Pubbelly's Cinderella Story
by marc goodman
On the evening Pubbelly gastropub was to open, the three owners paused from months of near-constant work to take a group photo outside. It was 5 pm. All three would work through the night, down to clearing tables and cleaning bathrooms. Their corporate bank account, into which they had put each of their entire savings, now held just $20. Between the stress and lack of money, all had lost weight.
“We hoped 20 people would come,” recalls business and front-of-house head Andreas Schreiner. But soon, a line began to form on the sidewalk. Pubbelly served its eclectic, pork-rich menu to more than 200 guests that first night. “We had to stop serving people because we ran out of everything.”
Pubbelly’s robust, sometimes startling flavor combinations bowled customers over from the start. Chef Jose Mendin, whose culinary journey includes stints at Nobu and Mercadito, says, “It’s fun, not serious. For example, we make buffalo chicken wings, but with sweetbreads. We like to play with stuff like that.” Along with chef Sergio Navarro, who had worked with Mendin at Mercadito, the three partners had molded a unique restaurant concept.
It was an improbable success. Schreiner found the space, a former sushi spot in a famously cursed location, riding around the Beach on his Vespa. At the time, the neighborhood was beset by flooding and noted mostly for car repair shops. When Schreiner had worked at Casa Tua, wealthy diners offered backing if he ever went out on his own, yet shrank away when it came to actually signing checks. So Schreiner and Mendin (a two-time James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Best Chef: South) both moved to tiny apartments and chopped their living expenses to the bone, while Schreiner taught himself about permits and licenses, corporate structures, and QuickBooks. They designed and built the restaurants themselves (a newfound skill of third partner Navarro’s), bringing in a carpenter, electrician, and plumber to do just the most skilled work, and installing only refurbished equipment. They were still short $50,000 of the $160,000 needed. Schreiner’s father finally kicked it in. When the sawdust settled, Navarro’s handmade construction designs fit perfectly into the recycled-wood, vintage-Edison-bulb, winter-cozy Brooklyn aesthetic that’s all the rage.
Thus began the fairy-tale rise of what is now a six-location mini empire (Pubbelly, Barceloneta, Pubbelly Sushi, Macchialina Taverna Rustica, Barceloneta South Miami, PB Steak), all in just over two years. Four of the eateries sit within a two-block radius in the now-burgeoning Sunset Harbour neighborhood of Miami Beach, and all are imbued with a signature approach, as Schreiner ticks off: “A chef-driven, full-flavored meal, with French techniques and often surprising ingredients, where you should feel comfortable dressed up or coming straight from the beach.”
The “Pubbelly boys,” as they’ve come to be known, bring a panoply of Latin influences to the game, often tied to Puerto Rico. (Mendin is from San Juan, Schreiner’s father is a noted chef in Puerto Rico, and Spanishborn Navarro’s wife is Puerto Rican—and Barceloneta’s chef.)
Now investors invite the three to Las Vegas and Chicago in hopes of catching some of their fairy dust. And the trio’s restaurants can take great credit for turning Sunset Harbour into one of the hottest places to eat on the Beach. The expansion to six locations in such a short time resulted from a judicious use of both operating and silent partners, and was often a function of their landlord Joe Comesana, who told them of great spaces he also owned, even if, say, two of them were on the same block. Barceloneta was the first. They brought on three operating partners to run the day-to- day, and for the first time brought in a silent investor, as the much larger space would take $280,000 to open—still minuscule compared to other restaurants’ startup costs.
A month later, Comesana offered another space. Schreiner recalls, “I said to Jose and Sergio, ‘You guys worked at SushiSamba and Nobu; let’s do that.’” So they brought sushi chef Yuki Ieto from Las Vegas. In two months, Pubbelly Sushi, a “sushi tavern,” opened.
“From day one, it was a firecracker. Between Jose and Yuki, they created this menu where Latin influences met Japan met sushi met Pubbelly, from buffalo-style rock shrimp to tostones with ceviche made with Japanese hamachi. People were flipping out at the flavors.”
PB Steak came about when the space previously occupied by longtime favorite Joe Allen became available, two blocks from the original Pubbelly. “We wanted a steakhouse with the ambience of a tavern. And since you are often sharing plates, and a steak, it can be half the price of a regular steakhouse.” The group brought in mixologist Ashley Danella to oversee inventive cocktail offerings. Spirits are highly curated, too. “Most restaurants will have more than 10 vodkas. We have four. We’ll explain to customers why they might enjoy them.”
Pubbelly Group is about to enter a new business line: In December, the 220-room Hilton Cabana Miami Beach is slated to open on 62nd Street and Collins Avenue, with all food and beverage—a Pubbelly-inspired French brasserie, a pool and beach club, and room service—overseen by Pubbelly. There will be a separate chef, as at Barceloneta and Macchialina. Mendin says, “I know what I want in the end, so I will give him direction, but we need fresh ideas.”
The list of great brands that overextended themselves is long, but Schreiner seems cognizant of the risks. Meanwhile, the trip has been a blur. “I still don’t believe we have six restaurants,” he says. “I feel like I’m going to wake up one day and find it was just an illusion.”
photography by marisol pesquera (interior, amberjack, interiors, sushi, drink); jose carlos ariano (schreiner); denise truscello/wireimage.com (williams)
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.