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Hard Work Pays Off

A food empire is growing in South Florida because of Mike Linder’s focus on food and service and a twist on locations.

Mike Linder has journeyed a long way since he started as a busboy at a Bennigan’s on Cypress Creek Road. The owner of SFL Hospitality Group has been on a tear in recent years with a takeover of the venerable Canyon name and the launch of Val+Tino, a resurrection of the highly acclaimed Valentino Cucina Italiana. There’s the waterfront gem YOT tucked away on the New River just east of I-95 and South PMP (South Kitchen and Bar), which is a key to reviving Pompano Beach’s historic downtown.

Their original business, Silver Lining Inflight Catering, has grown to serve 18 airports and his first restaurant, Jet Runway, remains the breakfast and lunch hot spot at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The catering business, restaurants and an events company employ nearly 550 people.

SFBW caught up with Linder after a photo shoot for this month’s cover at Canyon and Val+Tino.

He grew up in the 1980s in North Lauderdale, a blue-collar city where Florida’s Turnpike crosses over State Road 7. The key troika that emerged for SFL was Linder, his brother Mike, who is director of operations, and a childhood friend, business partner Mitch Amsterdam.

Linder says his interest in the hospitality industry developed helping out his father, who was a chef or owner at a series of restaurants, bars and nightclubs. He passed away 2½ years ago but wasn’t part of his son’s businesses.

Linder worked his way through Florida State University where he studied hospitality, hotel and restaurant management.

He learned pretty much every aspect of the restaurant business as a server, bartender and kitchen manager at Bennigan’s. He accidentally burned down the Bennigan’s on Cypress Creek Road in 1995 when he was cooking on the line and flames shot out of the grill hood and into the ceiling tiles.

Overcoming a stroke

That was bad enough, but on Christmas Day 2000, he collapsed in the kitchen in the middle of a shift. He was rushed to the hospital and discharged. The next day, he was rushed back, partially paralyzed, and diagnosed with a stroke. He moved in with his parents and had an arduous, but complete recovery. He became a manager at a Lone Star Steakhouse. On the side, he was helping Amsterdam, who was running a breakfast and lunch café.

“Pilots were coming in, getting food to go. We figured out what they were getting and why and what it was for. We took the packaging to another level and then on the side we were doing the inflight catering. So, in addition to working 80 hours at a Lone Star, I was working another 40, 50 hours at creating Silver Lining. We didn’t even really know what we were creating. … It was no business plan. It just evolved out of working so much.”

The catering business started in 2000 down the street from his current main office near Copans and Powerline Roads. Within two to three years, it grew to serve Boca Raton Airport and Fort Lauderdale International Airport. He has kitchens at all those locations now plus Miami International and Palm Beach International airport.

Success on the tarmac

Shortly after the catering business opened, the duo drew the interest of Don Campion, president of Banyan Air Service, about opening a restaurant, but he thought they were too young, Linder says. Campion watched the catering business flourish and approached them again in 2007.

He and Amsterdam weren’t even that enthused about opening Jet Runway, but the opportunity was too good to pass up, Linder says.

“We put our hard work and effort and money into it and he [Campion] put his money into it to help us develop it. And here we are now, 15 years later, with obviously a great restaurant over at the executive airport,” Linder says.

Jet Runway has an aviation themed décor with aircraft taxing right outside the windows and jets taking off in the distance.

“The best part about it is that you go in there on any busy day when it’s bustling and it’s a minimal percentage of people from the airport. It’s brought people from Miami, from Palm Beach, from Naples to come and see this great restaurant,” Linder says.

After Jet Runway opened, people wanted to use the hangar next door for events. Silver Lining was the approved vendor, but there was a problem.

“If somebody had a $10,000 budget, we ended up having to hire a lighting and furniture company. They’d come in and take the whole budget and we had no room for food,” Linder says. He and Amsterdam started buying furniture and lighting. Now, Event Effects Group has almost 70,000 square feet of warehousing to store lighting, sound, furniture and décor for events and a second location in Orlando.

