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The Bullish Future Of Mario Carbone’s Restaurant Boom

The cofounder and partner in Major Food Group on blowing up new restaurants in Miami and beyond.

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices in dining, hospitality, food, tech, politics and more. Each story takes the turning of the calendar as an inflection point to consider what happened in 2021, or what’s likely to happen in 2022, in the world of restaurants and food. See all stories here. And feel free to check out last year’s collection as well.

Chef Mario Carbone is cofounder and managing partner of Major Food Group, the hospitality company behind more than 20 restaurants that include multiple locations of Carbone and Sadelle’s. Born in New York, Major Food Group recently started a massive South Florida expansion, with numerous restaurants in Miami and beyond.

I think the beach couldn’t hold the boom in Miami. It’s just too much. There’s too many people, too many businesses. It’s already quickly spilling out to the neighboring areas. What happened in New York with Brooklyn and Queens happened virtually overnight here with Coconut Grove and Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach and Surfside. Take a compass, put it in Miami Beach, and then draw a pretty significant circumference around it. If we focused on just South Florida and did nothing else, we could grow for the next five, ten years, no problem. There’s that much going on.

The taxes and weather used to be the two reasons to be here, and they’re still incredibly significant. But now there’s also a growth of the arts, a booming tech industry, and, obviously, food and beverage. All these people who are coming here are going to demand a higher quality of everything. So it’s our job to put out a higher quality.

I wasn’t even prepared for what happened when we opened Carbone in Miami. I was confident that we had gotten an unbelievable location. If you would’ve told me five years ago that we’d be basically in the backyard of Joe’s Stone Crab on Collins, I would’ve been like, “That’s as good as it gets.”

I believed in the Carbone brand. We were able to bring down so many of the New York team. We had so many familiar faces—not only in the staff, but also in the guests. The guests from New York were coming down, and they were feeling at home. They saw the familiar faces. They saw me and my partner Jeff Zalaznick here. They saw service manager Enrico “Ricky” Tinelli, and captain Jared LoPriore here. And we were putting out a really solid product.

But even still, I couldn’t have imagined the reception that we got. Flattering is way too small of a word. I’m blown away by the reception we got and that we continue to get on a nightly basis. The energy in that room is unlike anything I felt before.

We’re also seeing a boom in the Design District, where we opened ZZ’s. There’s a giant flagship Chanel store that’s about to be finished across the street from ZZ’s. I’ve been coming to the area for years to hang out and shop. Now you see a densely populated street. You see lines waiting to get into the stores. You see restaurants that are really full.

Just the fact that the doors were allowed to stay open for business is the single biggest coup Miami may ever see. That decision alone caused an absolute windfall on every possible level. The economic wheels never stopped turning. And that one big decision snowballed into this mega expansion, and just sped up the evolution here. The increase in demand for product, for people, for jobs—it’s through the roof. I mean, you can’t possibly give any more credit to the decisions that the government made here to keep the wheels moving.

At Major Food Group, we put all this effort into creating this company that, for a long time, was a collection of unique restaurants, each one being very different from the next. We spent the first 10 years building each one. Now that we have these teams and identities established, we’re doing our best to really let each of them grow. And when we think we need to, or want to and are excited about it, we’ll do something new. We just opened HaSalon in Miami, which is exciting.

Sadelle’s is expanding with three locations in South Florida. The first one’s going to be in Coconut Grove. I’m hopeful that we’ll get that open before the calendar year’s up. It’s going to have sort of a grab-and-go cafe, a good-size dining room, and a really nice outdoor area. I love the neighborhood. I think it’s going to welcome Sadelle’s with open arms, and the restaurant should bang, hopefully.

Then there’s Sadelle’s in Boca Raton, which is part of our ongoing project and partnership with The Boca Raton. It’s one of four restaurants. The first one, the Flamingo Grill, is open, and Sadelle’s will open next. And then the third Sadelle’s will be on the beach here in Miami on Alton. In calendar order, that’ll be the last one to open, but it should open next year as well.

Then the next project is going to be a Dirty French steakhouse or grill in Brickell. It’s a Dirty French-branded product, but we took the original one, and I just wanted to turn the dial a little bit on it and elevate everything about it. I wanted to elevate the decor, the food, the service, and even the vibe and the party. We’re taking the whole thing from New York and turning it up on every level. So not only are you going to get a tuxedoed captain asking you if you want to preorder soufflé when you sit down, but there’s a super lively celebratory party atmosphere going on at the same time.

I was trying to channel Pierre Cardin when he owned Maxim’s in Paris. The space is almost subterranean. Ken Fulk designed it. It’s totally over-the-top. We’re finding that rhythm between tableside flambé and a DJ spinning 80s Parisian pop music.

We’re also growing beyond South Florida. Things have really picked back up in New York. And our next big horizon is going to be Dallas. Sadelle’s in Dallas, in Highland Park Village, should open early next year. Three restaurants will open just about simultaneously there—Sadelle’s, Carbone, and Vino, a first-of-its-kind sort of Carbone sister restaurant that’s next door to Carbone.

As you would imagine with the name, it will focus very much on a heavy wine list and a bit more casual food, but casual in the Carbone sense. It’s still sort of bow-tie service, but we’ll be doing pizza for the first time, based off a recipe for the grandma bread that we’ve served for 10 years now in our bread basket. We turned that into a full-scale Sicilian pizza. It’s basically what I love to do on my day off—drink good red wine and eat pizza and have gelato. That will be Vino. I’ve spent a lot of time developing that along with Rich Torrisi.

And then Torrisi Italian Specialties will reopen in New York. It’s in the old Chefs Club space on Mulberry Street, down the block from our original location. It’s five, ten times the size of the original, and Rich is there every day working on it. We’re all excited about really having some room and getting to relaunch and rethink our very first baby and put it together in a way that we never could have done 10 years ago. It probably won’t open until the spring. We’re in no rush, and with that restaurant, that brand, reopening as close to perfect as possible is really important. I think Rich is babying every detail of it, as you could imagine, knowing Rich. And so it should be a really beautiful incarnation of the original.

In terms of expansion, I think that we were acutely situated for the moment. During COVID, there was opportunity, but there was a lack of confidence in the market. Smaller companies had taken a big hit. A lot of bigger, older companies kind of ceased to exist and decided maybe this is retirement for us. And the little guys are still struggling to get back on their feet. Our team did an unbelievable job of holding steady through the really tough times, keeping Carbone open in New York, doing delivery, doing a pop-up in the Hamptons, doing whatever we had to do, because we knew there would be opportunity if we were still standing on the backside of this.

We were staring at the eye of the storm just like everybody else. We had that moment where we went from 1,200 employees to 40 overnight. We started doing delivery in March out of Carbone and putting rigatoni into to-go containers, something I never thought I would ever see. We watched the team we had left roll up their sleeves and dig in for what was a much longer period of time than anyone anticipated.

That whole experience was humbling. All of a sudden, there was a sense that this thing that you built could be taken away in a minute. It’s a feeling that I’ll never forget. I won’t ever take what we have for granted. This incredible ride we’re on right now is all the sweeter because we were in that position. I’m so proud of the team and how they pulled through it.

We’re old enough now to be an established company where people come to us because we have the track record of being able to put out a successful product and draw crowds. But we’re still young enough to where you can trust us with a 20-year deal and know that we’re still going to be around and relevant 20 years from now. As a company, we couldn’t possibly be any more bullish about the future.

Photo: Cleveland Jennings.