2016 South Florida Rising Star Restaurateurs José Mendín, Sergio Navarro, and Andreas Schreiner of Pubbelly

2016 South Florida Rising Star Restaurateurs José Mendín, Sergio Navarro, and Andreas Schreiner of Pubbelly
April 2016

The Pubbelly Boys—José Mendín, Sergio Navarro, and Andreas Schreiner—founded their restaurant group in 2010. Six years later, the Pubbelly brand leads the market with its approachable, dynamic, and chef-driven restaurants. Mendín heads the culinary side; Schreiner tackles finance, marketing, and FOH; and Navarro helms pastry, design, and operations.

Schreiner got hooked on hospitality early on, working in his father’s restaurant in Puerto Rico. He graduated from the School of Hospitality Management at Florida’s International University, and received his MBA from Nova Southeastern University. He went on to direct food and beverage operations for Four Seasons before helping open Chicago’s Elysian Hotel as general manager of restaurant operations. He returned to Miami as general manager of operations at Casa Tua before he joined forces with Navarro and Mendín.

Navarro was born in Spain and learned to cook from his Basque mother. He attended the Hotel Escuela Comunidad de Madrid and went on to cook at La Broche, eventually becoming sous chef as well as pastry chef of the two Michelin-starred restaurant. In 2001, Navarro moved to the United States to open La Broche in Miami before joining the team at Norman Van Aken’s Mundo, and later becoming corporate pastry chef for Sushi Samba. It was as chef de cuisine at Mercadito Miami that Navarro met Mendín.

Though born to parents with an appreciation for cuisine (and a great-grandmother who was a cooking instructor), Mendín didn’t discover his love of cooking until college. He moved from his native Puerto Rico to Miami in 1998, enrolling at Johnson & Wales University and staying in town to help open Nobu. Mendín did a European tour next, launching Nobu London, and working in Spain at Valladolid and Michelin-starred El Chaflán. Back in Miami, Mendín rose to assistant corporate chef for Sushi Samba, then joined Mercadito Miami in 2010.

Later that year, Pubbelly was born, and the combined prowess of Schreiner, Navarro, and Mendín has led to the group’s rapid expansion with Pawn Broker, PB Station, and Pubbelly Sushi. For his work at Pubbelly, still the flagship, Mendín has been a two-time James Beard Award semifinalist for “Best Chef, South.” 

Interview with South Florida Rising Star Restaurateur José Mendín of Pubbelly Restaurant Group

Lisa Elbert: How did you get your start?
José Mendín​:
I’m from Puerto Rico. I went to Johnson and Wales in Miami on a volleyball scholarship. I didn’t know culinary school existed, but I had always liked the industry. I told my parents, and the minute I walked into the kitchen, I loved it. I worked at Nobu London and Miami with stages all over Spain. I also worked at Sushi Samba. We opened Pubbelly because we knew Miami was missing that type of restaurant. There was nowhere to go to eat after getting out of a hotel. We wanted to be the Blue Ribbon that Miami didn’t have. From that, it evolved. 

LE: Who’s your mentor?
Thomas Buckley. He is from London, and he came over here. He’s the one who taught me how to use Asian ingredients and the foundations of Japanese cuisine. Also, Jesus Ramiro in Spain. He is the one that invited me to work with him in Spain, and he had a kitchen lab over there. We did a lot together. He was also a chef in Puerto Rico, so I grew up eating his food, and he taught me a lot about the style of cuisine.

LE: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
We’ve been through a lot. Miami is getting really expensive to open restaurants. A lot of people don’t want to come to the beach, so we needed to get out. Miami is a different monster, culinary wise. Restaurants open and close like crazy here. You have to be ready for the slow summer time; you have to be able to adjust.

LE: What’s your five-year plan?
We opened Pubbelly in 2010, and we opened Pubbelly Sushi in 2011. We’re opening a new place in Brickell, PB Station, with a rooftop bar. We are opening in the Dominican Republic at Casa de Campo. We’re opening on a cruise line, we’ve also signed PB Sushi Brickell. We have no investors—we’ve done everything ourselves. PB isn’t for every market, but we want to take sushi to other markets. PB Station is another concept that I think will do really well. We’re working on a seafood charcuterie program. We want to grow the business as much as possible and bring in more chefs to work with us. 

