By Chris Mohney
Miami-based Michael Beltran is chef-owner at fine dining restaurant Ariete, Chug’s diner, upscale Italian seafood spot Navé, and historic neighborhood bar Taurus. He and his partners are also in the process of building out several new venues for imminent opening.
When it comes to these COVID surges, there’s no playbook at all. Within our company, if people got sick, obviously we would get everyone tested and then we would just have to adjust our operations.
For instance, Chug’s is a diner that’s usually open from 8am to 1am. We kept it open for breakfast and lunch because we had issues with the staff, issues with the product, and so on and so forth. We had to do that for a couple of weeks, and we just opened up again. Chug’s has the highest volume—we do 500, 600 covers a day in that place. It’s a diner, so people are in and out.
At Ariete, we just did dinner. We got rid of happy hour. We got rid of brunch. We don’t do a lot of volume there because it’s fine dining. We’ll do anywhere between 50 and 80 people a night. The only time that we do high volume is for brunch, and we thought that wasn’t worth it.
We also have a bar on the beach, and we closed for three days. It’s really tiny. It’s like 500 square feet. One person got it, so everyone gets tested, everyone tests negative, and then we have to open again.
My beverage director has been behind the bar at Chug’s for the last two weeks. My director of operations—I mean, she runs the whole thing—she’s been playing general manager at Navé for three weeks. People have simply left the industry, so finding good, quality staff is hard.
We started working on these new deals before COVID. Our hope at one time was not that COVID was going to go away, but that this was going to be controlled. I don’t know if this is ever going to be controlled. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t have a crystal ball. But the only thing that we can do—this is what I tell all my directors—is plan as best as we can and be readily prepared for all obstacles.
What comes into play is the landlord and developers understanding the situation that we’re in as well. When you sign contracts, they require that you open in X amount of days. I think those kinds of deals are over. I understand that that’s what you want, but that’s not realistic anymore.
Our own landlords have been absolutely incredible. Even the landlord that we just started a deal with together. You’re supposed to be building by a certain time, but obviously all those timelines are changed. I’m pretty fortunate I have the partners that I do, and I’ve learned as much as I have in the last six years. A lot of young restaurateurs don’t understand the importance of that initial contract and who exactly you’re dealing with. If you don’t like these people, you shouldn’t do business with them.
A lot of these guys that have been terrible landlords are just terrible people. You’re not just going to end up paying these people on a monthly basis. These people control a lot of your livelihood. I’ve walked away from deals because we didn’t feel comfortable with the people we were dealing with. I was like, is the juice really worth the squeeze? Money is not the end-all and be-all. People fall in love with a location and a deal. But people suck. It’s just the reality of it. But we were lucky. We were lucky for sure.
When it comes to the restaurant game, a lot of it is meticulous planning. But every restaurant is a gamble. At chef-driven restaurants—no matter if you opened before COVID, during COVID, or after COVID—finding quality staff is always going to be tough. I also think that if you do something special, people will want to be a part of it.
We’ve seen it all. We have your neighborhood bar, because Taurus has been there for 50 years. We have an everyday diner that, like I said, can do up to 500 or 600 people a day. And then we have uber fine dining. The type of people that want to work at each and every place is incredibly different. Planning a really solid concept or menu or design is great, but you need to start planning for the kind of staff that you want to have there, and the kind of staff that you want to attract. That’s incredibly important.
I remember at the beginning of COVID, it was like throwing really soft cheese against the wall and seeing how slowly it would slide down. We made a lot of mistakes. We did a lot of great things. Luckily, we got a lot of help from the community, from the government, from everybody.
But the one thing I would change from early in my career, meaning two and a half years ago, right before COVID started—I feel like I’m 50 and I’m 34—would be to spend countless hours planning. The way I work when I brainstorm menus is to use Post-its and move them around and stare at them forever, and then write on a dry-erase board when they start sticking to my brain. I wish I could go back and think more about the staffing for those menu items.
People make the place. You could have the coolest concept in the world, but if the people don’t care about it, then they’re just not going to care. Chug’s is a great example. It’s a diner. It’s supposed to be fast and easy, but a lot of the menu items that we do there are a process. You know, making croquettes from scratch, making pastelitos from scratch, making empanadas from scratch, making four different pies, making four different cakes. It’s constant pressure of labor. If I could go back and rethink it, I would still have the same menu items, but I would approach it differently. Maybe I would buy a certain type of machine earlier on, and workshop it all the way through, or really talk about storage and how we could prepare for this better.
I’ve been a cook for 17 years. I can take over any station or prep station, and it’s like, “Yeah, I’ll bang this out.” But people are different. Not everyone is you. I tell this to my chefs all the time. These people that you’re leading—they are not you.
The peak of the Food Network generation of kids that wanted to cook is over. They all tried, and they were like, “Man, this shit is hard.” This is not easy. There’s no 30-minute meals here. It goes back to the room really dictating the kind of person that wants to be there. Ariete, for example, has an amazing team. The team is absolutely incredible from top to bottom—young kids that want to learn, experienced people that have worked all over the place for Thomas Keller or Tom Colicchio or whoever. It’s because the room dictates that, and the food dictates that. It’s not because they want to come work for me. It’s because they want to come work for that space.
At the other places, filling the roster has been a challenge. There are obviously more chefs out there—experienced chefs that may not want to be a day-to-day chef. So I essentially have four corporate chefs, and they all go to different places every day. It’s what I call “running back by committee.” Utility players all day. You need to be able to roll croquettes, you need to be able to fry them, and you need to be able to serve them, too. You need to be able to make charcuterie, but you also know how to break down a recipe, cost it, and train people how to make it. You need to know how to expedite a fine dining service or a diner service.
I’m blessed because I have incredible partners that are like my family, but I know that a lot of other people may not live in that world. They’re like, “We really want to open up a pizza restaurant.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah? Do you? Do you know how hard it is to find a pizza chef in today’s world? Do you know how hard it is to find someone that actually knows how to make or roll dough?” They’re like, “It’s pizza! It’s easy!” I’m like, “No! Just because Domino’s does it doesn’t mean that it’s easy.”
We’re not loaded. We’re not one of these gigantic groups that has 150 units, like the Danny Meyers of the world. I can’t do a $1,000 signing bonus. And who is that really attracting? Who is that person? I’ve never taken a job in my life just for the money. I did it because I wanted to learn. It’s tough because in today’s world, passion, love, and all that stuff is just a double-click-heart-emoji. It’s not like it’s a visceral, passionate, I-can-feel-it-in-my-hands feeling anymore.
But from the day I opened my company, I wanted to be a small, independent restaurateur. I wanted to create what I consider a safe space for people that really love the industry. On top of that, I wanted them to have full benefits, solid pay, and insurance. That’s what I wanted. And we finally got to that point. We did the paperwork in November, and it all kicked in in January. That to me was huge. I almost cried.