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By Katie McCann
Destination restaurants are located away from the bustle of the city center yet manage to draw in a loyal base of customers time and time again. But how does a restaurant that doesn’t benefit from high foot traffic become so popular?
Pinch Kitchen, a Miami restaurant, became a hit for contemporary American shareable plates – and mouth-watering burgers – for diners everywhere from in their neighborhood to beyond the Florida state borders.
John Gallo, chef and owner of Pinch Kitchen, reveals his secrets to becoming one of Miami’s most successful destination restaurants – and how he keeps his customers hungry for more.
John’s passion for cooking is deeply rooted in his childhood, when he would help his grandmother prepare Cuban dishes. Inspired by his grandparents and uncle, all successful restaurant owners at one point, John decided that he wanted to pursue the culinary arts and moved to Florida to follow in his grandparents’ and uncle’s footsteps.
Once in Florida, John was fortunate to secure a job right away, thanks to a connection through a family member. He credits his early experience working at South Beach fine-dining restaurant, Casa Tua, for the philosophy of quality ingredients he adopted at Pinch Kitchen.
“To have my first job and be working with fresh, organic ingredients…it was a really amazing fine dining experience,” John says. “I owe a lot to my chef and sous-chef there.Learned a lot under them. I was very lucky.”
John, then 19 years old, had set a goal for himself once he landed in Miami. “I’m going to work my butt off and try to learn as much as possible.’ I wanted to open a restaurant by the age of 30,” John says.
And at the age of 29, after a decade of hard work and the support of his parents, John and his friend, Rene Reyes, decided to dive into opening a restaurant.
With that, Pinch Kitchen was born.
Nestled in the quiet Upper Eastside neighborhood of Miami, Pinch has been serving up innovative New American cuisine, craft beers, and boutique wines to their loyal customers since 2015. Initially one of the only restaurants in their up-and-coming neighborhood on the city’s boundary, Pinch Kitchen continues to draw in both local clientele and fans from across the Florida coast.
It’s not surprising to learn that Pinch Kitchen was awarded “Best New Restaurant in Miami” once you try their seasonally evolving menu, including their iconic Pinch Burger, crowd-pleasing Ceviche, or mouthwatering desserts, just to name a few. Pinch Kitchen is built on high-quality, locally sourced ingredients – something that John is proud to implement as a small business owner.
“The inspiration behind opening the restaurant was everything that I had learned [in my culinary training] using local ingredients,” John says. “Product-driven is the term we like to use to describe Pinch. I’m not afraid of trying to get the best quality product I can get for the restaurant, the clients, and the cooks.”
John wanted to find a spot for his restaurant where he could settle in before construction began in the area. He saw an opportunity in the mostly undeveloped Upper East Miami neighborhood, and it was love at first sight when he stumbled upon the quaint restaurant space.
When asked about the pros of settling down in a relatively remote area, John explains, “It’s just about being a part of the neighborhood before the craziness happens.” To John, establishing a customer base from the start is key for restaurant success – and this loyalty is what enabled Pinch Kitchen to become a destination restaurant in the first place.
Despite the advantage of becoming the neighborhood’s go-to restaurant, owning a destination restaurant doesn’t come without its risks. Destination restaurants don’t receive as much organic exposure as businesses located in densely populated, commercial areas – which means that slower days are a very real possibility.
Restaurants of this type also face another challenge: labor shortages. This came as a surprise to John, who started his career as a chef working much closer to the city. “Obviously, there are more people [downtown],” John says. In the early days of Pinch Kitchen, John relied on the local culinary school as a source of employees. “Now, our reputation makes it a lot easier for us to bring people in, both front and back of house. It’s gotten easier, thankfully.”
For John, the benefits of owning a destination restaurant outweigh the challenges. He is proud of the support that Pinch Kitchen has developed over the years. “We’re able to take care of our locals and really have the best of both worlds – to be a local restaurant and a destination restaurant is really cool.”
“One of the main points of opening Pinch was to be a boutique restaurant, to be able to be hands-on on every detail, decision, and aspect,” John says.
Initially intended to satisfy the cravings of the neighborhood’s locals, Pinch Kitchen was never expected to become a destination restaurant. But through a combination of strategic decisions and a well-defined vision, Pinch Kitchen was able to build a following of customers who regularly drive out from the city to enjoy a meal at the restaurant.
Here are four strategies John used to put Pinch Kitchen on the destination restaurant map.
