Charles Khabouth recalls his first trip to Miami, some 20 years ago, with a wistful, almost mystical approach. Flying down from Toronto, the sprawling Canada city he first stepped foot in when he was 15, the Lebanon-born businessman glanced across the Atlantic Ocean, past the sandy beach and sun-soaked patrons, and knew it was time to start planning. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I want to open something here,’” he says.
In those two decades, Khabouth, the chief executive of INK Entertainment, has made the Magic City his second home. But not until he brought the Eastern Mediterranean concept Byblos from the snow to the Florida shores did he really feel like he had made it. “The little Canadian guy was able to get a spot in Miami,” Khabouth quips.“It’s very tough as a Canadian to be able to build anything in America, especially in a city like Miami or Miami Beach. … We want to bring something different, be a great addition, be a part of what’s happening in Miami, and hopefully succeed and do more. And, for me, to physically move completely. I love the beach so much in Miami.”
These days, Miami has a lot more to offer than blue skies and pleasant winters. The Magic City is at the forefront of the Sunshine State’s restaurant boom, driving numbers that, according to the National Restaurant Association, will place Florida as the No. 2 market for growth in the country this year, with projected sales of $34.6 billion.
Finding any patch of restaurant real estate is becoming an enticing, perhaps intimidating, task for aspiring entrepreneurs. However, the international feel and diverse landscape makes it an ideal landing spot as well, says Itay Sacish, the owner and founder of The 9beach Fusion Kitchen & Lounge Bar, which opened a South Beach location in mid-July.
Sacish operates seven units of his light-Mediterranean brand in Israel, and says he was drawn to Miami because of the melting pot clientele, which he thinks will respond better to an international brand than other U.S markets would.
“Miami’s similarity to Israel is the beach culture and the people,” says Sacish, who also operates a different concept, Gilgamesh Restaurant Bar and Lounge, in Camden, London. “Tel Aviv and Miami are both vibrant cities filled with young people and a mix of both locals and a large number of tourists visiting the city. Culturally they are very different, however.”
Trying to carry a brand’s standard overseas can be a challenging—and costly—investment, Khabouth adds, starting with the staff. To help smooth over the transition, Khabouth relocated some of his Toronto employees, including a manager. “Listen, if you’ve ever lived in Toronto and seen the weather we have, the minute we said we’re going to Miami we had 100 staff with their hands in the air going ‘Me, me, me.’ So, unfortunately, this is where the cost came in because we rented the apartments for people; we had to pay for the visas. … We wanted to make sure we had the right staff in the kitchen and the right management and team on the floor.”
Khabouth, whose INK Entertainment operates 21 venues in Canada, including seven restaurants—Byblos [the original is in Toronto], Patria, Storys, La Societe, Spice Route, Weslodge, and America, had staff training since February, hoping to jumpstart operations at the 200-seat space adjacent to The Royal Palm South Beach Miami. Stuart Cameron, the executive chef at Icon Legacy, spent months on-site working on the menu with Chef Nelson Fernandez. Icon Legacy and its CEO Hanif Harji are joint partners in the venture.
To date, although it’s still early, Khabouth says the response to the restaurant, which opened July 22, has been great on review sites like Yelp. One indicator is the menu, where Byblos has kept 53 of the 54 dishes it originally rolled out. Some of the standouts include: Sweet Jeweled Rice with carrot, saffron, barberries, and almonds; 18-Ounce Bone-In Prime Ribeye, 40-day dry-aged, with Za’atar butter and creamed moutabel, and the spirit-infused cold tea service, which arrives on a silver platter.
9beach Fusion Kitchen & Lounge Bar, like Byblos, also turned to staff for continuity. Executive Chef Tal Aboav hails from the original 9beach in Tel Aviv, and Sacish says that has helped his brand retain its signature qualities.
He also notes that opening Gilgamesh Restaurant Bar and Lounge in London gave him a blueprint for international growth, although Sacish knew there would be differences in Miami.
“We learned that the market is vastly different; a concept that works in Israel doesn’t necessarily translate in London or in Miami. You have to tailor your food, décor and overall concept to work within the scene. The one similarity is that people are looking for amazing cuisine and the best service, and that is what we pride ourselves on providing,” he adds.
The décor is also a mash of some of the group’s past experiences. A team in India handcrafted the intricate white and gold wooden carvings, and rock lyrics line the walls to pay homage to the London story. “In Israel, the woodwork and carvings are in brown and dark browns, but in Miami it is done in all white and gold to give it a light, airy and ‘beachy’ feel because it is not located directly on the sand and beach. We are bringing the beach indoors,” he says.
Some menu highlights include: Salmon Tartare, an avocado stuffed with salmon mixed with herbs, vegetables served with Asian beet cream, pickled vegetables, and lemon cream; 9beach Skirt Steak, grilled skirt steak seasoned with a house spice blend served with sautéed green beans and mushrooms with a cherry vinaigrette, and pistachios; and Branzino, baked whole branzino stuffed with vegetables, shrimp and mussels served with sautéed kale.
“First off, we could not be more thrilled to be in Miami during the city-wide culinary boom,” Sacish says. “People are taking Miami seriously as a hotspot that isn’t just for snowbirds and spring breakers anymore.”