Locations with a twist

Beyond sparking Event Effects, Jet Runway set the strategy for SFL, which stands for service, food and location. Jet Runway isn’t on any restaurant row. It’s tucked amid the hangar buildings on Northwest 21st Terrace. It’s a central location that’s hard to find, but easily accessible when you do.

YOT opened about eight years after Jet Runway at the 65-acre Safe Harbor Lauderdale Marine Center. If you are traveling on I-95 over the New River and see a couple of mammoth blue marina buildings to the east, that’s the place.

“The marina actually came and found me at Jet Runway and wanted to bring in what was similar to Jet over to the marina,” Linder says. He was won over by the stunning backdrop of docks and yachts.

The menu has simple, approachable fare — “pretty much a little bit of what everybody wants. The decor is just very northern Nantucket, Cape Cod feel,” Linder says.

Foodie destinations

The 620 S. Federal Highway location, now shared by Canyon and Val+Tino, was previously the home of Valentino Cucina Italiana, which was widely hailed for its quality.

However, a lack of outdoor dining space during the peak of COVID killed it.

Then came Canyon. Just months after Canyon moved to 620 S. Federal from its longtime location on Sunrise Boulevard, Linder got a call about whether he might be interested in Canyon, which he considered a great restaurant.

Canyon business partner Mario Di Leo told Linder, ‘I want to sell to somebody who’s going to love it as much as I did,’” Linder recalls. He hung out at the bar for about a month before the purchase and thought it was a great opportunity.

Canyon was famed for its prickly pear margaritas and southwestern fare with a bit of Asian fusion. “It’s a little bit of everything now. We’ve introduced some American dishes, some southwestern dishes, some Asian dishes, and once again, simple approachable food,” Linder says.

“It’s comfort food—it’s chicken quesadillas done well, it’s calamari done well. The short rib rigatoni is one of the best dishes on the menu. Our salmon and sea bass are great. We have fish. We have steaks—a little bit of everything. The smoked salmon tostada is my favorite,” he says.

Then, the past became the present with a resurrected version of Valentino.

Primadonna had struggled, so Canyon had taken over all the space with 200 seats. Linder strategized that having two concepts with about 100 seats each would create more sales.

Val+Tino Executive Chef de Cuisine Jake Abbott has experience at Michelin-starred restaurants in New York City. He worked with renowned chefs such as Joe Anthony and Laurent Tourendel. His search for technical mastery led him to Two-Michelin Star Chef Gabriel Kreuther. Abbott says he had to start at minimum wage as a line cook, but within a year he had the position of sous-chef.

Kreuther at the time was one of the last legendary chefs, like Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller, still cooking in his kitchen.

Abbott wants to bring the exacting nuances of New York restaurants to South Florida.

Few restaurants in South Florida do tasting menus, like Val+Tino, which are now popular worldwide, Abbott says. He wants to feature his technique from French and New York cooking, but also utilize Florida fish and produce. “Seasons change and the plates gotta change,” he says.

Eventually, he would like to do a theater menu and a carte blanche menu of seven to nine items chosen by the chef, sort of like the omakasa approach at Japanese restaurants.

 So, now, the 620 building that was once a tire store, is an iconic restaurant building where you can still see the Dade County Pine ceiling if you look upwards at Canyon’s Rio’s cocktail bar. Linder’s eye for location is poised to pay off further.

“Once this tunnel construction is done, this side of the tunnel is going to now be the next upcoming area,” Linder says. “I mean, what better to be in the exit of Rio Vista—one of the best communities here in Fort Lauderdale, located not far from the airport, right around by the 17th Street Causeway.”

Linder says there are some great restaurants on Las Olas Boulevard, but he doesn’t have much interest in opening a restaurant there. “All my locations have a little twist to ’em,’” he says. “Great service, great food, and central locations that are hard to find, but easy to get to.”

The latest: Southern cuisine

South PMP Bar and Kitchen is helping revive Pompano Beach’s historic downtown northeast of the FEC Railway and Atlantic Boulevard.

