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Dealmakers: Tobacco Road [New Miami magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
New Miami magazine
Dealmakers / July 1990
Design by Kevin Jolliffe

CONVERSATION HUMS AND BOTTLES CLINK, the air is filled with the scent of musky oak—or maybe that’s day-old beer? Either way, you know you’ve come home to Miami’s oldest sloppy drinking spot, owner of Miami’s liquor license No. 001.

Tobacco Road, a bread bakery until the Volstead Act made it more profitable to operate as a speakeasy, officially became a blue-collar neighborhood bar after the 18th Amendment was repealed.

And so it remained, a faded establishment on the verge of obscurity even before owner / police officer Neil Katzman was accused of dealing drugs out of there in the early ’80s. He was never convicted, but the bust killed what was left of his business.

Then came two young guns: Kevin Rusk and Patrick Gleber. Recent graduates of the restaurant management program at Florida International University, the 22-year-olds bought the landmark from Katzman for $100,000. With help from some local jazz and blues artists, they turned the dive into a moneymaker.

Back in 1982, taking over the rough-and-tumble bar was a dicey proposition for two boys just out of school. To finance the dilapidated watering hole, they hocked practically everything they owned (including Rusk’s vintage red Porsche). The rest, they borrowed from family members and the bank.

Today, the investment has evolved into a million dollar corporation, and the two men have grown up with it. Seated at a round table on the courtyard deck they added in 1986, the owners are lunching on today’s special, grilled grouper.

The business crowd has gone for the day. A few customers are inside at the bar, getting a jumpstart on happy hour.

Sitting side by side, the partners seem an odd couple. Rusk, now 31, is the tanned, blonde All-American-boy type. He sports a Polo shirt and pressed blue jeans. Gleber, 30, is the Oscar Madison of the duo. He fancies untucked shirts and baggy pants.

“We turned the bar into the old, funky place it started out being,” says Rusk, who remembers uncovering evidence of the bars’ past life when they refurbished—antiques like a 1905-nickel jammed in the woodwork. “There’s no other place like ours in downtown Miami.”

Anyone who has had a cocktail at Tobacco Road has been in touch with the soulful power of the place—including the author of the 1988 guidebook, “The View From Nowhere,” which listed it as one of America’s best neighborhood bars.

The bar is just the tip of a growing conglomerate, however. Once the Road was on its financial feet, Rusk and Gleber decided that South Miami Avenue—one block in from executive-rich Brickell Avenue—was the ideal place to create a string of restaurants.

After they lost a 1987 bid to restore the old Miami Fire Station (now the extremely successful Firehouse Four restaurant), they invested $1.2 million in several acres surrounding the bar (land now used for parking). There, they built, Shagnasty’s, a slightly higher-brow restaurant two storefronts away from the Road.

In early 1990, they invested S75,000 in another South Miami Avenue eatery, the Wyshbone Grylle—a cafeteria-style restaurant specializing in Caribbean barbecue. With its slickly designed logo, the place has franchise written all over it although Rusk says there are no such plans in the works.

Besides the firehouse fiasco, another deal that got away from the duo was a restaurant at the Breakwater Hotel on Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive. In 1988, Gleber and Rusk were approached to put a restaurant in the newly renovated hotel. At the last minute, however, the hotel owners canceled the agreement.

“We knew we could fight them if we wanted, but we didn’t want to work with anyone who didn’t want us in there,” says Gleber. “So we just dealt with our losses and ended it.”

Instead, the partners bought In Good Taste, a catering business on South River Drive. “It worked out for the best. There is a real future in the catering business,” says Rusk.

In fact, success has come to these two at a young age, but they agree peaking early isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. In the old days, they say, the hardest part of making the business work was their youth and inexperience. They had trouble getting respect.

“Early on, we tried not to have business meetings in person and did most of our deals on the phone so no one would know how young we were,” Gleber admits.

All that has changed. With 42 employees and eight years of 15-hour days under their belts, they have helped revitalize a legend. They also feel like they worked their youths away.

“I was getting ready for our Christmas party and realized I was 30 years old,” says Gleber. “I never thought I’d still be here when I was 30. 1 thought I’d at least be on my way to owning a restaurant out west.”

“But, we are happy,” adds Rusk. “
mean, we helped bring back a piece of history.”

Not bad for thirtysomething.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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