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John Kunkel on The First Week at Swine

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Photo Courtesy of Cortney Cates

Last week, the seriously buzzed about and much anticipated Swine Southern Table & Bar opened in Coral Gables. Eater sat with John Kunkel, founder of the 50 Eggs team and force behind Yardbird, Khong and now Swine's cult-like following, and spoke about the teams experience during the first week at restaurant. They managed to somehow roll out all meal periods at once and already have the wheels turning for their next project, Test Kitchen, but that's not all. Here's what John had to say.

Overall, how has week one been?

Crazy, crazy busy. I don't think we've ever opened a restaurant with such anticipation and then such an immediate response. We normally kind of work up to the volume of customers that we're seeing and we saw them the day that we opened. I've joked and told people before we no longer have the option of a soft-opening, which is a blessing and a curse. We really threw ourselves a curveball and we ended up rolling all three meal periods out the first week. So, it was kind of like a giant grenade in the kitchen. It was like here we go. We have a 24-hour kitchen, it never stops, the smoker never stops. Rolling dinner on Monday, rolling lunch on Wednesday and rolling brunch that Saturday all in one shot was a new and special challenge for the whole team that we had not experienced in the past. So it was one of those things that ? everybody on our team was so amazing and they all thought I was a little crazy, but we made it through the week and I think we did a great job.

Yardbird and Khong have received such amazing reviews, what's the feedback so far on Swine?

I knew coming off of this amazing, I think the best review, the Herald had ever given and then the James Beard nod for Khong that the expectations were absolutely through the roof on this place. Especially for service. I won't lie, it made us all a little bit nervous just because we knew we weren't going to have a soft opening, we knew that people would be walking in the door with massive expectations and we certainly wanted to meet those and I hope that we did. We certainly put a lot of time and a lot of training in. You know, there's always bumps in the road with new restaurants. We had the fire alarm go off the first day, the power went out at dinner, we had the breakers blow in the kitchen and lose power to the printers. Which is all a normal restaurant opening and it's amazing when you get used to those things and start talking about them as a normal part of your business, but it really is. What can go wrong will go wrong and what's great about our team is that we all kind of know its going to happen and we just go get an extension cord, run it to another plug, we reset the fire alarms, shoo the fireman away. All those crazy things have happen but I think what ultimately makes for a successful restaurant opening ? and everyone goes through bumps in the road ? but kind of just keep working through the problems and making sure the guest doesn't see any of that going on behind the scenes. Certainly there were some chaotic moments behind the scenes and hopefully we looked calm, cool and collected, which was the goal. We had our set of challenges like everybody does. All part of the fun.

What's been the best part?

The best part is that this restaurant took us a long time with the navigating of the permits and construction, we had to put in more work in the infrastructure of structure and utilities than we've ever done out of any restaurant I've ever opened. So, while it was one of the smaller restaurants compared to Yardbird and Khong, it was the biggest construction project. To be able to see the doors open, customers coming in the door and receiving it well is really an amazing feeling. To have the doors open and see the place packed on a Monday lunch is a wonderful feeling, truly.

What's been the worst part?

The worst part has been those same challenges. Construction and finding space to accommodate the volumes we're doing. And those are really good problems to have, but we look at problems along the way as part of the normal course of business. We keep modifying and making changes based on the challenges we face that day.

What's been the biggest surprise?

Honestly, the anticipation for the restaurant to open in the Gables. The experience, I mean there was an overwhelming demand to open up. The first day we opened for dinner we had a group of businessmen that came by and said "are you open for lunch?" and I said, "I'm sorry sir, its out very first day open, we're open for dinner" and they were like, "Cmon' guys! get it together". There was such a want, a desire, to have this place open from our customers that we've felt that pressure. So, it was a huge surprise that everybody wants us here so much.

If you could travel back in time one week and give yourself advice for the opening, what would it be?

Don't roll out all meal periods in one week! That was a really challenging thing that we've never done before. It made it twice as hard, but I'm glad we did it. Our kind of teasing saying that we've been saying is, "go ahead and tear the Band-Aid off, don't pull slowly just rip it quick!".

What are the most popular dishes so far?

Probably the ones that we were most nervous about, which are the ones coming out of the smoker. I've told everybody that barbecue is really not part of the culinary world, barbecue is a religion and if you're going to do barbecue, you better go to church. So, we have put months and months into rubs and sauces and smokers to try to protect that process because it comes from the South. You'll get beat up pretty quickly if you're not doing that right and rightly so. Those have become our go-to items on the menu and I'm really, really proud of our brisket, our ribs, our pulled-pork. I think they stand up to anything in the South. Our smoker is going 24-hours a day, it really is something we're proud of because it really is a little bit of art and science when it comes to barbecue. Unlike a lot of culinary recipes where we can get it down to grams and time, it still takes a touch. It still takes opening up that smoker and really having a sense of where the meat is and where the moisture is and all those things. You can have all the gadgets in the world, but there's still a lot of art and we really have, I think, done a good job with that.

What lies ahead?

Gosh, I was told once that if somebody climbed Mount Everest with me they would turn around and give me a high-five and I would already be walking to the next peak. So, I think the moment I got the doors open we started to focus on our Test Kitchen in the new office, which for us is the first thing we've truly done to move the needle with the culinary scene in Miami, to give back to our chefs and restaurateurs and help them keep their businesses open, to do charity work with Common Threads, raise money for students for James Beard. Those things are really about a lifetime worth of work and being able to finally give back and it is specific to the industry that I'm in so it is a really great feeling to be tackling this project. It's exciting to be rolling that out and we've started talking about maybe doing a Yardbird in New York, we've gone to Louisville, we've gone to Nashville, we looked at Charleston. We're touring other cities to really understand kind of place where Yardbird would fit into the expansion. So, no shortage of projects, at all, ever!

Swine Southern Table & Bar

2415 Ponce de Leon Blvd Coral Gables