Phil Suarez is scoring big — and proving he’s in a league of his own.
As the saying goes, “A mentor enables you to achieve but it’s the hero that shows you what achievement looks like.” No one shows it better than today’s special guest on this episode of Changemakers.
If you Google him, you will find 4 words come up: American entrepreneur and restauranteur. But that hardly encapsulates the magnitude of his success and his many accomplishments. Pick an industry and he has conquered it. He’s worked with the best and the brightest within the advertising industry, winning many accolades and hundreds of awards; he has worked with some of the most iconic music greats, from Michael Jackson to Lionel Ritchie, and produced some of their most memorable videos. And, he just so happens to be the producer of the Tony award-winning Broadway show, Kinky Boots. You may be asking yourself, “What has this man not done?” But, more importantly, what has this man not excelled in? He has an uncanny instinct for real estate. His restaurant empire spans the globe from New York, Las Vegas, and California to Shanghai and Dubai. Restaurants such Mercer Kitchen, ABC Kitchen, ABC Cocina, ABC-V, Patria, JoJo, the list goes on and on. If you Google best restaurants in the U.S. year after year, you can be assured, Phil Suarez had something to do with them. He is a maverick, he’s a visionary, he’s a changemaker, he’s my personal hero, the phenomenal Phil Suarez.
Phil Suarez (PS): Hi, I don’t know about phenomenal but I am very happy to be joining you.
Patricia Sierra-Sampson (PSS): I am very pleased that you are able to join us. Besides Changemakers we have a segment that is called #YoSoy (I Am) which is our way to introduce our audience of Latinos and non-Latinos to the many ways U.S. Latinos are impacting our nation and economy. Can you give me a Yo Soy intro and tell us a little about Phil Suarez?
PS: Yo soy Phil Suarez! I am just a Puerto-Rican kid from the Heights who was very fortunate and has been able to achieve a lot of great things mostly by circumstance and just taking advantage, I would say, probably of my street sense. Growing up a kid in New York and using those moments to enhance my life.
PSS: I think you are being extremely modest. I know you have excelled since the beginning in a variety of ways. Specifically, early on in sports. Would you consider yourself a natural when it comes to baseball?
PS: Yes, I was a pretty good athlete. As most kids in those days, all you did all day besides going to school was play sports. We played CYO, PAL, YMCA. I’ll give you a quick story. I was playing basketball for St. Elizabeth; I was playing in the finals of a CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) tournament. In those days, the priests and nuns would sit courtside and they would have drums and would really be part of the game. I remember going out on the court — music playing tara ra ra…I would take layups. All of a sudden, the drum stops and the priests were looking at me. I said, ‘what’s going on?’ Well, I looked at myself and see I am wearing a Jewish Star of David on my shirt and realized I had played the night before for the local YMHA (Young Men’s Hebrew Association) team! So, I did one of those backpedal (music plays tara ra ra) and I went right back into the gym and put on my CYO shirt and the game continued. That gives you a sense of what we did as kids. In those days, we were all part of a whole bunch of stuff. It was a wonderful time to grow up and If I have any success now, a lot of it lends itself to those learning days as a kid.
PS: A hundred percent! The thing is I also went to school out in Iowa —again another learning curve in my life. If you have ever been in Iowa they certainly had no idea who this Puerto Rican kid was. I think all they wanted me to do was sing Maria and do the whole score of West Side Story. It worked to my advantage, though. It was also learning about different types of folks from all over the country and what their mindsets were. I am very grateful for going out there. For me, it was a whole other experience. I learned there were a lot of nice people are there. I am very endeared to the Midwest folks. They also taught me a sense of responsibility, respect, and that it wasn’t all just street stuff. It was a whole other life. Another learning experience.
PSS: Interestingly enough, you are picking up lessons of empathy and understanding because you now have been exposed to different types of people in Washington Heights and Iowa This kind of sensitivity lends itself well to what was to come when you took on the internship within advertising. Can you tell us about that?
PS: My advertising career started very weird. I like to say that I received the first athletic scholarship in the history of advertising. One day my friend Dennis Mazzeled, who was a great art director for an agency called Papert, Koenig, Lois, in those days arguably the most creative agency — all ex-Doyle Dane guys. They were a great creative shop. I had no idea where Central Park was, no less Madison Avenue. My friend says, “My boss is kind of a fanatic. He loves baseball, basketball, football but this year he’s GOT to win the advertising league in softball.” I was a fairly good windmill pitcher. “Would you entertain coming down and maybe pitching softball for this ad agency for the summer?” Sounds interesting, what is advertising? I went down with my glove to this ivory tower advertising building and I see the owner of the agency come out — this guy named George Lois, possibly one of the great art directors, if not the greatest art director that ever was. He has a glove and a ball and he throws me the ball and he says, “Show me what you got!” I pitched for the next five minutes and he said, “You’re hired! You got the job!” My job was pitching softball and throwing Trini Lopez parties for the ad agency — until later on, he thought this kid may have something and put me in the television production department. I stayed there two years and learned television production during the summers until I finished school. Talk about luck, circumstance, right place, right time. You try to capitalize on these things. And, we won the advertising league for two years in a row so I was kind of a mini-hero to him. And he is and will always be my mentor and my dear friend.