Pinch Kitchen’s farm-to-fork model reflects what’s most important to John: quality, organic, local ingredients, and restaurant sustainability. Pinch Kitchen takes this concept seriously – since opening, John’s goal was for Pinch to have its own farm. His goal was recently fulfilled, and John now looks forward to taking the kitchen staff to the site to work directly with the farmers.
The effort put into sourcing the finest ingredients for the restaurant shines through in the final dishes. Pinch Kitchen’s “Pinch Burger” is one example of a fan-favorite menu item that has become synonymous with the restaurant. The burger was never meant to be a signature dish, but proves that quality goes a long way. “I wanted to put a good burger on the menu, and it caught fire!” John says. “We haven’t changed the recipe since we’ve opened…. It’s still the number one seller.”
“I think we’ve created a really great vibe here that people really dig,” John says.
Upon stepping foot in Pinch Kitchen, guests are welcomed with cozy, rustic décor. The space exudes a laid-back ambiance that’s perfect for a casual lunch or dinner. Guests seeking a more entertaining meal can dine at the bar, which overlooks the bustle of the open kitchen.
In addition to the day-to-day vibe of the restaurant, Pinch Kitchen regularly hosts events in partnership with local businesses, which introduces new potential diners to the restaurant. For instance, their popular beer dinners are co-hosted with local breweries who bring in their own customers. They also regularly host organic wine dinners with local wineries. “It’s a great way to reach out to new guests and forge relationships with local companies,” John says.
What makes Pinch Kitchen really special is its friendly service. Because Pinch is a boutique restaurant, repeat customers often get the same server. And they make sure to treat customers like family.
“[The servers will] remember who you are, what you like, your favorite drink… they’re able to really give you a full-on experience of what a boutique restaurant can offer,” says John. “We want our customers to feel like Pinch Kitchen is an extension of their home.”
Pinch Kitchen didn’t become a sensation overnight. “You have to build up a reputation and clientele if you’re a destination restaurant,” says John.
John didn’t hesitate on getting the word out on Pinch Kitchen. When the restaurant first opened, he had a PR company handle the restaurant’s social media. A professional social media profile adds credibility and a strong first impression to a new business. “It’s a way to reach thousands of people without them coming to your restaurant,” John says.
In addition to social media, the intimacy of the neighborhood accelerated word-of-mouth referrals for Pinch Kitchen. “[The locals] were excited to have us here,” John says, recounting the short-lived restaurants that were previously housed in this location. Pinch Kitchen was the first restaurant in a while to make a splash in the local dining scene – and locals were grateful.
Overall, Pinch Kitchen proves that successful marketing goes beyond typical borders and boundaries. “We even have the snowbirds that come from Canada, New York… actually the entire North East region as well. We even get international customers vacationing in Miami and for that we share our family love with them,” John says.
With the success of Pinch Kitchen and other destination restaurants, it’s evident that people are willing to travel for good food. Here’s John’s biggest takeaways for restaurants becoming a destination hotspot.
The main challenge of owning a destination kitchen is that you won’t have much foot traffic passing by your restaurant. “It gets stressful because you have a million and one things going on in your mind, and you know where all the money is going, and you have to figure it all out,” John admits.
Despite the rough days, John encourages restaurant owners to remember the importance of local customers, too. “Although you’re a destination restaurant, you’ll always have locals. The regulars,” he says.
Encouraging customers to travel to your restaurant takes some creativity in the kitchen. “Because you’re trying to pull people in, you can’t be pushing the same things out over and over again,” John shares.
One of the biggest challenges for Pinch Kitchen was their desire to introduce a seasonal menu while balancing all the usual tasks of operating a new restaurant. But when the opportunity finally arose, changing the menu was a huge hit.
“Once we changed the menu, it was like a burst of energy into the restaurant,” John says. “It’s good to keep things fresh.”
John has perfected the food menu side of Pinch Kitchen. Next, the Miami restaurant will focus on developing their mixology program around the same quality-driven principles.
“We’re working with some really good bartenders here in the city, putting in a matching program that we do here with the food – just as quality-driven,” says John. “That’s going to be big.”
As for expanding the Pinch Kitchen empire, John’s heart remains committed to the place where it all started: in the quiet Upper East neighborhood of Miami. “If we do open something [else], I’d love for it to be in this area and help develop the neighborhood.”
Katie is a former Content Marketing Specialist at TouchBistro where she writes about food and restaurant experiences. She doesn’t shy away from the finer things in life, but no matter how much success she continues to acquire, she stays true to her roots and still considers imitation crab as gourmet. If she isn’t writing, you can find her on a patio with friends and a pitcher of white wine sangria.
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