Having known chef Makoto Okuwa for years now and spending quite some time working with Stephen Starr restaurants, Emily Aguilar really knows the gatekeeper ropes, especially when it comes to Makoto at Bal Harbour, where she's been the general manager since its opening. Aguilar's recipe for keeping guests happy people while they wait, and in general, is simple: be consistent, be fair and don't play favorites. As for what guests can do: take advantage of the many surrounding shops while waiting, and make reservations to reduce or eliminate wait time.
How long have you been with Makoto?
I moved down here in November of 2010 in anticipation of opening. I had worked for Stephen in Philly for about five-and-a-half years prior to that, I started in February 2005. When I started at Morimoto in Philadelphia, Makoto was the head sushi chef. We've known each other for a long time.
What would you say is the busiest day and time at Makoto?
It really depends on the time of year. Season obviously is a little bit busier than right now. This is probably the slowest we've seen since last summer. So, Saturday nights can be very busy. During season, it doesn't really matter which day of the week it is – it seems to be busy all day long. The shops are a big destination and so we get people all day long when there are a lot of people in town. But typically, if you were to say dinnertime, the wait may start at 7:30, the biggest wait's going to be around 9 or so when the shops close, everyone comes from shopping and they want to eat.
So if it's 9 p.m. on a Saturday, how long is the wait for a table?
Depending on the time of year, it can be up to two hours. It also depends on the table's size. If it's a large group it could be even more. It just depends on where we are with reservations and how many people are already waiting.
What's the longest wait you've seen?
I think the longest quote I've ever given — and it was for a larger party over six people — was about two-and-a-half hours.
How does one pass the time while they're waiting?
What we decided from day one was to take numbers and be able to call or text somebody and not have someone wait in line, which I don't think is very fair, or fun. Our bar outside is a great option if it's not too crowded, if it's too crowded it gets a little bit tough. There are areas to wait inside and we can bring drinks to people there, if they'd like. Also, if it's before 9 and the shops are still open, people can walk around and shop and there's a lot they can do.
Do people ever negotiate for a table?
Every day. They try. People try, that's for sure. One thing that I really strived to do since I got here is to be fair. If you take the time to make a reservation, I feel you should be seated on time, I don't feel waiting more than 15 minutes for a reservation anywhere is okay. Of course, it happens. We may run long if a table sits longer and there are always circumstances that happen, and I can't guarantee it every single time, but we deliver pretty much 95% of the time on seating you on time if you make a reservation. However, we only reserve the inside, so that's not a lot of seats, it's about 95 seats or so. Our outdoors areas are where most walk-ins will sit, unless of course a reservation sits outside and a table frees up inside, then we will make the switch there. We do ask for preferences of people on the waitlists, but typically it's the outdoor areas where waitlists go. When making a reservation people can request the outside, but we don't reserve the outside because of the weather.
When someone without a reservation does negotiate, what's usually offered?
Hundreds of dollars. The biggest offer I ever had was $800 for a table. All of the girls and guys that work at the door know that we don't take money, you can't buy a table here, and we don't accept bribes. What goes a long way is being respectful and understand. Yelling or belittling or threatening doesn't get you very far, and I've had all of that here. I always offer someone a card and suggest next time they make a reservation, it will definitely reduce or eliminate the wait.
Do you have favorite customers?
We've been really blessed by the local community. We have so many regular guests, it's pretty amazing. We have monthly guests, weekly guests, daily guests. Sometimes people eat here twice a day. We have a lot of what people call snowbirds — I like to call them 50/50s since they're here half the year — that are here every other day when they're in town. I can't say I have any favorites because I have so many people that I've made relationships with and it's really great.
What's your go-to dish on the menu?
I love our Kani salad. It's fairly new to the menu, but they've been making it for me for quite some time. It's King crab and avocado and cucumber and it's just nice and light and refreshing and perfect for our Miami weather. I do mix it up and order different things, it's also part of my job to taste things every day, as much as I can.
Where do you go when you're not eating at Makoto?
I love Mandolin. We go there frequently. I love Ahmet and Anastasia, the owners, they've become friends from them coming here and us going there. My husband's the chef at Wynwood Kitchen & Bar, so I try and go there as much as I can but it is very hard to eat where you work and obviously he doesn't want to eat there all the time. We also love Kabobji. We also go to Blue Collar. It's between Blue Collar and Verde for brunch every Sunday, now that Verde is doing brunch. Those are our go-to spots.
Do you have any advice for gatekeepers such as yourself?
I think the biggest key to every success is consistency and being fair and sticking to your standards and making sure that all guests are being treated the same. Whether they're only here once and they may never come back because they're visiting or they're here every single day, you can't play favorites because it's just not fair.
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[Photo Courtesy of Makoto]