I want to keep working on Pubbelly: when I’m in Miami, I’m there every night. We have a very low turnover. We have people working here that worked with me at Sushi Samba 10 years ago. I’m good at growing the kitchens, changing the menus. Sergio does design and maintenance; Andreas does administrative and front of house. Our plan is to grow Pubbelly Sushi as a concept: we’re working on a plan to open a lot of them in the next five years. 

LE: What are your top three tips for running successful restaurants?
I see chefs trying to be accountants, floor managers, carpenters, etc. But when you open a restaurant, you have to know what you’re not good at.
2. KNOW THE NEIGHBORHOOD. One of the mistake we made with Pubbelly is that we assumed there would be foot traffic for us to generate lunch business, but there is no lunch business in the  area. Now, Pubbelly Sushi is open for lunch, but it’s only because people know it’s open and make it a destination.
3. BE MINDFUL OF THE WAY YOU TREAT YOUR EMPLOYEES. If they’re not happy, your business isn’t going to be happy.

LE: What was a frustration in the early days?
We didn’t have many employees. Doing everything ourselves got tiring. We’ve been very lucky. We’ve made a lots of mistakes but learned from those mistakes.

LE: How do you select your next projects?
We get lots of asks from people for us to do something with them. We view it project by project. It’s always two against one—that’s the good thing about having three of us.

LE: How do you define your brand? 
A fucking dream come true. It’s fun food, relaxed, but we take it very seriously with the cooking and selecting the wines. We want you to have fun. We put a lot of work into it. A lot.

Interview with South Florida Rising Star Restaurateur Sergio Navarro of Pubbelly Restaurant Group

Caroline Hatchett: How did you know you were ready to own a restaurant?
Sergio Navarro:
After years of working for other people, I eventually wanted to be in a place where I could own my own failures and my own successes. I had many ideas and I was ready to make them come to life.

CH: Who are your mentors?
Sergio Arola and Angel Palacios from La Broche in Madrid

CH: How do you inspire and retain your employees?
Identify their talent and encourage them to achieve their best so they can feel proud and accomplished of their work.

CH: What is your customer service philosophy?
Always treat people as if they were your own family. It’s the secret of our success.

CH: What’s your five-year plan? Do you want to conquer the city or maintain your empire?
I’d rather not use the word empire. We are a group of hard working people, working daily to make our dreams come true. Our plan is to expand the influence of our concepts in this ever-growing world.

CH: What was a frustration in the early days of the group?
Some of our initial frustrations were having the ideas, but being limited in our resources, as well as figuring out that not everything could be done at once. It required a lot of focus and patience.

CH: How do you define the brand?
Our brand always looks to deliver the best food and service possible in an environment of family and friends, while creating memorable moments.

Interview with South Florida Rising Star Restaurateur Andreas Schreiner of Pubbelly Restaurant Group

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?
Andreas Schreiner:
My dad was a chef for Hilton International, and my mom owned a restaurant. They met and married and my father was transferred to Puerto Rico, where my brother and I were born. From an early age, I spent time in the kitchen and was enamored with hospitality. In the mid 80s, my parents opened their own restaurant, and I worked for them, peeling carrots before I could go out and play. I worked as commis, then busboy, then server and bartender. That was the introduction to my career, and I starting working for hotels—Marriott, Hyatt, Four Seasons, and a few independent companies before I decided to build Pubbelly with Jose and Sergio. It’s in my blood. 

CH: Who’s your mentor?
We talk amongst each other in the business. I talked to my father a lot. He’s my inspiration. Otherwise, I try to really learn on my own. If there’s a question, I try to do my research, make physical plans, connect with architects, and look at the different disciplines that make up our business rather than a peer. 

CH: How did you know you were ready to own and not just work for someone else?
We’ve had Pubbelly for six years, and seven or eight years ago, I knew I wanted to do something on my own. I knew I could do it better than the next guy, because I had \learned from my mistakes. I didn’t have any money or partners, though. It wasn’t until I was in Chicago opening the Elysian. I was doing food and beverage for that property, and I fell in love with the scene in Chicago: the neighborhoods, the people who loved to eat. Miami was very plain, nothing excited me. I got to a point in my career where I was doing marketing and finance meetings, so I decided to take the leap. I left that position and ran into Jose at a bar in Chicago. We met in the late 90s, but we hadn’t seen each other in years. A year later in Miami, I had developed a business plan, and I needed a culinary partner. I went to Jose, and he had the same idea. It clicked. We put all our eggs into the basket, and the rest is history. 

