April 13, 2024
Florida Icon: Lee Brian Schrager

Photo: Nick Garcia

"I'm very low-brow," says Lee Brian Schrager, founder of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival. "I can fit in anywhere." 

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Florida Icon: Lee Brian Schrager

Chief communications officer, Southern Glazer's Wine & Spirits; founder, South Beach Wine & Food Festival and New York Wine & Food Festival, Wynwood; age 63

Mike Vogel | 2/19/2024

I always worked in restaurants. When I was 10, 11 years old, I used to bag Chinese takeout food, Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, in a local popular Chinese restaurant. I worked in snack bars and movie theaters. I worked at Swensen’s ice cream parlor, (and was a) valet car parker at a fine-dining restaurant. There was always something about the hospitality industry. The people in it are very special. And you know, I’ve always enjoyed wine and food.

My father was in the garment industry, retired probably before he was 50 years of age, moved down to Florida, and he and his brother opened restaurants and did everything wrong and lost a lot of money.

It’s just in your blood. I worked for InterContinental Hotels for 20-something years. I had worked every weekend of my life and every holiday of my life. And when I joined Southern Glazer’s, that was a Monday through Friday job. It really took me a long time to get used to not working on a weekend or New Year’s Eve or Christmas or every holiday. Your work friends become family in the industry.

Toughest thing? Trying to get everything done. Not only do I create the festivals, I handle communications for Southern Glazer’s, which is the largest distributor of alcohol in the world. We distribute in 44 states plus the Caribbean.

Serving breakfast is the toughest meal, if you were ever a waiter. At breakfast, it’s what type of juice do you want? Do you want coffee, tea or cappuccino? And I want no-fat milk or blah, blah, blah. I want my eggs over easy. Do you want hash browns or home fries? You want rye bread, pumpernickel bread? There are 20 questions at breakfast. Take my word, it’s a much harder meal to serve for less money. I always tip extra for breakfast.

FIU (Florida International University) was a one-day tasting on campus. After the first year, I said, we can be more than this. It’s raised close to $39 million, $40 million for the Chaplin school. We have 1,200 students participating in the festival. That, to me, is the most impressive part, the hands-on experience that it gives to these students.

It used to be you couldn’t decide where to eat dinner because there was no place. Now you can’t decide where to eat dinner because there are endless places. I would say that Miami has one of the greatest dining scenes in the country.

I think that we were part of it. We would bring down these chefs, and they would look at Miami and see the response.

I’m from Long Island. Massapequa. We had a boat growing up. And we would always see (Jerry Seinfeld’s) family’s boat called ‘Signs by Seinfeld.’ His father had a sign company. I grew up with Alec Baldwin. He’s from Massapequa. I delivered papers to them. They were on my Newsday route.

Spoilage and theft in a restaurant or bar are tremendous — a million ways to steal money. Your friend comes into a bar, you pour extra liquor or you pour him another drink, or you see a pretty girl or guy and you give them a drink. I owned a bar in South Beach for many years. If you’re not there or if you don’t know about it, you’re losing money or being robbed. ... You want to have a successful business? Be there. Or make sure you have the right people. It was a tough way to make money.

I travel. I read. I like movies. I have two dogs. I play pickleball. I ride a bike. I’m a Law & Order fanatic.

People are always drinking. When things are good, they drink. When things are bad, they drink more. I love what I do. It doesn’t mean it’s not hard, demanding, difficult at times.

I like wine. But I’m by no means a connoisseur. I can tell you what I like, what I don’t like. That’s it. I like champagne. I’m a gin drinker. Now it’s becoming a big category again. I’ve never had a beer in my life. Never liked the taste of fermentation.

South Beach is the granddaddy of them. New York and South Beach are the two most respected festivals. When people didn’t know us, it was very hard. It’s a lot easier today. But talent’s gotten a lot busier today, and there are more festivals.

Nothing’s for free. You work hard and do what you love and love what you do. And be careful whose ass you’re stepping on today. You may be kissing it tomorrow.

Tags: Florida Icon, Feature

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