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Famed restaurateurs talk COVID-19

The heads of Miami’s longest-lived and most iconic restaurants – Stephen Sawitz ’75 of Joe’s Stone Crab and Shareef Malnik P’19 ’22 of The Forge – offered frank assessments of COVID-19’s toll on the industry, yet noted to a virtual audience on May 6 that crises are nothing new for their century-old establishments. To an audience of parents, alumni and other members of the RE community. Sawitz and Malnik reminded that The Forge and Joe’s have survived wars, hurricanes, financial crises, fires and the foibles of previous operators.

Watch the webinar here.
“It’s scary,” said Sawitz at the Paul Ransom Digital Podium event. But “we’ve been through a lot… It’s because of our long-term thinking, not getting too far ahead of ourselves, that I think has been an important ingredient, an important part of the recipe, that has kept Joe’s going.”

Said Malnik: “Steve really got it right. The way we respond is the way we were brought up, what we learned from our businesses in the past. Nothing is going to change for us in terms of how we deal with the future.”

Head of School Penny Townsend introduced the two longtime restaurateurs and friends, and Director of Alumni Relations Vicki Carbonell Williamson '88 asked questions submitted by listeners. Sawitz and Malnik, both Miami natives, grew up peeling potatoes in the kitchens of their families' restaurants. Sawitz’s great-grandparents founded Joe’s as a tiny fish shack in about 1913 – not long after Ransom Everglades opened as the Adirondack-Florida School in 1903. Malnik’s father purchased The Forge – which opened in the 1920s – in the late 1960s, then remodeled it and opened it in 1968.

“In the restaurant business, you learn to do everything,” Malnik said. “There is no elitism … And, most of all, serving people, making people happy and serving my community became part of my DNA.”

Each has since assumed the mantle of the family business. The coronavirus caused the closure of Joe’s expansive dining room, which before the crisis served 1500-1800 people daily. Sawitz was forced to furlough 375 employees, which he called “one of the hardest days of my life,” but the restaurant has continued its take-out and shipping business. Malnik decided to close The Forge for renovations in advance of COVID-19, a move he admitted was fortuitous. Both said they expect a significant reshaping of the industry when dining rooms are allowed to reopen. They urged audience members to expect to pay more for meals – but to continue to support the industry.

“Who else brings you into their home – besides your mom – and treats you with love, tenderness and caring, and gives you the most important thing you want when you’re hungry – food and drink?” Malnik asked.

Sawitz noted that his 450-seat dining room will become a 186-seat dining room to accommodate six-feet social distancing requirements, and that will hurt business. Yet, both vowed that they would reopen.

“I would do anything in my life to make sure Joe’s was here,” Sawitz said. “I would beg, borrow and steal … That’s not even an option in my mind. Joe’s has to be here … We’re going to come back.”
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Founded in 1903, Ransom Everglades School is a coeducational, college preparatory day school for grades 6 - 12 located on two campuses in Coconut Grove, Florida. Ransom Everglades School produces graduates who "believe that they are in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it." The mission of Ransom Everglades School is to provide an educational environment in which the pursuit of honor, academic excellence and intellectual growth is complemented by concern for the physical, cultural and character development of each student. The school provides rigorous college preparation that promotes the student's sense of identity, community, personal integrity and values for a productive and satisfying life, and prepares the student to lead and to contribute to society.