Relaxed COVID-19 Restrictions Created a Winter Restaurant Boom in Miami
Winter is always high season in Miami. But this year, the combination of loose restrictions in Florida, tight restrictions elsewhere, great weather, a rise in domestic travel, and pent up demand has led to a major boom in the hospitality industry, or what Eater Miami editor Olee Fowler is calling “our season on steroids.”
This week on Eater’s Digest podcast, we talk to Fowler about the influx of big name players to Miami right now and what it means for the longterm future of the local culinary industry.
Then we talk to restaurateur Simon Kim about opening the Miami location of his hit New York City steakhouse Cote during the pandemic and what it’s been like to operate in two cities that approach pandemic regulations in wildly different ways. “It’s like basically having one foot in a piping hot water and having another foot on an ice block, almost like liquid nitrogen,” he says.
Listen and subscribe to Eater’s Digest on Apple Podcasts. Read the full transcript of our conversations with Fowler and Kim below.
Amanda Kludt: We wanted to bring on our Miami editor, Olee Fowler, to talk about what’s been going on down in Miami, because it has been pretty active throughout this pandemic, but especially now in the winter and as we get into spring. Olee, welcome to the show.
Olee Fowler: Thank you for having me. Excited to be here.
AK: First up, there’ve been a ton of restaurant openings and a lot of big imports from New York and also from Texas. Uchi from Texas opened there. Carbone from New York. Cote …
AK: What are some of the other ones?
OF: Red Rooster, Salt & Straw. The Freehold just opened a location down here. Pastis just announced a location down here. That’s all within the past, I’d say, two or three months.
AK: You guys are no stranger to having big name imports, but what seems to be happening right now?
OF: I think there’s a lot of different factors. I think a few of those restaurants that we named, particularly like Cote, Red Rooster, they had been in the works, honestly, for years at this point. They were delayed because of COVID and everything being shut down for several months.
Traditionally, for people that aren’t familiar with the Miami market, our high season down here, when we have not only locals, but a ton of people from other markets, especially New York and other cold city places, is from about November to Easter. That’s when restaurants traditionally open. Big name restaurants traditionally try to open during that time, because there’s the largest amount of people in Miami.
In late September, our governor, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, basically reopened the state, and didn’t give many people much warning. Prior to that, Florida had looser restrictions than most of the country, but Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties were able to make their own rules and regulations, because we had such high COVID numbers.
Then in September, end of September, DeSantis said, “No. No county can overrule Florida. Everyone’s got to open at least 50 percent. You got to open your bars. You got to open your night clubs,” all that stuff.
I think that happening, going into the winter months where it’s already a popular time to come down, people were looking … There were a lot of beautiful restaurants available for rent, a lot of top culinary talent looking for jobs. There were a lot of rules and regulations in cities like New York and Northeastern cities. I think a lot of these people were like, “Hey. We don’t want to deal with this anymore. It’s low regulations in Florida. It’s beautiful weather. Everyone could sit on a patio all year round. Lower rent in comparison to other markets, and an influx of people down there that are enjoying the outdoors and enjoying what Florida has to offer.”
AK: So it’s a combination of pent up openings that would have happened maybe over the last year or so …
OF: Yes, absolutely.
AK: … and that was delayed due to the pandemic, plus an opportune moment relative to other areas, where you have cheaper rents, less regulation, party city.
OF: Yeah. And the demand is there. A bunch of people are vacationing in Florida, because it’s one of the few places that things are open, and beaches, people can go to the beach in January, and all those fun things that Florida is famously known for.
AK: Tell us what’s been happening over the spring break weeks.
OF: It has become a bit of a mess on Miami Beach. Miami is a large city, so South Beach is just a small portion of the area, but basically there was just an influx of spring breakers this year, again, because we are one of the few cities that are really open. So college kids who have been sitting in their dorms for a year wanted somewhere to go. They all seemed to come to South Beach, unfortunately.
Things just got really out of hand. A lot of restaurants are right on the main Collins, Ocean Drive corridor in the heart of South Beach, and really it is a heavily touristy area, they got vandalized, overrun. There was just huge crowds of people.
About, I believe, a week and a half ago, the local government stepped in and forced an 8 PM curfew. You’re not allowed on and off Miami Beach if you’re not a resident or staying at a hotel, between Thursday and Sunday evenings after 8 PM. They basically have shut down the causeways to even go on and off South Beach. They just don’t want the people there.
