In the heart of Miami, restaurateur John Kunkel, founder and CEO of 50 Eggs, Inc., focuses his unwavering passion and exceptional business acumen into creating highly successful and ahead of the curve culinary concepts. In just under two decades, Kunkel has built 50 Eggs into a diverse, award winning restaurant group, demonstrating his talent for conceiving, building, branding and operating a broad range of innovative hospitality concepts. His current collection of restaurants includes the award-winning Yardbird Southern Table and Bar, Khong River House, Swine Southern Table and Bar, and the original Lime Fresh Mexican Grill on South Beach.
A true American success story: In April 2012, Kunkel sold the Lime Fresh fast-casual concept consisting of 10 South Florida locations he developed over eight years to the Ruby Tuesday restaurant group for $24 million. Adding to the legacy, in July 2014 he announced the expansion of the home-grown and widely acclaimed Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, to an 8,000 square foot space slated to open in Las Vegas in 2015 on iconic restaurant row at The Venetian® Las Vegas and the Palazzo.
How did you get into the restaurant industry?
I began as a cook at the age of 15 and found the industry to be interesting, fun and exciting.
What are the most popular dishes at Yardbird and which are your personal favorites?
Lewellyn’s Fine Fried Chicken is by far my favorite dish. It is my Grandmother’s recipe. When I was a child, she would make me some to go in a brown paper bag, and it would be gone by the time I left the driveway.
How do you stay successful within such a volatile and competitive industry?
By staying true to the concepts, focusing on quality of food and service is key, but I believe I have found success in the relentless pursuit of excellence. Every day we wake up and have to do better than the day before.
What is your life motto?
Nothing is impossible. We can eat 50 Eggs! It’s where the name of our company comes from, the scene in the American film Cool Hand Luke, when Paul Newman’s character eats 50 eggs after making a bet. It symbolizes beating all odds and accomplishing the impossible.
How important does the design / architecture of your restaurant play into its success?
The design of our restaurants defines our brands. We want our guests to have a totally immersive experience that impacts all senses, not simply taste. Early on, we made the decision to develop interior and graphic design in house in order to closely manage and control every aspect of our architecture.
How important is location in selecting the creation of a new restaurant?
There is a reason they say “location, location, location.” Easy access, general traffic and cost of rent is essential to pinpointing the perfect location for a concept, and ultimately determines your financial success.
What literature is on your bed stand?
OUTLIERS by Malcom Gladwell
Who is your role model - business and personal?
From a business perspective, Richard Branson. As large as his businesses have grown to be, he has never lost creative vision and has never detached himself from the creative process, and I believe that has contributed to his ongoing success. Personally, my grandfather. He was a product of our country’s greatest generation and served as a Marine.
Describe a great night out and an ideal experience at your restaurant.
For a few years now, we have been hosting what we call a Guest Chef Series, when we invite both locally and nationally recognized chefs to come into our kitchens and partner up with our culinary talents to deliver an amazing menu, both flavorful and adventurous. The evenings we host these events always present a contagious energy. The blend of collaboration coming from the kitchen and foodies coming together to have a great experience delivers a great vibe. Followed by visit to Patpong, our lounge on Miami Beach, for a nightcap and you’ve got yourself a great night out.
What is your go-to travel destination?
Anywhere tropical and surrounded by water. My family and I love any and all water sports. Plus, the sand and sun provide retreat and relaxation.
What’s next for the Yardbird?
Yardbird’s expansion to Las Vegas early 2015 is just the start of the projects 50 Eggs has in the works for next year. However, specifically speaking to the Yardbird brand, our goal is to grow the number of locations both throughout the United States and internationally, but with caution not to develop cookie cutter replicas of Miami. Each destination will evolve, offering varied food and beverage programs with unique culinary influences, sourced based on the local farm offerings and environment.
It all began in 2001, when Kunkel, still in his 30s, opened his first restaurant, Taste Bakery Café, on South Beach. It became a cozy local hotspot, attracting celebrities and a lot of ink. After opening Lime in 2004, he sold Taste Bakery to concentrate on perfecting and expanding the Lime Fresh fast-casual concept. In 2011, during the height of Lime’s success, with lines outside the door, Kunkel opened Yardbird Southern Table and Bar. Offering Kunkel’s take on refined Southern food complete with family recipes, it was named a James Beard Semifinalist for “Best New Restaurant South,” was lauded in the New York Times and recognized as one of Bon Appétit’s “50 Best New Restaurants.” Rightfully so: Yardbird’s soulful Southern cuisine offers down home delights such as Kunkel’s grandmother’s now-famed recipe for 27-hour brined and crispy fried chicken served with heavenly waffles.
Khong River House, which opened in late 2012 on South Beach, also garnered a James Beard semifinalist nod. Khong pays tribute to the vibrant flavors of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & China, the food Kunkel first fell in love with when he traveled throughout Southeast Asia in his 20s. In 2013, Kunkel's 50 Eggs opened another successful concept, this time in Coral Gables, Swine Southern Table and Bar, a “snout to tail,” sister restaurant to Yardbird, which also gained recognition as one of the best new restaurants of the year.
Next on tap for Kunkel and 50 Eggs will be Test Kitchen, a culinary hub for creative talent housed in a renovated hotel in the MiMo Historic District on Biscayne Boulevard that will include offices for the 50 Eggs executive, creative and management team as well as provide spaces for cooking development. Here, top guest chefs from around the world will be invited to visit, experiment, brainstorm, develop and share menus, while Test Kitchen also will exist as a community resource offering culinary classes, sneak peeks at the newest food trends, and a unique space for special events.
Kunkel currently resides in Miami Beach with his wife and their three children. He and his restaurant concepts, cited by Restaurant Hospitality magazine as one of “the coolest multi-concept companies in the land,” have been featured in nearly every conceivable national print and broadcast media outlet that follows culinary and travel trends.
About 50 Eggs, Inc.
Founded by John Kunkel, 50 Eggs Inc. is a multi-faceted, full-service culinary and hospitality firm focused on developing cutting-edge brands with unparalleled dining experiences. As CEO of one of Restaurant Hospitality Magazine’s “Coolest Multi-concept Companies in the Land,” John owns and operates the James Beard nominated and award winning Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, Khong River House, Swine Southern Table & Bar and Patpong Road, and is also known for creating and developing the fast casual chain Lime Fresh Mexican Grill.