Brett Graff’s Mixed Company

Lee Schrager

Brett Graff’s MIXED COMPANY: SHOTS OF INSPIRATION FROM MIAMI’S BUSINESS LEADERS is a series of interviews with internationally recognized executives. In its second season, this one titled THE BUSINESS OF LEISURE, the column will over three months reveal how five high-level figures created extraordinary careers by either captivating us during our free time or using their own to accomplish steadfast professional goals.

Brett Graff is an award-winning journalist and a former U.S. government economist who under her trademark The Home Economist contributes to The Miami Herald, USA Today, Fox Business News, Yahoo! Finance, Maxim and more. She has appeared on CNBC, CNN, PBS and Headline News in addition to being frequently quoted by outlets including Los Angeles Times, Cosmopolitan, The New York Times, and Wikipedia. She lives on Key Biscayne with her husband and daughters. Visit to see her reporting.

South Beach Wine & Food Festival founder Lee Brian Schrager at Sra. Martinez in Miami's Design District.

In the dawn of its second decade, the South Beach Wine & Food Festival’s rise to international stardom remains a story Miamians just won’t stop telling. Because while the plot is unchanged — Lee Brian Schrager rescues an obscure wine festival from Florida International University’s campus and brings it to South Beach, where it’s adored by world famous food personalities and the throngs of people who don’t mind paying to watch them — the excitement encompassing those three days (this year it’s February 23 to 26) builds up all year long.

Plus it’s never the same old narrative. In addition to Möet Hennessy’s bash on the beach — renamed this year simply The Q — and the tribute dinner honoring Charlie Trotter and Piero Antinori, a host of new events are being unveiled. Trucks on the Beach honors the nation’s food cart and truck trend and Party Impossible with Robert Irvine will be held throughout the aisles of Miami Beach’s Epicure market.

We sat down with Schrager at Sra. Martinez — a restaurant owned by celebrity chef Michelle Bernstein — and got him to reveal the secrets for taking an idea and turning it into a phenomenon that major television networks, glossy magazines and culinary superstars will all come to covet.

How did you come up with the idea for the festival?

I can’t tell you my idea hasn’t changed 4,000 times. People always ask whether I expected the festival to grow this big. I say “I don’t know if I had any expectations.” But I recognized chefs were becoming rock stars. I’d been to the wine and food festival in Aspen. And I knew our beaches here were the best around. So I went to the owners of Southern Wine & Spirits and explained that we could keep the Florida Extravaganza on FIU’s campus — the entire event has always been a fundraiser for the school’s hospitality department — and continue to host locals. Or we could move it to the beaches and host tens of thousands of people. They met me with very little resistance.

What’s the first thing you did to make it a huge phenomenon?

I never tried to make the festival a big thing. I tried to make it the right thing. I wanted to be in the right location, have the right personalities and right sponsors. Everything else just followed.

Lee Schrager reveals the secrets to a successful idea.

What’s the first step you took to turn your idea into something very real?

I found great partners. Michael Aller at the city of Miami Beach helped us champion things from the Mayor’s office. The Visitors and Convention Center gave money, and back then I was as thankful for every penny, and I am now 12 years later. My contact Ana Palmer from American Express believed in the idea and they came aboard.

Those are some pretty big players, how did you get them to participate?

I billed it as a way to promote and profile our chefs in the community. And the idea just wasn’t that far-fetched.

And the celebrity chefs?

The first year we had Alain Ducasse. I went to his people who said, “Let’s see how the first year goes and he’ll do it the second.” I explained that without Ducasse, there might not be a second year. This festival was built on relationships and partnerships, and part of being a good partner is being honest and upfront.

Okay, so get us ready for this year’s festival – what’s the best way for us to get caught up on the latest food and wine trends, and what’s this year’s top ingredient?

The Best of the Best dinner has amazing chefs, plus all the wines featured were rated with 20 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s scale. As for this year’s trend: there isn’t one! In the past, participating chefs have sent in their ideas and you could see many were using a similar element. One year it was pork belly, another year it was caviar and of course there was a period when everyone was using foie gras. But this year it’s an even spread.

Victor Mendelson, Michelle Bernstein, Larry Mendelson, Brett Graff, Lee Brian Schrager, Tony Hernandez, Eric Mendelson
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