Restaurants are forced to close. They’re allowed to do delivery, I believe, till midnight, but they have to shut down at 8 PM every night. It’s going to be in effect till April 12th or 14th, one of those days.
DG: Right. But for all intents and purposes Miami’s the spot right now. Amongst the media community and people that cover these things, Miami is one giant bar mitzvah right now. It’s very exciting. But do people think that this is a moment where Miami blossoms into a greater or a more important city in the cultural context of the US’s major cities? Or do people think … Is the idea that there’s a spike right now because it’s a let loose haven?
OF: Yeah. I think there’s two camps. I think there is a camp that thinks Miami, there’s been a lot of push by local governments to bring in businesses down here that are looking to relocate, that type of thing. I think there is a camp that does believe this is Miami’s Renaissance, and we’re really going to keep booming.
Then I think there’s another camp, and I personally fall into the other camp, where I think when other cities start reopening again, and there’s more shots in arms just nationwide, I think things will level out.
Also, it will be a timing thing, because I’m not sure if any of you have been to Miami in July or August, but it’s not particularly pleasant down here. I think patios will be open in the Northeast and all those things that are … I can’t imagine it being comfortable dining outdoors in the Northeast right now. But it’s beautiful. It’s 75 degrees down here.
“ I personally think things are going to level out a bit…I think this is just almost our season on steroids.”
So I personally think things are going to level out a bit. Miami’s very seasonal. I’m from here. I see it every year. I think this is just almost our season on steroids, if you will.
OF: That’s my personal thoughts. I think we’ll have to wait a couple of months to even a year or two to really see how things wash out and if this boom is here to stay.
DG: What are conversations like amongst people that are more apprehensive towards a boom like this, people who are like, “I don’t want Tesla and all these businesses coming in. I don’t want these new restaurants”? Are those conversations-
OF: Some people are certainly apprehensive. It’s like, “Wow. There’s so many New Yorkers in Miami right now.” I was like, “Well, guys. There’s always New Yorkers in Miami.”
That is nothing new. I hear it a little bit in the restaurant community too, because there has been such an influx of big name restaurants coming from other markets, coming down to Miami.
But on the flip side of that, there’s a lot of local homegrown talent that is, I think, thriving right now too, and opening up second, third, fourth restaurants. So I think it’s not only the big names out of New York City or Austin or anything like that. I think a lot of local guys are doing well and taking this opportunity to really show off their talents.
AK: Have the hospitality workers just had a generally easier time of it there, you talk to them, you hear from them, because they’ve been able to make a living? Or has it been just super fraught?
OF: Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, because almost every restaurant owner I talk to right now is having a hard time staffing.
AK: Oh, okay.
Spring break in South BeachPhoto credit should read RHONA WISE/AFP via Getty Images
OF: Yeah. Because there’s just not … I think, a lot of people, a lot of workers are still apprehensive about working in a restaurant. You’re still … You’re coming into contact with, if you’re working at a high volume restaurant, hundreds of people a day that don’t have a mask on, even if you do. Then traditionally low wages.
Now, with the extended unemployment insurance, some people are just choosing to do that and opting to choose that, versus putting themselves in harm’s way. I’m curious how that’s going to flush out too now, with more people getting vaccinated, and things opening up.
Florida didn’t prioritize restaurant workers down here in the first wave. I think that was a detriment to the restaurant industry, because every restaurant I talked to, they’re like, “We’re short nine or 10 people.”
Carbone, for instance, brought in almost their whole New York staff to staff the Miami one down here, because they were having a tough time. Also they’re like, “Well, we don’t have much work for them up in New York right now. So we bring them down to Florida.”
AK: Yeah. I don’t know what they’re going to do when they fully reopen in New York.
Because it’s so expensive here, and everywhere I look, it’s just help wanted signs, help wanted signs. Everyone on Instagram, they just need help. It’s a nationwide issue.
OF: Yeah. I think a lot of people pivoted careers, honestly, when the shutdown happened. Everyone’s furloughed. They’re sitting at home like, “Oh, do I really want to be working in the restaurant industry? Do I really want to continue this career path?” I think a lot of people had a real coming to Jesus moment, if you will, about their careers in this world, when everything first hit, and if they wanted to return to it when everything was said and done.
AK: Right. We might’ve lost a generation of restaurant workers.
OF: Yeah. Yeah, for sure.
