It’s been 10 years since Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill made its grand debut in Midtown Miami. The then new neighborhood wasn’t the restaurant and lifestyle hub it is now, but that didn’t stop Sugarcane from being a runaway hit from the start — being embraced by diners and critics alike.
The eatery is partnerships between Samba Brands Management and chef Timon Balloo, and has become so beloved over the years that it has expanded to two more locations in Las Vegas and Brooklyn, and inspired the mega-popular Duck & Waffle restaurant in London based on one of the restaurant’s most famous dishes.
Below, Balloo reflects on the restaurant’s last decade in business, how the restaurant scene has changed, and what is next for the popular eatery.
So can you believe it’s been 10 years for Sugarcane?
No, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years at Sugarcane. It’s pretty magical to know that when I sought out to open the project, I wanted it to be a Miami institution that would be synonymous with visitors and locals alike. I wanted an institution, to be established like Pastis and Balthazar. Here locally, I think it’s on the line.
What do you reflect on most looking back on how much Sugarcane has accomplished in the past decade?
Wow. I mean really just ... again, just when we opened there was the turn of the economic times. There was a strong push into the start of chef-driven, nose-to-tail food trends where chefs could push the boundaries. We were walking away from white tablecloth, and it’s really just the consumers supporting.
Then you saw these neighborhood restaurants emerge and become like super restaurants like the Pubbelly’s of the world, and so forth. That was amazing to see how we changed the landscape of restaurants.
How have you seen the Miami restaurant scene change in the past 10 years?
I think it went through that shift of extremely gastro-pub-y-ish, chef-driven and that’s what we hit cylinders on. But I think now it’s definitely like the entertainment restaurants. You have to have activation, whether it’s cabaret, live music, dinner in a theater. I think for the size of Sugarcane, the large format, you have to encompass a level of entertainment. It makes the consumer feel like they get more value in their dining experience, and they go out and their whole night could be encompassed in one venue.
Before it was more a lot of ego and, “No, can’t have anything disturbing the food.” And now it’s like, yeah dude, I want to hear some loud music towards the end of the night and get the party going. I’m not opposed to that. Now we have live music Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday brunch. That’s something that started after year five and really grew.
How has Sugarcane evolved over the past decade?
We’re constantly listening to what the consumers want, what they’re demanding. I feel like we have a little bit more Latino based dishes on the menu to meet our consumers. We feel like we have so much love in the Latino community. You’ll see more ingredients like that making its way to the menu, whether it’s like little mini arepas, and usually always on holidays we’ll have lechon and so forth, these type of synonymous Latin-style dishes.
What do you think are the things that you guys have done to help the restaurant survive and really flourish over the past 10 years?
The main mission statement has always been intact, and that’s just hospitality, service, and good quality. So whether that’s on the food and beverage, the graciousness, the warm welcome-ness of our staff, it’s always like the fundamentals I tried to build on making people feel like it’s an extension of home, and they’re welcome when they get there.
So acclimating to the guests’ needs, that’s really what allowed us to flourish. Always listening to the guests, being responsive to their requests and so forth, and that’s really helped us be that neighborhood destination.
And what are you most proud of about Sugarcane?
Really, 10 years! Ten years as a milestone in any restaurant is huge, and definitely in the Miami culinary scene. It means everything! Some restaurants are here a year and they’re gone. So to make it to 10, it means everything. That’s definitely what we’re proud of.
You’ve since expanded to locations in Las Vegas and Brooklyn, what challenges did you face going into those markets?
Really one of the biggest challenges is just how to spread and teach the culture of what Sugarcane embodies in these new markets. We really realized while we tried to open and activate in these markets how Miami the brand was. And going into these markets, the first thing people understand, they see it as a concept restaurant, like a Latin style concept restaurant, which we never thought we were.
We just thought we were a local restaurant, and then as you move that local culture out, people only see the culture and try to find the next thing to identify with. So they saw us as a Cuban restaurant, and so forth. That’s really where it was ... we had the modify some of the menu items. We had to acclimate, and the core of the restaurant stayed intact. But Vegas Sugarcane is a little bit more Vegas, and Brooklyn is a little bit more Brooklyn. Those were all the things that were challenges in going in these new markets.
Do you think SUGARCANE Miami would survive opening in today’s climate?
I think some minor updates to current trends Sugarcane’s model would work and would thrive.
So what are you guys hoping to accomplish moving forward in the next 10 years?
I’m really just want to continue the strength of the brand being a Miami institution, continue to grow with the community, continue to just be a Miami restaurant that the Miami people love. That’s my main goal, and then I think everybody else will love it when they get here.