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Soyka at 70, News Café at 25 PDF Print E-mail
Written by By John Dorschner -- Special to the BT   
December 2013

Has it been that long? A quarter century since Mark Soyka helped to invent South Beach?

OPix_Soyka_1n December 2, restaurateur Mark Soyka hits 70, and his famed News Café on South Beach marks a quarter century -- remarkable longevity in a highly volatile business. Soyka is often hailed as a visionary for opening on Ocean Drive well before the crowds came, and then, in 1999, for opening Soyka Restaurant at 55th and Biscayne, a move that many believe sparked the rejuvenation of the Boulevard. He employs about 600 people in his operations, which include partnerships in the Van Dyke Café and Segafredo on Lincoln Road.

Born in Israel, Soyka spent two decades in New York, managing a disco roller rink among other things, before being lured by developer Tony Goldman to help manage Goldman’s newly acquired properties on South Beach. For many years he has lived in the Upper Eastside, most recently in a Morningside house he built that has a traditional exterior but an interior that is essentially a huge one-room loft with balcony.

Here are some of his top memories, plus his plans for a new venture that, he says, “gives me goose bumps.” (Disclosure: Soyka is the Biscayne Times’s landlord.)

Biscayne Times: You decided to keep News Café open around the clock at a time when nights were pretty dead on South Beach. How’d that happen?

Mark Soyka: That was by coincidence. I’m a dinosaur. I never touched a computer in my life. I have an old-fashioned phone. I don’t know how to extract messages from it.

Anyway, when I opened, everybody said I had to have an alarm system. One busy day the alarm went off. It was crazy. I called the alarm company: Tell me what to do. They said we’ll be right there. So I waited five minutes and took a big kitchen knife and cut all the wires. I said to the staff: We no longer have an alarm. We’re open 24 hours. And we haven’t closed the place in 20-some years. I don’t even have keys to the front door.

Pix_Soyka_2Did you and Tony Goldman foresee from the beginning what South Beach could become?

We created it. We didn’t see it because it wasn’t there to see. Places were boarded up. The only police force you saw was Miami Vice -- but anywhere there is a camera and actors, it’s never the wrong image. Then the fashion industry from Europe found it was easier to shoot here, so all these models came. And that brought more people.

You can’t replace an ocean. Ocean is ocean.

I enjoyed the association with Tony, but I am an independent person and wanted to do something on my own. I had a passion for the hospitality business. My parents had a little grocery store, so I was cutting tomatoes when I was five years old.

So I thought of News Café [at Ocean Drive and 8th Street, in a building owned by Goldman]. I opened a small place first -- doing a little ice cream, newspapers, like a kiosk in Israel. For the first three, four years we didn’t even cook -- cold cuts, sandwiches, even the eggs were hard boiled or soft boiled.

It was a café, a place for people to hang out. You sit down and nobody will ever chase you out. I was personally involved, sat with the people, chatted with them. It became at first a destination because there wasn’t much around. We kept expanding, from 20 seats to 40, 50. Now we have about 350.

Then you expanded to other restaurants?

About 1994, I bought the Van Dyke building. A friend of mine wanted to get rid of it because it was a big headache. That was my second restaurant. It took as much effort as News Café. Every place I open, I spend at least two years on the floor, to get the ambiance I want.

What got you interested in the Upper Eastside?

My wife and I were raising our children in an apartment above News Cafe, but it got too tight. I decided we had to find a home, not too far from Miami Beach. I found a small house in Bayside. My kids went to Cushman.

And I’m a vintage-car collector. I got a warehouse for them [where Soyka Restaurant is now]. I had 15, 16 cars. I’d sneak out of the house at midnight to talk to my cars. A Bentley, Mercedes, Jaguars, and so forth. From the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. I found those times interesting -- technology like air conditioning and power steering met the old school craftsmanship, the wood, the leather.

To me, it’s moving art. I diluted my collection because I wasn’t driving them -- not enough to make them healthy and happy. I said, Well, I have to do something with that space. Cars interest me. Restaurants interest me. Nothing else interests me. So I decided to open a restaurant. The area needed it. [The restaurant opened in May 1999.]

I love pioneering. I don’t worry about prostitutes or crack addicts [who were still on the Boulevard then]. I’m a New Yorker. And when you turn the lights on in the parking lots, they look for some other place to hang out.

I wanted Soyka to be a family restaurant. Meatloaf and champagne -- that’s the Soyka mentality. I took a chance with Soyka, yes, but I’m a person who makes decisions. Most people, it’s hard for them to make decisions. And I was never sorry for the decisions I made. I made some mistakes. I opened two big places -- a News Café in Coconut Grove and Brasserie Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale [both of which he sold within two years].

Then I had a chance [in 2007] to sell the Van Dyke building. I agreed as long as I got a very long lease for the restaurant. We have two floors. There’s a music room on the second floor.

Did you sell it for twice what you paid for it?

Fifteen times. The money helped me to be a little free of mortgages, to relax a little bit. And I sold half the shares in the restaurant to Graziano [Sbroggio, head of Graspa Group]. We’re good friends. So basically we were equal partners in Van Dyke and Segafredo.

And Graziano now runs Soyka as well?

No, that’s different. About two years ago, I lost my chef when his wife decided to take a job in North Carolina. I realized my knowledge of the kitchen was lacking. I asked Graziano if he would take over the management of the kitchen in Soyka. But he’s not a partner there. He’s spent two years, and he brought it back to a situation that’s comfortable for me. And now we are not parting, but he no longer needs to hold my hand in the kitchen.

Are any of your children interested in restaurants?

My two oldest, Paloma and Gabriel, no. He’s into film, she’s more into fashion. But the two youngest, Sasha and Daniel -- they’re 22 and 20 -- they have a wish to become part of the business. Daniel already works as a waiter at Soyka. But to take control, they need to be a little older. I’ve told them, go to China, go to India, do whatever you have to do, and when the time comes in two or three, four years, they can take over. But if they don’t, I don’t fear the place will fall apart. I have a good team in place.

At 70, are you scaling back?

No. I go to each restaurant every day, but I’m not opening any new ones. A restaurant is a couple of million of dollars and two years of your life and a hundred employees minimum.

Did Soyka cost $2 million?

More. The kitchen alone is $400,000 to $600,000. The computers you see the waiters use take $200,000. But I wasn’t using investors. The News Café and Van Dyke paid for everything.

What’s next?

I want to do whatever gives me goose bumps. Vintage cars give me goose bumps. So in January I’m opening a vintage car showroom. Toys for big boys. That’s not what it’s going to be called, but that’s what it is. It will be at 55th Street Station -- a vintage car boutique. I just bought a ’47 Chrysler New Yorker convertible. I’m going to look for cars all over the country and sell them. From 70 to 90, that’s what I look to do.

What are you likely to do at night?

I’m a political junky. I watch Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews on MSNBC. I’m a Democrat. I believe in helping people with healthcare and all of this.

If you went out to eat tonight, where would you go if it’s not a place of yours?

I’m basically a bagel and cream cheese kind of guy. I don’t go out much. I’m a little bit of a hermit. I like Lincoln Road, TiramesU [run by Graspa, his business partners]. But a lot of my food comes from Soyka. My kids grew up on Andiamo Pizza [which he owns]. I go to Michy’s. I go there for the wine. Food I’m not that fussy about.

 

Video of interview excerpts and one of Soyka’s prized vintage cars can be seen at the miamiwebnews channel on YouTube.



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