DG: One last question, I guess. Traffic wise, from the Eater website perspective, how hard do articles crush when you’re dropping news that Pastis is opening in Miami, or Cote is opening? That was a while ago, but what’s the appetite for those kinds of stories?
OF: I think those stories do just as well as stories of local talent, name talent down here.
DG: Oh, interesting, okay.
OF: Because again, I think there’s plenty of people that are familiar with the New York food scene, or the Austin food scene or what have you. Then there’s a lot of people that aren’t, but they are familiar with the Giorgio Rapicavolis of the world, who’s had a very successful restaurant down here, and has made a bunch of Food Network appearances. He just opened a new Italian spot. So I think that gets just as much traction, because he’s a local talent, local celebrity that people are familiar with.
There’ve been a lot of guys, like Jose Mendin who owns Pubbelly and has really rocketed success with all his Pubbelly restaurants. Just opened another Italian concept, and that does well, because people are familiar with him.
So I think there’s two camps. People that might know more of the United States culinary scene as a whole, and then people that are a little more hyper local.
AK: Daniel, I will tell you, regarding your traffic question, that our highest traffic post on Eater in March was the guide to the 38 best open restaurants in Las Vegas. Las Vegas is another very open town right now. I think it shows that there is just a lot of interest in going to places like Miami, like Vegas, and getting out there.
DG: Wait. Really?
OF: And no one, really, down here is concerned about takeout anymore. They’re going out.
DG: How crazy did hotel prices get at peak Miami COVID?
OF: Oh, wild. I was talking to someone. There’s a Four Seasons down here in Surfside. That’s actually not … That’s a relatively residential area down here. It’s not super packed with tourists. Rooms were growing $1,600 a night for a basic room.
AK: Oh my God.
OF: And the hotels were selling out. So there’s the demand for it.
AK: Oh my God.
OF: Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised if rooms right now, this weekend, on Miami Beach are going for six, $700 a night.
AK: Wow. Wow.
OF: Yeah, it’s crazy.
AK: Different world.
OF: It is a different world. It’s been a weird thing, because I personally think we reopened way too soon, but then you also see … I have so many friends and people that I’m close to in the restaurant world. To see them go through the year that they’ve gone through, and everything just crumbles around them, they’re so excited to have business back, even if their health might be at risk. They’re so excited to have work. It’s a double sided sword.
AK: Yeah. That’s what makes this all so hard.
OF: Yeah, exactly.
DG: Well, in a vacuum, we can be excited. It’s boom time for Miami, right?
OF: Yeah, exactly, exactly. Come on down. Everyone else is down here.
AK: Shots are getting in arms. We’re getting there. Thank you so much for giving us the lay of the land in Miami.
OF: Thanks for having me, guys.
AK: We’ll talk to you soon.
OF: Yeah. Talk to you soon. Bye, guys.
Cote MiamiGiovanny Gutierrez/Chat Chow TV
Daniel Geneen: Up next on the show, we have Simon Kim, the owner of Cote New York and the newly opened Cote Miami. Very fun, very exciting Korean steakhouse. Simon, welcome to the show.
Simon Kim: Thanks for having me, Daniel.
DG: First up, it obviously paid off huge, but Miami was, for me at least, a surprising choice for your second city. How did Cote Miami come to be?
SK: 2017, we opened Cote. Cote has been just immensely successful. It’s basically literally dreams do come true is how I thought. It’s like American dream.
Way before pandemic, we were looking at an opportunity to expand. Where are we going to go? Cote’s successful in New York. We hit it out of the park. What’s next? Obviously, Los Angeles. LA has the second largest Korean population outside of Korea, so LA was obviously a place that we studied. Then I also looked at Washington D.C. on the East side, and Chicago as well. One of my partners recommended, “How about you study also Miami?” So I came to Miami.
First of all, it was so painless. You go from New York to Miami, three hours. It’s almost, door to door, like going to the Hamptons in terms of time, except that you’re in tropical weather. Yeah. I just fell in love with the city and the people.
I think, especially as an Asian person, Asian Americans, in Miami, there really isn’t any Asian American culture there. So I think a lot of people have that, “Oh. Miami is not necessarily for …” To open up an Asian steak house is not necessarily … Miami is not the first place that people may think of.
There was something happening. Forget about Cote for a second. The Miami food scene, there’s a big supply and demand. There’s definitely a lot of demand, but there was not enough supply. So there were a lot of exciting things that were happening. I saw that. I wanted to be part of that Miami dining scene 2.0. I wanted to be part of that.
