The Bullish Future Of Mario Carbone’s Restaurant Boom

The co-founder and partner of the Managing Food Group in blowing up new restaurants in Miami and beyond.

Zagat Stories presents Restaurants 21/22, a collection of interviews with leading voices from the hospitality, hospitality, food, technology, politics and more. Every story takes the turning of the calendar as a turning point to ponder what happened in the world of restaurants and food in 2021, or is likely to happen in 2022. See all the stories here. Also take a look at last year’s collection.

Chef Mario Carbone is the co-founder and managing partner of Major Food Group, the hospitality company behind more than 20 restaurants that include multiple Carbone and Sadelle locations. The New York-born Major Food Group recently began a massive expansion in South Florida, with numerous restaurants in Miami and beyond.

I don’t think the beach could sustain the boom in Miami. It’s just too much. There are too many people, too many companies. It quickly spills over into neighboring areas. What happened in New York to Brooklyn and Queens happened here practically overnight with Coconut Grove and Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach and Surfside. Take a compass, put it down in Miami Beach, and then draw a fairly large circumference around it. If we just focused on South Florida and did nothing else, we could easily grow for the next five, ten years. There is so much going on.

Taxes and the weather used to be the two reasons to be here, and they’re still incredibly important. But now there’s also a growth in the arts, a booming tech industry, and of course, food and beverages. All of these people who come here are going to ask for a higher quality from everything. So it is our job to bring out a higher quality.

I wasn’t even prepared for what happened when we opened Carbone in Miami. I was convinced that we got an incredible location. If you’d told me five years ago that we were basically in the back yard of Joe’s Stone Crab on Collins, I would have said, “This is as good as it gets.”

I believed in the Carbone brand. We were able to bring down so many on the New York team. We had so many familiar faces – not just with the staff, but also with the guests. The guests from New York came down and felt at home. They saw the familiar faces. You saw me and my partner Jeff Zalaznick here. Here they saw service manager Enrico “Ricky” Tinelli and captain Jared LoPriore. And we brought out a really solid product.

Still, I couldn’t imagine the reception we got. Flatter is a far too small word. I am overwhelmed with the welcome we have received and continue to receive every evening. The energy in this room is different from anything I’ve felt before.

We are also experiencing a boom in the Design District, where we opened ZZ’s. Across from ZZ’s is a huge Chanel flagship store that is about to be completed. I’ve been coming to the area for years to hang out and shop. You will now see a densely populated street. You will see lines waiting to get into the shops. You see restaurants that are really full.

The very fact that the doors were allowed to stay open to business is the greatest coup Miami will ever see. This decision alone made for an absolute stroke of luck on all possible levels. The economic wheels never stopped turning. And this one big decision was reflected in this mega expansion and only accelerated development here. The increasing demand for products, for people, for jobs – it’s going through the roof. I mean, there is no way you can possibly give more credit to the decisions the government has made here to keep the wheels running.

At Major Food Group, we put all of these efforts into creating this business that has long been a collection of unique restaurants, each one very different. We spent the first 10 years building each one. After we’ve established these teams and identities, we’ll do our best to really make each of them grow. And when we think we need or want it and look forward to it, we do something new. We just opened HaSalon in Miami which is exciting.

Sadelle’s is expanding to three locations in South Florida. The first will be in Coconut Grove. I hope we open that before the calendar year is up. There will be some kind of take away cafe, a large dining room and a really nice outside area. I love the neighborhood. I think Sadelle’s will be welcomed with open arms, and hopefully the restaurant should pop.

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

Then the next project is a Dirty French Steakhouse or Grill in Brickell. It’s a Dirty French branded product, but we took the original and I just wanted to twist the dial a little and highlight everything about it. I wanted to upgrade the decor, the food, the service, and even the vibe and the party. We take the whole thing from New York and turn it up on all levels. So not only will you get a tuxedo captain asking you to pre-order soufflé when you sit down, but there is also a super lively celebratory atmosphere at the same time.

I tried to channel Pierre Cardin when he owned Maxim’s in Paris. The room is almost underground. Ken Fulk designed it. It’s totally over the top. We find this rhythm between flambé at the table and a DJ playing Parisian pop music from the 80s.

We are also growing beyond South Florida. In New York things really picked up speed again. And our next big horizon will be Dallas. Sadelle’s in Dallas in the Highland Park Village is slated to open early next year. Three restaurants will open there almost simultaneously – Sadelle’s, Carbone and Vino, a first of its kind Carbone sister restaurant, which is adjacent to Carbone.

As you can imagine by the name, it will be very focused on an extensive wine list and a bit more casual dining, but casual in the Carbone spirit. It’s still a kind of flyer service, but it’s the first time we’re making pizza based on a recipe for the granny bread we’ve been serving in our bread basket for 10 years. We made a full-fledged Sicilian pizza out of it. That’s basically what I like to do on my day off – drink good red wine, eat pizza, and eat ice cream. That will be vino. I spent a lot of time developing this with Rich Torrisi.

And then Torrisi Italian Specialties will reopen in New York. It’s in the old Chefs Club on Mulberry Street, one block from our original location. It’s five or ten times the size of the original, and Rich is there every day to work on it. We’re all excited to really have some space and start over and rethink our very first baby and putting it together in ways we couldn’t have done 10 years ago. It probably won’t open until spring. We’re in no hurry, and with this restaurant, this brand, the perfect reopening is really important. I think Rich takes care of every detail as you can imagine once you know Rich. And so it should be a really beautiful incarnation of the original.

In terms of expansion, I think we were in an acute position at the moment. There were opportunities during COVID, but there was a lack of trust in the market. Smaller businesses had suffered a major blow. Many larger, older companies have ceased to exist and decided that this may be our retirement. And the little ones are still struggling to get back on their feet. Our team did an incredible job getting through the really tough times, keeping Carbone New York open, making deliveries, making a pop-up in the Hamptons, doing everything we had to do because we knew we were there would be a chance if we were still standing on the back of it.

We stared like everyone else at the eye of the storm. We had this moment when we grew from 1,200 employees to 40 overnight. We started shipping Carbone out in March, packing Rigatoni in to-go containers, something I never thought I would ever see. We watched as the team that was left rolled up their sleeves and stood up for a much longer period of time than anyone expected.

The whole experience was humbling. All of a sudden I felt like this thing you built could be taken away in a minute. It’s a feeling I will never forget. I will never take what we have for granted. This incredible ride we’re doing is all the more beautiful because we were in that position. I’m so proud of the team and how they did it.

We’re old enough now to be an established company where people come to us because we’re able to bring out a successful product and attract people. But we are still young enough to entrust ourselves with a 20-year contract and we know that we will still be relevant in 20 years. As a company, we couldn’t be more optimistic about the future.

Photo: Cleveland Jennings.