Public Insight Network

Breaking the curse of unlucky restaurant locations

High up in the Herald’s 2007 review of Prime Blue Grille, the paper’s dining critic conceded that the Miami steakhouse’s waterfront location was “tricky to find.”

Less than two years later, the restaurant shuttered permanently. In its place came a short-lived Caribbean fusion eatery called Solymar, followed by a short-lived Italian restaurant called Scalina.

Now, the New York-based Wolfgang’s Steakhouse is giving it a go in the former Prime Blue Grille spot at 315 S. Biscayne Blvd., next to the One Miami building. The family-run operation opened in April and is hoping to buck that location’s trend of failed restaurants.

“I don’t believe in ‘cursed’ restaurant locations,” said Peter Zwiener, 48, who owns the steakhouse along with his father, Wolfgang Zwiener, and other partners. “I believe we have a tried-and-true concept that’s worked for us for 10 years in New York and elsewhere. If we can execute that concept here, we will have a successful restaurant.”

Across South Florida, numerous locations stick out as unlucky addresses for restaurants — places with frequent turnover where nothing ever seems to stick.

Restaurant flops can be blamed on lousy food, overpriced food, shoddy service, a flawed concept, lack of cash, inadequate parking, poor management, an off-the-beaten-path location or some combination of missteps.

“The number one reason restaurants close is because they just don’t offer consumers a competitive difference, be it in food quality, service, price or overall experience,” said industry analyst Dean Haskell, a principal founder of National Retail Concept Partners. “When you look into why particular locations fail over and over, the biggest thing becomes difficulty of ingress and egress. How easy is it to find the restaurant, drive there, park and eat?”

But where other restaurants have failed, some restaurateurs see an opportunity — and the power to negotiate a favorable lease.

“You want to use that as a bully club to beat up the landlord, getting a better price,” Haskell said. “I negotiated a lease for a high-profile celebrity restaurant in a location with a bad reputation. The rent was running $35-$40 a square foot, and we got them to come down to $23 a square foot for the first year, $28 for the second year.”

The Zwiener family is betting that it can succeed at a South Florida address that has seen three restaurants come and go in five years.

Wolfgang Zwiener, 74, opened the first Wolfgang’s in New York in 2004, after a 40-year career as a waiter at Brooklyn’s famed Peter Luger Steakhouse. The 250-seat Miami outpost is the seventh Wolfgang’s Steakhouse.

Peter Zwiener said his family had long considered South Florida for one of their restaurants, rejecting spaces in Coral Gables in 1996 and Miami Beach a few years ago before signing a lease in downtown Miami.

Sipping a coffee on his restaurant’s patio last week, Zwiener attributed the shortfalls of the site’s previous tenants to a down economy and mostly unfilled downtown condo towers at the time. But he acknowledged that, even with a rebounding economy and more downtown residents, Wolfgang’s Steakhouse must overcome its tricky-to-find locale.

“Miami is a driving town, not a walking town, so people have to know we’re here in order for them to find us,” Zwiener said. “And traffic downtown is horrific, especially during big events. But we’re hoping that people will know of our steaks and will come here to find our steaks.”

In Aventura, a Publix shopping plaza also has played to revolving restaurants. In the past 10 years, 19004 NE 29th Ave. has been home to Lola Taco, Heavy Burger, Avenue 29, Bar Rosso, The Ivy, Cavalli Supper Club and Apache Landing. The location may suffer from its placement at the rear of the supermarket, not visible to shoppers.

This week, restaurateur Shlomi Ezra will open Soho Asian Grill in that space. He said he believes that the unique concept — a kosher sushi lounge — will attract customers.

“I know there have been a lot of restaurants here before, but there is nothing else like this, no competitors,” Ezra said. “I am confident it will do well.”

In Hallandale Beach, restaurants seem to struggle at 1727 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd., even though neighboring competitors like Piola and Boston Market have thrived for some time. Las Vegas Cuban Cuisine has been open in that location since 2011, following the flops of Rumba Latina, Carlton’s, Werner Staub’s Wine Cellar and Prime Atlantis.

Las Vegas — a South Florida Cuban-food institution with more than a dozen locations — appears to be doing brisk business in its Hallandale Beach space; customers packed its 240-seat dining room during recent weekday lunch and weekend dinner services.

A possible explanation for the previous tenants’ struggles: The space is wedged between other retail shops.

“Middle spaces don’t have all the amenities that end spaces might, like big patios for al fresco dining and lots of light from windows on multiple walls,” Haskell said. “People like to see and be seen, and corner spaces provide that extra wall of windows to view or be viewed.”

Although the National Restaurant Association does not keep track of restaurant failure rates, Haskell estimated that about four out of five restaurants close within five years of opening.