PSS: I am not doubting your prowess of softball but you are talking the greats of advertising you were exposed to and I am sure there were a lot of lessons learned from being around them. Do you see from that experience what traits they were already seeing in you? You are obviously very charismatic and you seem a natural salesperson. Can you give me some background on that?
PS: Well, for example, our softball team had guys like Carl Ally, Sam Scali, Ed McCabe all these legends are all on this softball team I was pitching for. At that time, they were collectively making more money than the New York Yankees were making! If you know anything about advertising, this was a whole different breed of folks. They were easy to really get to like. You had the Italian art director, the Jewish copywriter, and the Waspy management guy, so right there you had a group of very diverse people that you got to know and they embraced me. At the end of the day, they liked winners, and I was winning for them. I don’t even think they ever even saw a Puerto-Rican in their life at that time. I like to think I brought a little of that stuff into it. Going back to my childhood, I always thought I could wing my way through life but I never dreamed of a world like this coming from the Heights and all of a sudden, you’re with these guys with their Brioni suits and you know. It was like, pinch me, where am I?
PSS: It’s also a testament to these greats that they saw in you a talent they could cultivate. You may have come in through the door that softball brought you in, but obviously, I don’t think you would have stayed as long as you did and accomplished what you did in that industry if it was just based on one thing. They saw the charisma and a natural salesperson. I am sure you did quite well in securing clients and cultivating those relationships, am I right?
PS: Yes, it was great because a lot of those guys were from places like mine. Brooklyn, Queens, they all had neighborhoods; they all played kick the can and stickball. In those days that’s what the city was all about. I was accepted immediately and it was God sent.
PSS: And it seems like sports again was the underlying thread as we segue into the next big relationship that had a big effect in your life is when you met Bob Giraldi — and wasn’t it on a basketball court?
PS: Yes, we met on a basketball court and we had a bit of an altercation. They separated us and we remembered each other. It was Young & Rubicam playing Papert, Koenig, Lois. Then my wife went to work for an agency Della Famina Travisano and I went up to visit her and she said, “You remember this guy?” It was Bob Giraldi, and he had already known of my reputation as a film guy and he was a brilliant art director. And, how things happen in my life, I get a phone call from him saying Phil would you be interested, and I said ‘let’s meet!’ We were in our late 20s and had a big chance in our life and we took it. We opened Giraldi Suarez Productions. The first year we were able to win 6-7 Clios, which in the world of advertising is our Oscars. The first year we were in business we swept the awards. We never looked back. We remained partners for 30 years.
PSS: It was so important how you cultivated relationships, a trait grounded in your advertising background. You knew how important the relationship is. And with Bob Giraldi and the production company you both founded, you were able to break new ground. You are very innovative and an out of the box thinker. You formed relationships with some of the most iconic artists. I mean, no one of that caliber just signs up with a new company! But, before you know it, you have Michael Jackson, Lionel Ritchie, and Diana Ross. How did this come about?
PS: That came about because that was a medium we were watching and it was up and coming. There was an avenue there to find out a little more about it. We both looked into it and I found the source that was responsible for doing music videos. Those days it wasn’t really a business, it was just a thought. By circumstance, I met someone who knew of our work and told me that Michael Jackson was interested in doing something. So, I made a couple of calls and had the pleasure of meeting his managers. They said, ‘we are going to give you a shot!’ And it was quite a shot. The first one we did was Beat It! A lot of folks at MTV said we are responsible for launching MTV and that whole music video world. It took it into a very sexy, exciting level. The way he was dressed etc... all of a sudden, we became a darling of his and we went on to do stuff with him and Paul McCartney. There was a video called Say Say Say, and I actually was in one of the scenes with LaToya. Paul McCartney and Lionel Ritchie to this day think of those days very fondly, it was cool. It wasn’t overdone. Now geez, the costumes alone, the elaboration and the lighting…
PS: It’s just like advertising was in those days. You understood it. It’s like my partner now in the restaurant world. He cooks understandably. You sit down for a meal and you get all the great flavors, but you know what you are eating. That’s what we did in those days with the videos. Pretty much it was what it was.
PS: Wow, that’s pretty darn good. I still can’t pronounce his name, I call him Joe! But, don’t call him Gene-Georges!