DG: Okay. So then you guys are building, you guys broke ground before COVID, and then COVID hits. I remember talking to you at some point. You’re not someone that gets down, but you were pretty down. You were like, “There’s no money. COVID’s really hurting.”
Then the tides turned. Miami opens up. You open up at the same time. Then it’s just like an explosion. Right? So this bet you made on a city before knowing what was going to happen comes back even maybe bigger than you expected, right?
SK: Yes. Our first podcast, it was about slot machines and hitting it big sort of a thing back in May. I signed a contract about two years ago, so way back when. I signed the lease. We were working on drawings, the floor plans, the flows, how are we going to do that. That took a lot of time, because we were building a brand new restaurant. So we spent tons of time doing that. Then the pandemic happened.
SK: My style is, when I raise capital, I raise 75 percent of capital, and I start the construction. Then as we get closer, I invite some of the local power players in. I think that’s how I play the game in terms of-
DG: You wait till they have something they can see.
SK: Exactly. I de-risk the project as much as I can, and then basically welcome some power players who want to just be part of this. So I had 25% capital additionally to be raised, and a pandemic happened. Daniel, how do you raise capital in the middle of a pandemic? All restaurants are shut down. My restaurant in New York City, indoor dining, was shut down.
DG: Sell hand sanitizer.
SK: Exactly. How am I supposed to go to an investor and say, “Hey, listen. I’m going to open up a restaurant in six months. Are you in for it?” I think that was the biggest challenge.
DG: What happened?
SK: I stuck with it. I stuck with it, and investors showed up. Also, we showed resilience. Cote New York City, we literally did everything that we could. We did delivery, takeout, cocktails to go, wines to go, butcher shop. We also had a partner with GoldBelly, did steak mail orders as well, butcher’s fees.
I feel like all those really helped. The investors all saw that this guy is not a guy that’s going to get beaten up by COVID. One thing led to another. It came to a positive place. We secured all the funding.
We actually had an opportunity to stop the project and basically walk away, and lick our wounds, like too bad. Because back in May, 2020, it was really, really bad. Things were really bad. Miami got hit really, really bad. New York got hit really, really bad. We were in an opportunity to pull out.
But something told me that this is going to be over. We are going to be coming back. We already had a beautiful restaurant designed already. I had a very big optimism. But obviously, I had no idea that Miami would be the first city to open post-pandemic.
DG: At what point did you realize that it was going to be a success?
SK: There were obviously delays and whatnot. We started construction in May, and were supposed to finish by end of the year, but things got pushed back. Our landlord, we all worked together. So we opened our doors on the 12th of February. Honestly, as you mentioned, Miami was on fire.
I don’t take COVID lightly. There’s nothing really … But at that time, February, it’s been literally 11 months since COVID really took place. I had COVID, and many people already had COVID too. Not that you can’t get a second infection.
I feel like Miami … I think Miami did a pretty good job in terms of it was very pro-business, and customers had an option to basically to come in or not come in.
Cote never closed. Cote New York City never closed. So we really had a very good understanding of how to properly use PPE, how to function, and how we actually hire, train and sustain business, and operate business in COVID environment. I feel like all those tricks, including basically staggering in time for our employees, because you don’t want to have a crowded environment. So all those small tricks, from hand sanitizer to health questionnaires, all those things added to our comfort level.
Of course, we put plexiglass, along with our individual grill that basically excretes all the internal air, indoor air, to the outside. And top of that, I invested half a million dollars in Paragon DOAS, a dedicated outdoor air system, which basically consistently brings in chilled and treated and filtered outdoor air consistently. Think of Cote Miami as, if it’s a car, it’s got the best air intake and best exhaust, making it fantastic.
DG: Okay. Give me your … The first night you walked in, it was sold out, right? What has it been like, in terms of the demand for the experience, now that you are open?
“Honestly, if I wanted more business, God would strike me.”
SK: Honestly, if I wanted more business, God would strike me. We’ve been full ever since. Obviously, in the beginning, we had to be controlling our capacity, because we wanted to provide the best service as we trained. That was tight. So we were at capacity from the beginning. Then one thing led to the other. Since then, we’ve been just booked solid every single day.
DG: Back when New York was fairly locked down, and you had a good outdoor setup, but what was it like at the same time obsessing over New York’s ever changing regulations, while in Miami, it was just a free for all?