“The city of Pompano Beach found me and approached me about this opportunity. I figured I missed out on a few great opportunities with Flagler Village and that whole area. I wasn’t going to miss out this time,” Linder says. The city and building owner were very helpful and Linder had a chance to utilize his longtime interest in southern cuisine.

“Throughout my life, I did a lot of traveling through North Carolina and New Orleans and had the ability to travel with Silver Lining and it always seemed that my focus was to go hit the best restaurants,” he says. “Most of the best restaurants served up southern food.”

Corporate Executive Chef Kelly O’Hara played a key role in creating the menu that’s still evolving since South opened about eight months ago. One of Linder’s favorites is the flaky,

crispy fried chicken inspired by a New Orleans restaurant. The biscuits, sauces and shrimp ’n grits are some other favorites.

He’s not done yet

These days, Linder has plenty to keep him busy. He usually starts at Silver Lining in the morning before venturing to the restaurants and then spending time with his children and wife, who is an attorney. He’s been on the board of many charities, too.

Linder is quick to credit Amsterdam and his brother for the success, but he met another key player about six years ago at Kaluz Restaurant: Warren Thompson, whose Thompson Hospitality bills itself as the nation’s largest minority-owned food and facilities management company. It’s busy on college campuses and has about 70 restaurants.

“We had lunch together and struck a partnership together. So, he is pretty much one of my other supporters of everything we do other than Silver Lining, Jet Café and Event Effects,” Linder says. “I brought him to YOT to show him what YOT is. He said, ‘You’re crazy, but I trust you.’ We did it.”

Linder is a youthful-looking 46 and says he is not done yet.

“I think I definitely plan on continuing to grow, whether it’s in the restaurant space, the catering space, or the event space,” he says. Early in his career, he wanted to grow the catering business across the country, but thought with young children it would be better to focus on growing locally rather than constantly traveling.

“Now, as we get older, there’s opportunity and so many things that we do. Listen, when you can provide the service and the consistency that we do, the sky’s the limit. So, I don’t have one specific plan, certainly not looking to retire anytime soon,” Linder says. “I’m aggressive. I hustle. … I love what we do. It’s a passion.”

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Drew Limsky

Drew Limsky

Editor-in-Chief

BIOGRAPHY

Drew Limsky joined Lifestyle Media Group in August 2020 as Editor-in-Chief of South Florida Business & Wealth. His first issue of SFBW, October 2020, heralded a reimagined structure, with new content categories and a slew of fresh visual themes. “As sort of a cross between Forbes and Robb Report, with a dash of GQ and Vogue,” Limsky says, “SFBW reflects South Florida’s increasingly sophisticated and dynamic business and cultural landscape.”

Limsky, an avid traveler, swimmer and film buff who holds a law degree and Ph.D. from New York University, likes to say, “I’m a doctor, but I can’t operate—except on your brand.” He wrote his dissertation on the nonfiction work of Joan Didion. Prior to that, Limsky received his B.A. in English, summa cum laude, from Emory University and earned his M.A. in literature at American University in connection with a Masters Scholar Award fellowship.

Limsky came to SFBW at the apex of a storied career in journalism and publishing that includes six previous lead editorial roles, including for some of the world’s best-known brands. He served as global editor-in-chief of Lexus magazine, founding editor-in-chief of custom lifestyle magazines for Cadillac and Holland America Line, and was the founding editor-in-chief of Modern Luxury Interiors South Florida. He also was the executive editor for B2B magazines for Acura and Honda Financial Services, and he served as travel editor for Conde Nast. Magazines under Limsky’s editorship have garnered more than 75 industry awards.

He has also written for many of the country’s top newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Boston Globe, USA Today, Worth, Robb Report, Afar, Time Out New York, National Geographic Traveler, Men’s Journal, Ritz-Carlton, Elite Traveler, Florida Design, Metropolis and Architectural Digest Mexico. His other clients have included Four Seasons, Acqualina Resort & Residences, Yahoo!, American Airlines, Wynn, Douglas Elliman and Corcoran. As an adjunct assistant professor, Limsky has taught journalism, film and creative writing at the City University of New York, Pace University, American University and other colleges.