PS: Going on 31-32 years. This again happened by chance and circumstance. I was investing in a steakhouse in Gramercy Park and these two guys who owned it wanted to go to Cote Basque. But, I was like, I’m not a Cote Basque kind of guy. I am tired of that old French food and all that but I heard there is this great young chef up at the Drake Hotel, Lafayette. Why don’t we go there? That was the first time I saw a kitchen with a glass opening and you can see the performance going on. And here we are at this beautiful restaurant with this French kid with this little moustache — cute as can be — working this room. This food… you couldn’t imagine. We were eating French food with carrot juice and emulsions. My goodness, just light and understandable. These two gentlemen fell in love with him that evening. I went to Europe to do a commercial and come back and lo and behold they had hired him as a consultant to our restaurant. I was an investor, one of their partners. We got to know each other and then again, a phone call. He calls and says ‘Phil would you be inte…’ and before he finished the word ‘interested’ I was at his doorstep. That day we shook hands; a week later I gave him a check for x amount of dollars to open our first restaurant in 1990 called JoJo. JoJo’s is still there and we are still partners.
PS: Of course it was. Ah yes, Doug Rodriguez. I always want to keep close to my roots.
PS: Just think out of the box. And, just taking shots, you know. I always believe when I see a great talent. I love talent. Creative people have always been a part of my life. At that time, Doug Rodriguez was one of the great young Latin talents in the food world. I liked the whole nuevo Latino concept. He was doing very well with Yuca in Miami Beach. I liked the food and flavors and said New York is ready for this, So I bought him over and we opened at my old place Positano. Lo and behold, it got rave reviews and we kept on doing it.
PS: You don’t want to know what my wife calls me!
PS: Well, I had the opportunity to make it into a Jean-Georges restaurant. Even Lucy was kind enough to understand. Like you say, you have to have a sense of feel, timing is everything in this game. You know when a concept is tired; you know when a concept is not being accepted; you know when a concept is ready to be changed. And so this was ready to be changed. And she went along with it.
PSS: And Lucy is involved in another layer of your success. She co-produced with you Broadway’s Kinky Boots?
PS: Yes, she did. In fact, she was the one that introduced me to the people that wanted me to invest in it. Together we did our homework and we invested. At first, a small amount of money but then I got a call. They said, ‘Phil, do you want to be a producer or do you want to be an investor?’ So I asked, ‘what does that mean?’ He said, ‘another zero!’ So that is how that happened. Of course I’d like to tell you I know Broadway like nobody’s business, but like the restaurant world, the fatality rate is beyond the norm. I took a shot, again. I threw the spaghetti against the wall and God knows it really stuck! We are now in our fifth year, a world tour. It’s been so much fun. I have met so many great people associated with Broadway since then.
PSS: In looking at your life and this arc of your career, from my standpoint, I see you have let others be on the stage while you have been behind the scenes. If we look at the connector among all those successes whether its advertising, restaurants, whatever — who is at the center of it all? It’s Phil Suarez. Even with all this success, you are still innovating and trying to keep your finger on the pulse. You are investing in a new tech start-up, Salido, and your newest real estate investment in Seaport District NYC. Can you tell us more about this?
PS: I am helping curate this South Seaport which is this multi-billion project that they are doing down at the tip of Manhattan. They are redoing totally the old South Street Seaport. It is a company called Howard Hughes, who is a major investor and Jean-Georges, and I have become the pillars of the restaurant component. I have been able to draw a lot of great young talent like David Chang, those kinds of guys into this project. I think It’s going to be iconic, it’s just so beautiful. That neighborhood is just booming like crazy.
One thing I don’t want to lose sight of is the most important thing that I am doing now: my love of charities. I am a keen supporter of organizations like PAL and The Garden of Dreams. I am head of Catholic Big Brothers, those kinds of things that help Latin men and from all over the world. Anybody who has made anything, done anything, should really give back. The kids are the foundation of our society. That’s more important than all the nonsense and all the accolades.
PSS: You beat me to the punch, I was going to celebrate all the philanthropy work you do, even with the kind of schedule you keep. For you to give back the way you do is a great testament to who you are. Can we close this out by sharing some words of advice? If there is a young chef or a someone starting in business out there, what do you think are the crucial characteristics or traits they should possess or cultivate?
PS: Believing in yourself, of course. And, listen. Learn, learn, learn! You are never too smart or too good, or too bright to learn from others. Don’t close your ears; open up those ears. Perseverance and hard work. It hasn’t changed. It is what it is. A lot of hard work, a lot of decency. The future is yours; it’s up to you. It’s your oyster, and if you want to add some Tabasco to it, well… that is what I have done and I am very happy for it!