SK: Honestly, Daniel, it’s like basically having one foot in a piping hot water and having another foot on a ice block, almost like liquid nitrogen, if you will. It’s like, what is going on here, right? Because we’re in the same country. We’re three hours away. I’m constantly traveling back and forth. One state is completely closed. The other city’s completely open.
It was a complete mind bend to have completely shut down a restaurant in New York, and the numbers are actually better than Miami. Then come to Miami. Numbers are actually worse, and people are raging indoors. Forget about 25% or 50%. Bro, 100% full steam ahead. So there was a lot of mind bend, to say the least.
DG: It’s tough. You don’t know which way is up.
SK: Correct. Because I also didn’t want to just completely be reckless. Because the government allowed me to be reckless does not make me be reckless. Because I need to make … I think critically, and I use common sense, and I try to take everything that I learned, all the experiences that taught me about COVID, so we applied that.
DG: Right. The Miami restaurants probably think you’re overly conservative.
SK: Exactly. I think that’s a good position to be in. Personally, maybe New York people may think that we’re a little too liberal maybe, because we like to actually have fun, but there’s nothing really liberal about it. If you really take a look, we have a great ventilation system, and we take PPE procedure very, very seriously. Again, we’ve been open the entire time, and we never had a significant outbreak in the restaurant at all. So I feel like the proof is in the pudding.
There was a lot of mind leveling to do, because obviously following government guidelines at two radically different states was not something that was feasible to do. So I feel like we had to use our own good judgment. I’m very grateful that so far it has done us very good.
DG: Now, what’s it like for you, watching all these other power players coming to Miami?
SK: I think Miami … When I made a decision to come to Miami, I obviously saw the void. I saw the room. I saw that there’s a great opportunity. COVID obviously accelerated all of that. Now, a bunch of power players are coming to Miami. I think it’s great. More the merrier. I feel like Miami internal restaurants are all going to boom as well. I think there’s going to be …
DG: They’ll step it up too. Yeah.
SK: Yeah. I think there’s going to be a huge surge. Obviously, just like all good things, there’s going to be some leveling that’s going to take place. It’s not like Miami, all of a sudden, can support 20 percent more restaurants overnight. I think there’s going to be a little bit of readjustment.
Hopefully, the restaurants that really work hard and have things together can survive and prevail, and ultimately make Miami a much better culinary destination. I’m very much looking forward to that. I wouldn’t be surprised in the next three, four years if the red guide, the Michelin Guide, actually comes to Miami.
DG: All right. Last question. What has surprised you most about Miami clientele? How do they differ from the New Yorkers that you’re now so accustomed to?
SK: Miami customers like to have fun.
DG: Yes they do.
SK: New York City, you and I both know it very well. I’m a New Yorker, die hard New Yorker. I will never leave New York. But New York is a tough place to live. Right, Daniel? We get off from work, and then we get on the subway. We go to the restaurant that we want to go to. Then we wait, and then we finish. You got to get home. We had one too many drinks. Next morning … It’s just a very on the go go go. Right?
DG: Right. It’s always on a calendar.
SK: Yes. Even when you’re enjoying yourself, you’re like you need to intensely enjoy this. Whereas Miami, I think things are just a little more laid back. People get off work. They go home. They chill. They take a shower. They go to their walk-in wardrobe closet. They put on their fancy clothes. Then they drive their fancy cars, and they come to the restaurant. They have a good time. I feel like that’s …
DG: Is turnover longer? Are people spending longer at their tables in Miami than they do in New York?
SK: There’s definitely people spending a little longer, but we obviously really try our best to be efficient. I think they go with the program. I’m very grateful. But definitely people … Dinner here in Miami is the event. Whereas in New York, you have to have dinner, and then go to the bar, and then go to another like maybe Broadway shows…
SK: Whatnot. But I feel like, of course, Miami has a lot of that, a lot of those amenities, but I do think that restaurants are basically the event of the evening. So it’s been really fascinating. Guests … I love to see our customers get really dressed up to come to the restaurant.
DG: They’re flashier, right?
SK: It’s flashy and it’s fun. People just want to have a great time. Honestly, so do I.
DG: Well, Simon, we’re pulling for you here. We’re pulling for you there. If you’re in Miami, check out Cote. If you’re in New York, check out Cote. Until next time, thank you so much for joining us on the show.
SK: Thank you.