CH: What’s the breakdown of responsibility between the owners?
Jose does everything culinary and in kitchen organization and menu planning. I handle everything that is front of house and business related, finance, marketing—though we all get involved in marketing—and the beverage side. Sergio is the pastry guru and gives the restaurants the eye of design. He does the interiors and helps us oversee maintenance and operations of individual properties. 

CH: What restaurant groups do identify with?
We really like One Off Hospitality in Chicago: Blackbird,  Publican, Avec. etc. We love how casual the restaurants are, but they’re chef-driven. Lots of love went into it; we felt very comfortable. They’re value driven. Those were the restaurants I felt like I identified with.

CH: How has the restaurant landscape changed since you opened Pubbelly?
It’s changed leaps and bounds since I got here. Over the last 10 years, the transformation has taken a massive effect. There are 17 new restaurants opening every few months. The beach has become more complicated for people to get to, and with the growth of restaurants on the mainland, there are lots more opportunities and choices for the consumer without having to come to the beach. Now that there are more options, it’s harder for everybody on the beach to maintain clientele. Also, prices in real estate here have skyrocketed. Logistics are mind boggling, and basic rent prices are staggering. It’s almost not conducive for running a business. The better deals are over the bridge. But the neighborhoods that were purely artistic, like Wynwood, they’re almost un-purchasable. Once a neighborhood becomes hot, that’s it. It attracts a different type of businessman. 

CH: What did it cost you to open Pubbelly?

CH: What’s your five-year plan?
We opened Pubbelly Sushi in the Dominican Republic, and it’s going really well. It’s in a beautiful, luxury resort in a residential community. The owners of the property have been friends and clients. They approached us that they wanted to change the food scene, and bring in friends and new ideas, and it fit for us. We opened in December. We’ve grown so quickly in Miami. At the moment, we’re looking at taking Pubbelly Sushi to Puerto Rico, because it’s the brand we think would work in any market. It’s a neighborhood sushi market where quality is at the forefront, but it’s affordable. The next four stores will be for sushi. We always have our passion projects that we definitely want to take to New York. We want to have a Pubbelly there. We stay pretty active. Over the last three to four years, I’ve gotten an average of two e-mails per week with opportunities, sometimes more. They’re fully funded projects, nationally and internationally. It’s humbling to see how many people want the brand.

CH: How do you decide which projects to take on?
It all depends on timing and location. We’re very wary of taking on partners. We want to maintain the control and quality. We ask, “Can we? Is this something we want to do? How does it fit into the plan?” At this point, it’s all about strategy for us. What we do is for the growth of the business. We have Brickell opening up—that will be the third sushi location. Another hotel isn’t in our plans. We want to focus on freestanding locations. But I love to learn about new opportunities, and things we haven’t tackled. It’s a new facet of knowledge you can feed from.

CH: Do you see yourselves passing up an opportunity?
Not really. One thing about us, we’re not afraid to fail. We just want to try things that make sense, so we research as far as we can. 

CH: Have any of your restaurants failed?
PB Steak was a great learning experience on many fronts. It was a great concept, and successful. Unfortunately, the logistics of the property didn’t align with the business model. It wasn’t sustainable. Perhaps we should have made different choices from the beginning. But it was a time of growth, and we took a risk on the project and learned from our mistakes on the cost, operations, and negotiations side. Luckily, we were able to reorganize, and we have the property opening in a few weeks with some of the same staples. It pushed us off the beach and into the downtown market. We’re excited. We were in the worst period of the flooding; on top of the faulty building and issues with the city, there was too much to hold onto. We run our business on a zero-debt basis, and what we have comes in and out, and we didn’t want to throw money at something that wasn’t ours. We didn’t see the immediate fixes that the neighborhood had, so it gave us a thicker skin. It was hurtful, like giving up a child. But we learned important lessons.