You could call them snowbirds of sorts: Toronto restaurateurs packing up their knives and heading South to set up sunnier residences in Miami.
Against the cold Canadian backdrop, Miami is a Garden of Eden: perpetual sunshine (a nice reprieve from Canada’s persistent cold winters), well-heeled residents and proximity to fantastic produce and seafood.
“We like the opportunity,” explains Adrian Niman, who is just settling into a new Miami expansion of The Food Dudes after over a decade as the founder and executive chef. “There are 30 million people in Canada. There’s almost 30 million in the state of Florida.”
“The growth in Miami is insane,” says Charles Khabouth, CEO and Founder of INK Entertainment Group. “The city is on steroids and will be for many years to come. There’s a lot of locals, a lot of wealth, and a lot of excitement surrounding Miami.”
These Toronto hospitality groups are part of a mass exodus of culinary folk flying south, opening up new locations catered to the balmier climates and pastel-hued nightlife. Niman and Khabouth’s spots are joined by Major Food Group and their Italian red-sauce joint Carbone, Korean steakhouse Cote, and Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster, along with the likes of Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Even Michelin is sending critics to Miami for the first time.
Niman’s Food Dudes currently command somewhat of a Canadian empire: a full-scale major catering arm (they hold a firm monopoly over the city’s best events and provide food for large-scale venues like Drake’s new music hall), a fast-casual pizza chain and two highly-regarded restaurants.
This month, they’re digging their toes into Miami. The duo is taking it slow, opening a 2,000 square foot catering kitchen and launching the first US outlet of the Blondie’s Pizza chain (though they plan to franchise it down the line).
“In Miami, people throw $10, 15 million into new restaurant build-outs,” Niman explains. “It’s a hard market to crack. So we want to focus on events and quick-service concepts.” Food Dudes CEO Lindsay Klein notes a restaurant will come after we’ve tapped into the market.
Though opening a Miami operation isn’t as simple as decamping down south.
Khabouth, commander of one of the city’s most impressive armies of Toronto restaurants and entertainment venues, first eyed Miami 25 years ago. “We went down, knocked on doors, and talked to real estate agents. No one wanted to talk to us — Canadians? We might as well have been from the moon.”
He tried again 10 years later and secured a space for Byblos, INK’s Mediterranean concept. “We had looked at what Miami needs — it’s full of Italian restaurants and steakhouses. There was nothing like Byblos.”
“When we opened Byblos, we didn’t know anyone. Hotels wouldn’t send us guests. We had a year and a half of serious struggle. My partner was ready to walk away, but I have never closed any of my restaurants. We’ve never walked away. We had great food, amazing service — we had flown in ten of our employees.” It took 18 months for the restaurant to gain a foothold in the market. “It was like a page turn. We had amazing reviews, incredible referrals — Byblos became a staple.” The restaurant remains one of the top in Miami, with its siblings coming up for the crown quickly.
He’s since opened two more restaurants in the Celino South Beach Hotel, with Amal to follow later this spring. Khabouth is eyeing LA as his next move.
For out-of-town players, success isn’t as simple as transplanting a successful Canadian concept. “You have to tweak everything down to uniform,” explains Khabouth. “The weather is hot here — we change the fabric of the uniform and many of the dishes that work in Toronto can’t stand the Miami heat.” Lighter wines and different color palettes are all called for; while the Sofia dining room in Toronto is rooted in burgundy, Miami needed a brilliant flamingo pink.
While The Food Dudes maintained steady growth throughout the pandemic: the city has remained strict in pandemic measures. Ontario spent most of the winter confined to outdoor dining, in below-zero weather, no less.
“Because of how Miami is handling the pandemic, we can keep working,” says Niman. He can send staff down and operate events and weddings in full force.
“And Miami’s high seasons are opposite,” explains Klein. “Their high season is December through March — we’ve always struggled the first quarter of every year anyway — and their low season is spring-summer because of the heat. It’s a very complimentary expansion for us.”
Not to mention Toronto is a tumultuous market to operate in, particularly over the last few years. Labor costs are lower (general minimum wage in Ontario is CAD 15) and indoor dining remains restricted; Ontario restaurants have been largely closed or confined to patio service (a chilling notion in the northern climate) for the majority of the pandemic. “I worry about the already-slim margins in our industry,” says Niman. “Labor is going up. Prices are going up. And you can only charge so much in this market.” He points out that inflation in Canada is also causing the price of meat, dry goods, and dairy to skyrocket, “in addition to trucking protests.”
There’s also the money factor. Art Basel, Miami Food and Wine; the draw of Miami money persists.
“In Miami, you can put $1,000 of gold leaf on a steak and it will move,” says Khabouth. In Toronto, he thinks you would sell perhaps a few a week. In Miami? It will sell out nightly.
Niman notices the difference. “The Miami consumer ties so much more value to events — they’re savvier. They show off, they spend more. We’re doing a bar mitzvah in March, and people are willing to pay a lot more than in Toronto – around 2 to 3 times as much for the same event. Plus, labor is cheaper here, and there aren’t as many labor shortages to navigate.”
Creatively, Toronto’s finest are ready to flip the script on their Southern counterparts, but from a business standpoint, Miami’s neighbors from the north have a very good reason to do as such.