Dining out is big business in the United States, where there are about 980,000 full- and quick-service restaurants employing some 13.1 million people, including 844,800 in Florida. U.S. restaurant-industry sales account for about $1.8 billion a day, according to the association.

In South Florida, restaurant closings have slightly outpaced openings in Miami-Dade and Broward counties this fiscal year, records show.

From July 2012 through May of this year, 886 restaurants closed in the two counties, while the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation issued 797 new food-service licenses in the area during the same period. There are currently 6,439 licensed restaurants in Miami-Dade and 4,157 in Broward.

Among locations with a series of open-and-shut eateries is 1450 S. Dixie Hwy. in Coral Gables. In recent years the address has cycled through several changes of ownership and concept, including two different diners and a barbecue joint. Before that, it was a Fishbone Grille and before that, a Howard Johnson’s.

That spot, across from the University of Miami, would seem to have a built-in customer base. But “awkward parking” and a difficult turn from busy U.S. 1 can make it a difficult destination, Miami resident Arnie Dzelzkalns said.

Perhaps people were just waiting for the right restaurant to sink their teeth into. Shake Shack opened in that space last summer, and business has been gangbusters.

“Shake Shack is a success story,” Dzelkalns said. “Judging by how they’re doing, they’ll be around for quite a while.”

Part of that restaurant’s winning recipe has been engaging the community — a must if Shake Shack wants to keep customers coming to its 270-seat Coral Gables location, its biggest in the United States. It does so by donating a portion of sales to Miami Children’s Hospital (Shake Shack’s Miami Beach location does the same) and by marketing to UM students, faculty members and athletic departments.

“The Coral Gables Shack has truly become a community gathering place for Gables locals, students and visitors,” said Greg Waters, senior communications manager for the New York-based hamburger-and-milkshake chain.

Figuring out why previous tenants failed — and what local residents really want — are two of the most proactive things restaurateurs can do before opening in a “cursed” location, according to Haskell.

“You need to be in sync with local needs and local eating habits,” he said. “The last thing you want is to be a $9 taco shop in a $5 hamburger market, or a $35 steakhouse in a $15 pizza-pasta market.”

Miami culinary publicist Larry Carrino echoed Haskell’s thoughts.

“You have to know the market that will sustain you, not the market that you dream will embrace you,” Carrino said. “If you know your space is located in a mostly residential, less-than-luxe neighborhood, and those folks will be your bread-and-butter clients, installing a super-expensive or special-occasion restaurant probably isn’t a smart move.”

Tapping in to what the neighborhood wants is the idea behind this month’s relaunch of Tosca in Miami Beach.

When the restaurant opened in October at 210 23rd St., in the space that was formerly Talula — and for a minute — Eden South Beach, it aimed for the stars, both in terms of clientele and pricing. Owners billed the über-high-end Italian concept as the “French Laundry with a sexy vibe,” with dinner clocking in about $500 a head. (Care for a thimbleful of 100-year-old balsamic vinegar on your salad? Add $200.)

“That did not work,” said David Black, whose Coconut Grove-based Black Label Hospitality is consulting for Tosca. “We set the bar too high, trying to provide an exclusive, Michelin-starred experience.”

Tosca has brought in a new chef and a general manager to execute its second concept, which features dishes with lower price points and a daily happy hour to appeal to locals and nearby hotel guests.

Scrapping Tosca’s original concept was a difficult decision, Black said, but one the restaurant had to make if it hopes to make it.

“It’s easy for restaurants to be like, ‘if you don’t like what we’re doing, or you don’t get us, tough,’” he said. “But we want to have longevity, and that means you have to be willing to make changes. In this business, it’s adapt or close, and we don’t want to close.”

One of Miami-Dade’s newest restaurants is Tongue & Cheek. The gastropub opened in April in the South Beach spot that was the longtime home of Tuscan Steak, followed in recent years by steakhouse (Kane) and Mexican (El Scorpion) concepts that never caught on.

Carrino, who represents Tongue & Cheek, said he was heartened that the restaurant’s partners have tried to position it as a foodie destination as well as a neighborhood spot for people who live and work on the beach.

“The ongoing discussion was always how the concept and space needed to work together, not how the concept needed to succeed in spite of the location,” he said.

The restaurant’s mix of value and whimsical cooking — a nightly $10 happy hour meal, affordable valet, burgers made with beef cheeks, chicken-liver pate served in a sardine tin — is already resonating with the South of Fifth crowd, Carrino said.

Business has been “good, steady and growing,” he said, adding that the 150-seat restaurant has been averaging about 120 customers a night. The staff has been making adjustments to food and service as they get feedback from patrons. Listening to customers, Carrino said, may be the single most-important element in a restaurant breaking out from a “cursed” location.

“This is the hospitality industry, after all,” he said.

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