to the high season, but the high season would have needed to be so high to offset this incredible low. We decided to cut our losses and reinvest in another store near Washington, D.C.”
While Pi was the shortest-lived of the recent closures, several were in and out in a matter of months:
▪ Campania, five months at 4029 N. Miami Ave., Miami.
▪ Ted’s at YoungArts, six months at 2100 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
▪ Siena Tavern, six months at 404 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.
▪ Porfirio’s, nine months at 850 Commerce St., Miami Beach.
▪ Bistro BE, 10 months at 1111 SW First Ave., Miami.
▪ Ticety Tea, 10 months at 206 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables.
Only two of more than 20 restaurants that have shut here since May 1 had been open longer than five years: Maiko Sushi, which opened in 1992 at 1225 Washington Ave. in Miami Beach and closed last month, and Romeo’s Cafe, which opened in 1998 at 2257 SW 22nd St. in Miami and closed in May.
Many restaurants race to open in advance of the busier winter months, hoping to get a piece of the big crowds that come for Art Basel, the Boat Show and the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. And they try to squirrel away what they can to get them through the summer doldrums, limping along until the Miami Spice dining promotion brings in a wave of August-September customers.
Even Miami restaurant groups with portfolios of winning concepts have had to pull the plug on a few as of late. The Pubbelly Restaurant Group closed its French-style restaurant, L’echon Brasserie, as of July 1 at the Hilton Cabana Miami Beach, and 50 Eggs Inc. shut Khong River House on Lincoln Road in May after a 2 1/2-year run that started with a four-star Miami Herald review.
Rising rents and South Florida’s tourist-reliant seasonal economy are often cited as reasons for restaurant failures, but industry observers say some restaurateurs simply create bad concepts, pick lousy locations or have poor execution.
“A lot of people from out of town or opening for the first time just don’t do their homework about Miami,” said Michael Clements, owner of American Food Equipment, which designs commercial kitchens and supplies cookware to restaurants. “Everyone wants to open a restaurant in Miami, but you have to be smart about it. What we’re seeing is people making rash decisions, and they’re paying for it.”
Alisia Kleinmann, founder of Industree, a Washington-based networking group for food-and-beverage professionals with a branch in Miami, said it was only a matter of time before a surge of restaurant openings led to an extended round of closings.
“I see the same thing happening in D.C. and in Philly: High-profile places from respected names are closing after not even six months,” she said. “I think there’s a bubble about to burst in the food-and-beverage industry. People love dining out, and they love new places, so we keep seeing new openings and new openings. But there are only so many customers to go around. So for more and more places to open, some are inevitably going to have to close.”
And while there will always be a time and place for high-end fine dining, Kleinmann said customers respond better to affordable, accessible options.
“The everyday diner wants something that feels authentic, a food experience they can relate to,” she said. “If your concept is so off the wall or you’re trying too hard, it’s hard to connect with the regular Joe.”
Charles Hazlett thinks he’s found a sweet spot among regular Joes. His JEY Hospitality Group specializes in tacos, burgers and beer at TacoCraft, Himmarshee Public House and Rok:Brgr, with locations in Fort Lauderdale, Hallandale Beach and South Miami.
“We don’t do tapas. Everything’s a big portion, and nothing’s over $20,” said Hazlett, who founded the restaurant group with partner Marc Falsetto in 2010.
JEY is eyeing expansions in Orlando, Delray Beach, Palm Beach and throughout Broward, he said. The company tries to identify “low-key but sophisticated” neighborhoods with more locals than tourists, and it keeps buildout costs down by opening only in spaces occupied by a previous restaurant.
“To me,” Hazlett said, “it seems like there are too many high-end restaurants that cater to tourists, especially on Miami Beach, and not enough places that serve the needs of locals year-round.”
Myles Chefetz operates high-end restaurants Prime 112, Prime Italian and Prime Fish, as well as the working-class Big Pink, in Miami Beach’s South of Fifth neighborhood. He has seen plenty of restaurants come and go over the years, and he said he believes the successful ones are those run by locals who are a constant presence in the operation.
“I think we’re over-restauranted right now, and the ones that are going to withstand that are the homegrown people who understand this market better than anyone,” Chefetz said, pointing to Michael Schwartz and Michelle Bernstein as two examples. “They have a following here, they understand that following, and they work hard to keep up with it.”
Meanwhile, the beat goes on.
A cluster of new restaurants is set to open this month in Miami Beach, including Israeli import 9beach (1628 Collins Ave.), Canadian import Byblos (1545 Collins Ave.) and Philly import Continental (2360 Collins Ave.). Coral Gables has a brand-new seafood restaurant, MesaMar, at 264 Giralda Ave.; a My Ceviche opened Wednesday at 232 Miracle Mile; and another healthy fast-casual restaurant may be opening at Ticety Tea’s closed Miracle Mile location. The South Miami outpost of Barceloneta (5850 Sunset Dr.) closed last month and is making way for an Indian eatery.
Almost every neighborhood in South Florida has a restaurant opening soon — but what does it take to make one stick around?
“I don’t think there’s any magic formula to it,” Kleinmann said. “But if you look in any city at the restaurants that have stood the test of time, it’s the ones that make simple, great food in a comfortable atmosphere. Those are the places that make it all work for the long haul.”
Evan S. Benn is Miami Herald food editor. On Twitter and Instagram: @EvanBenn.