By Lyn Farmer
Photography by Ryan Stone
Elliot Wolf and Tim Petrillo are friends, allies and competitors who met two decades ago while working at the Houston’s restaurant chain before setting off to create independently owned restaurant groups, and thereby redefining Fort Lauderdale dining.
In 1995, Petrillo established Himmarshee Bar & Grille with his chef friend Peter Boulukis. With their restaurants Himmarshee and the River House, they revitalized the historic area near the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. With a third partner, developer Alan Hooper, they formed The Restaurant People and went on to create the wildly popular Tarpon Bend near where Himmarshee (which closed in 2011) was located. They are also responsible for popular hangouts and restaurants YOLO, Vibe and Fork & Balls on Las Olas Boulevard, and seafood spot S3 on the beach. Their most recent project gave a face-lift to another property with historic connotations, Bimini Boatyard, now called Boatyard.
Like Petrillo, Wolf graduated from the hospitality school at FIU, but stayed longer at Houston’s, putting in more than 15 years in two stints. He also worked at the original Monty Trainor’s in Coconut Grove, an experience that resonates with him to this day. “Monty was a pioneer who took a nothing place and built it into something,” he says, adding that he also learned a lot about being part of a team. “Monty’s was a family. I’ve worked for a lot of family businesses and appreciate having a close-knit group.” It’s a philosophy he’s put into place with his Be Nice restaurant group, which was formed shortly after he and a partner bought Fort Lauderdale dining icon Coconuts seven years ago. The group now includes the Foxy Brown, Red Cow, G&B Oyster Bar and the recently opened Top Hat Delicatessen in downtown’s FATVillage Arts District.
Petrillo and Wolf, who have both worked in restaurants since their early teens, meet often to banter about the hospitality industry. Over mugs of coffee at a local bagel cafe, we talked about dining in Fort Lauderdale, the city’s peculiar magic, the influence of social media and what the future might hold for South Florida foodies.
What is it about Fort Lauderdale that inspires you?
Tim Petrillo: Fort Lauderdale is much more complex than most people realize, and it’s changing all the time; keeping pace with that change is the key. We are seeing Miami come north and Boca come south, and we are seeing empty nesters wanting to live here—they aren’t that old, they have money and they want to be in the center of things. I see a trend of people out west coming back to the city. There are a lot of different groups coming together here.
Elliot Wolf: In our business, you have to appeal to everybody and you have to reach everybody. You can’t be successful in this business by targeting a single group. The market is evolving and all of us in the hospitality industry need to grasp that.
TP: We are fortunate to work in a great city with some distinctive attributes. We have a solid downtown area that’s easily accessible. It is so easy to get around here, and I think ultimately that will be the thing that drives our growth.
Port Everglades is one of the biggest cruise ports in the United States. How does that play a part in shaping our restaurant scene?
EW: Some take the tourist segment for granted, but those ships are the backbone of this community, and those people do come to the downtown area because Port Everglades is so close. Downtown is just so accessible.
TP: Most cruise passengers don’t have rental cars, but the city makes it so easy for people to get around:?trollies, water taxis and Uber are all big advantages for us because the distances are short. In addition to accessibility, we have desirability: Fort Lauderdale is on sale in the sense you’ll be paying twice the room rate on Miami Beach. Restaurants here are 30 to 40 percent less expensive and the lease rates for retail space are markedly lower on our beach than Miami Beach. We simply have a lot to offer, and we can offer it at a great price.
You each have seen economic cycles come and go. Elliot, you bought Coconuts in 2008 just before an economic downturn, and Tim, you opened YOLO about the same time, and both places are success stories.
TP: (laughs) People thought we were crazy when we opened YOLO, but remember how long it takes to open a restaurant:?We started planning two years before it opened, when the economic picture was different. Yes, by the time we opened, it was a rough time for the economy, but there was an upside for us—nobody else opened during that period, so for a long time we were the only new spot in town, and that actually worked to our advantage.
EW: You develop a sense for the market. You can tell how the economy is doing by something as simple as seeing what wine people drink. And beer is a very hot thing now. Every time you put in a new keg, you see people light up. The market is getting more and more educated, partly because of the Internet. People have a better sense of pricing and value. They know what they want and what they’ll pay for it.
If the infrastructure is evolving, is the consumer evolving as well?
EW: Absolutely, and the evolution is fast-paced. The market is getting more and more educated. When people come to Fort Lauderdale, one of the first things they do is check TripAdvisor or Eater or another Internet site to see where they should go. I do the same thing when I travel—I check social media all the time. Social media is driving restaurants to be better.
TP: The entire dynamic has changed dramatically. Ten or 15 years ago, you’d open a restaurant, and one reviewer would come from the Sun-Sentinel or the Herald and tell 500,000 people how well you were doing. Now, you have 5,000 people coming in and posting their opinions on Yelp and other social media networks, telling a few hundred people whether you are good or not. Everybody is a self-appointed food critic. Social media has changed the way we handle the guest experience. Everything now is instantaneous—if someone doesn’t like their dish and they post their opinion, we probably see it before their plates are cleared. It’s a challenge to react that quickly.
EW: Television has had an impact, too. Everyone thinks they know how to run a restaurant, everyone’s a chef and everyone has an opinion about everything. I have to be there to hear it and digest it. We have to stay cognizant that social media drives our business, for better or worse.
Where is the business being driven, then? What’s next for The Restaurant People and the Be Nice group?
TP: I’m extremely bullish on Fort Lauderdale; It’s a great place, and there is much more to do. I’m always thinking about two or three concepts, always looking for the next trend. We are the opposite of a chain. Why should I do one restaurant in six cities when I can build six restaurants in one city? That is exciting to me.
EW: I have some ideas, too, and am just taking time to decide. It’s hard to discern trends, but Fort Lauderdale is definitely the place to be. Like Tim, I’m raising two young kids here. This is where I want to be—and it’s going to be fun.
Originally appeared in the Winter 2015 issue.