John Kunkel owns and operates some of Miami’s most popular restaurants: the James Beard nominated and award-winning Yardbird Southern Table & Bar (now opening a second location in Las Vegas), Khong River House, Swine Southern Table & Bar and Patpong Road, and is also known for creating and developing the fast casual Mexican chain, Lime Fresh Mexican Grill, which he sold to Ruby Tuesday in 2012 for a cool $24M. His company, 50 Eggs, was named one of The Coolest Multi-concept Companies in the Land by Restaurant Hospitality Magazine.
JP: Are you a Miami native?
JK: No, I’m not. I’ve been here almost seventeen years. My wife and I came down here from Georgia one cold, wet, rainy winter to visit family and decided we didn’t want to go back to the cold, wet, rainy winter. I have been a water nut since I was a kid. My father was a Navy SEAL and there is nothing like the super blue water of Miami Beach. A lot of people don’t know Miami Beach is such a great residential area. I look out my back door every morning and see dolphins, manatees and stingrays. I could never trade that for anything. I travel a lot these days for my job, but I can’t wait to get home. There is just no place else like it anywhere in the world, which is why, I guess, everyone is coming here.
JP: You’ve received some huge accolades, among them, South Florida Entrepreneur of the Year…what’s your special sauce?
JK: Gosh, you know, I don’t have one. I surround myself with people smarter than myself, always the key to business. But for me, even starting from the very first business, there was an unwavering commitment to do it right.
For instance, I think service has been one of our downfalls in Miami Beach. It is one of the things I focus on most. To this day, it drives me nuts when a hostess won’t say hello. I explained to a group of our new trainees the other day, “Have you ever been in love?” And everybody raised their hands, and I said, “Have you ever wanted to do something for someone, just to make them feel good? Just to leave them smiling?” That’s what service is. What can I do during the dining experience that just makes people feel good? And if you don’t enjoy that, you are in the wrong business. It’s not about making money. You are truly in the service of others and if you don’t get that, then it doesn’t work.
JP: What do you see in the future for 50 Eggs and for the Miami restaurant scene?
JK: This year there are more restaurants opening than the last four years combined. It raises the bar for Miami. There is even talk of Michelin coming to Miami. To have them come put the stars out, that would be a great motivator. Selling Lime was a strategic move on my part because now we are in such an incredibly lucky place where I can conceive of a restaurant and open it myself. It is the creative freedom I have dreamt of having all my life.
We recently bought and renovated a MiMo hotel on Biscayne Boulevard with this grand vision of wanting to have a great office space and “test kitchen.” We decided we wanted to do something community based, so it’s aimed toward the hospitality industry to channel and bring us all together. We want to bring in cheese makers and wine makers, but open it to the community. It’s a good recruiting tool. I am super excited about having local farmers come talk about what they do all day and really understanding the story of specialty food artisans. The restaurant business needs to know and understand where our food comes from. To me, it’s kind of the fabric of America.