NYC restaurant barons ride Florida pandemic wave to open new spots outside Miami

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New York restaurateurs who decamped to Miami during the pandemic are expanding their empires to Florida’s other coastal cities – and some of the biggest names have even made the Sunshine State their permanent home.

The recent wave of openings in moneyed resort towns like Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, Boca Raton and Pompano Beach come as Florida angles to become a new financial hub with firms including Millennium Management, Citadel, Elliott Management and Sanders Capital opening offices.

Jeff Zalaznick and Mario Carbone — two of the three owners behind Major Food Group, of Carbone fame – have relocated to Florida and are planning to open The Boca Raton this month. Additional eateries will open in Palm Beach and West Palm to bolster the 10 Florida restaurants MFG opened in the past two years.

“Florida is an exciting place to be both personally and professionally,” Zalaznick, who was in Florida with his family for spring break in 2020 when New York locked down, told Side Dish.

“The lights went out and we found ourselves in Miami. It was an exciting place to be during the pandemic because it comparatively never shut down and I saw an enormous amount of opportunity,” Zalaznick continued. “There was a huge amount of people looking for great food and experiential fine dining that was different from the nightclub restaurants they had in South Beach. I thought I would get everyone down and things snowballed. I fell in love with living there. It’s great for business and my family.”

Jeff Zalaznick, Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi.
Jeff Zalaznick (left), Mario Carbone (center) and Rich Torrisi of Major Food Group.
Major Food Group
11_El Camino’s newest location at The Square in West Palm Beach.
El Camino’s newest location at The Square in West Palm Beach.

El Camino is a 300-seat, 8,500 square-foot restaurant.
El Camino is a 300-seat, 8,500 square-foot restaurant.

Many Big Apple eateries have followed. But the glut of Miami restaurants and high prices have them spreading their wings beyond South Beach, Brickell and the Design District.

El Camino Mexican soul food and tequila bar restaurants – founded by native New York transplants to South Florida Brandon Belluscio, Brian Albe and Anthony Pizzo — opened a 300-seat, 8,500 square-foot restaurant at The Square West Palm Beach in July.  That’s in addition to their outposts in Delray Beach and Fort Lauderdale. It plans to open another branch in Boca Raton next year as it banks on the high-end clientele.

“It’s really the best of both worlds for them and restaurateurs are benefiting from the influx of new residents and New York professionals moving here with disposable income,” said Francis Lake, VP of operations for Modern Restaurant Group’s El Camino Restaurants.

Brandon Freid, COO of The Impulsive Group, has brought an outpost of Sushi Lab – which first opened at the Sanctuary Hotel in Midtown in 2019 – to Pompano Beach at the Residence Inn by Marriott. The restaurant opened Nov. 18.

Brandon Freid and Hank Freid, founders of Sushi Lab
Brandon Freid and Hank Freid, founders of Sushi Lab
Sushi Lab
Food at Sushi Lab
Sushi Lab’s new outpost opened last month.
Sushi Lab Pompano Beach

“We wanted Miami, but everything was oversaturated and has been for years, so we looked up the coastline. We wanted oceanfront,” Freid told Side Dish. “There’s an omakase counter looking at the ocean. It’s a fantastic view.”

The Impulsive Group paid $44 million in 2019 for the Residence Inn by Marriott and $21 million for the nearby Sands Harbor Resort & Marina – a five-acre spot on the intracoastal with three restaurants, an office building and a marina with a fuel dock.

“Looking back, it was a very good buy. Very big companies have owned land here and were just waiting to develop,” Freid said, referring to current projects by The Ritz Carlton and the Related Group. “We have been sitting on the spaces, waiting for the right time to open. Things are happening and growing fast in South Florida.”

Australian Barry Dry’s Parched Hospitality Group, which launched all-day cafe Hole in the Wall in the Big Apple in 2014, has also jumped on the bandwagon, opening Isla & Co. in Palm Beach.

Dishes at Isla & Co.
Dishes at Isla & Co.
Isla & Co.

“New York is seasonal. Now we can keep people employed the whole time,” said Dry, who has nine eateries in New York and a 10th in Fairfield, Conn.

Opening new eateries in Florida made sense for “a multitude” of reasons, Dry added.  

“It’s easy to get there, there are plenty of direct flights from New York, and it’s so much easier to get a liquor license, a business license, to set up accounts,” Dry said. “It’s important that the brand resonates there as well. It’s a very similar target group and customer base. It was an easy transition, not off the grid, and resonates well with New York.”

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