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John Kunkel on The First Year at Swine

Photo Courtesy of 50 Eggs

It's officially been one year since John Kunkel and the 50 Eggs Group opened up their pork-savvy restaurant, Swine Southern Table & Bar. The eatery's received nearly nothing but praise since it's very first week in business when it boldly launched three meal periods all at once. One year later, we spoke to Kunkel about what this year's been like, challenges and, of course, the future (spoiler: there are 4-5 new concepts in the works!). Read on.

Overall, how has the past year at Swine been?
It's been amazing. The Gables has really embraced us and it has just been a ton of fun. It is such a great space and I've always loved the building, while it was one of our most challenging construction projects, it's really just been a fantastic year.

What was the most gratifying part of the year?
Honestly, with that restaurant among all of our others was really embraced by the local culinary community and that's what that restaurant was all about. It was in the middle of Downtown Coral Gables and a very residential area, so to have our food bloggers and locals really just kind of rave about our burger and the burnt ends and all their signature dishes that they talk about – that's always great to see. That's what we strive for so that was very gratifying, just to be embraced by the locals.

Most dishes on your menu are raved about, but what were some that weren't as readily embraced?
Well, you know, I think with all of our restaurants and in particular Swine, the menu that we open up with is never the menu that we end up with. For us it's all about continuing to drill down on what works and what doesn't work. So, we're always looking at what's selling, what's not selling, what customers are responding to … Swine's a great example because we have a huge business crown in Downtown Gables … I like to say everybody likes to stick to their health plan Monday through Thursday during lunch, but during the evening and the weekends they tend to be a little bit more adventurous. So, we've adjusted the menu to have much more light options and focus on our wood fire grill and salads during lunch, weekdays. And we still have our delicious indulgent brunch over the weekend. And dinner, we struck a balance, we strangely have more vegetarian and gluten-free options at Swine than at any other restaurant and again that's just a reflection of being in a residential community and everybody having their likes, dislikes, allergies and really seeking that out. It's always a work in progress. I think the one thing that surprised me though was the love and raves about our burger there. I knew it was fantastic, but people talk about it being one of the best burgers in Miami and the best burger they've had in their life and those are never things you can predict, so it was great to hear.

Do you remember opening night? How did that go?
It was dicey as usual [laughs]. We got our certificate of occupancy about 45 minutes before our grand opening party, so as usual we were down to the wire. We had a big celebration with the city of Coral Gables and our regular media and we weren't even quite sure that we were allowed to have people in the building. Never a dull moment. That was one of the more memorable openings as we're sitting there with a fire inspector in the back of the house, we had people coming in the front door and it was one of those nail biting moments for sure.

What were some of the challenges that you faced this past year?
Gosh, you know, the restaurant business never has a shortage of challenges. I think, for us, it was adjusting to the Gables market, understanding that we had a very particular audience that liked what they liked and wanted to have some of the conveniences that maybe you don't have to worry about on the beach. It was adjusting menus to figure out what people are looking for during each meal period. And of course staffing always is a challenge for us. There's so much growth in Miami right now with so few truly exceptional employees out there and we really try to hold a standard of the best of the best. We lose people to the 'grass is greener' thing, where a new hotel opens and they're wooed with more money and things like that. We made an investment in our infrastructure this year based on what we learned in the Gables. We brought on a vice president of people and culture that does nothing but recruit and try to create better work environments, programs, scholarships and really try to highlight why we're a better place to work. It was one of the challenges as we went into the Gables and maybe thought it would be easier than something on the beach and often times it was more challenging. It helped us ascertain what was right for our growth and it helped kind of change the way that we do business as a company.

What's your focus at the restaurant right now?
Just executing day-to-day. We really want to pride ourselves on having great service. We're still always tweaking and dialing in our business so we have a lot of happy hours in the gables and trying to highlight that we have the best one, trying to let people know that we have lighter option for lunch as well as these wonderful burgers and brisket and ribs and all these other indulgent items in there. Every restaurant, you never stop moving, you never stop working to not only maintain a consistency in what you do, but also keep bringing new people into the brand.

During our One Week interview, you said the advice you'd have given yourself is to not launch all meal periods at once. A year later, if you could have told yourself something you now know, what would it be?

I'll stick by that! That was extremely challenging. I'm always learning and I haven't stopped in the 25-27 years I've been in the business, but you know, the Gables was a different market and while we opened a restaurant in nearly every market either fast casual or fine dining over the years, that was our first restaurant in Downtown Coral Gables and it proved to be kind of its own crowd with their own likes and dislikes. Really getting to know and understand the community that we're in, we were helping to bond with that community. That's always something to get used to, so I think being naïve a little bit as you go into new markets is probably a good thing; it makes you work a little harder. Yeah, I still wouldn't have launched all three meal periods at once. It was like throwing a grenade in the kitchen, but Phil our executive chef over there is a super talented guy and he's so low key. He's one of those guys you can't ruffle in any way. He's an easy guy to deal with and he's done such a great job, he loves what he does and we're lucky to have him.

What's in store for the future?
Well, listen, Swine I think is such an exciting venue. We want to do another restaurant in the Gables, we've been looking at space over there. We want to continue to have an interesting program [at Swine]. We have blues on Monday night, live music, guest chef dinners coming in, a lot of large format dinners where we have whole hogs or smoked duck or some really neat, special experiences at the restaurants. We want to keep our locals engaged and always have something new and different. Our big focus right now and something we're really excited about is as of a couple of days ago, we officially have a master building permit for our Test Kitchen and new office and it took us almost nine months of painful permitting! But we finally have it in hand, so we're looking forward to starting that. That's one of the most exciting projects, bringing true fine dining to Miami and being able to have this community resource center for hospitality is really a dream of everybody on my executive team, so we're excited about that.

When do you plan to start construction?
Hopefully, within the next 60 days. We're meeting with our contractor and are ready to get in there and it's already demoed and we're ready to start doing our thing there. We're excited. So much activity is happening on the boulevard right now. The Vagabond getting revamped and new restaurants, Jugfresh, Giorgio [Rapicavoli] from eating house is up the block from us at his new Spanish tapas place … it really has become one of the neatest areas in Miami and we're really excited to be there and hopefully we've added to that excitement and growth.

You mentioned a new spot in Coral Gables, anything else you can tell me about that?
We have a new concept, which is launching at the end of the year down by the University of Miami area in Coral Gables and we are looking for another space in Downtown Coral Gables, so we've got two or three new projects coming toward the end of the year and expanding some of the brands we already have in the works and some other new things coming that we hope to be talking about very soon. But there's almost 4-5 new projects coming in the next 12 months. Lots and lots going on. We've hired some amazing people coming over from four seasons and a lot of business backgrounds that are really excited to come on board and help with the growth. It's an exciting time for 50 Eggs for sure.
· All Coverage of Swine Southern Table & Bar [EMIA]
· All Coverage of John Kunkel [EMIA]

Swine Southern Table & Bar

2415 Ponce de Leon Blvd Coral Gables

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