Since its original owners broke ground in 1945, Epicure Gourmet Market & Cafe has remained one of the oldest food institutions in Miami Beach.
Since then, a lot has changed, including Epicure’s ownership. Jason Starkman took over the operation in 1998 and updated the gourmet shop in 2011. His idea was to create a store entrance on the busy Alton Road. Since then, he says, the market has maintained its old-school customer service while keeping its finger on the pulse of a new generation of shoppers.
With giant conglomerates such as Fresh Market and Whole Foods Market in the area, along with massive construction projects on Alton Road and the threat of a Zika outbreak, it’s almost a miracle that a small mom-and-pop shop such as Epicure has been able to survive and even thrive in one of Miami Beach's most expensive neighborhoods. Starkman says that success no miracle, but the ability to bend in the direction of its customers.
A couple of years ago, the market ventured into Coral Gables but closed that market soon after because of problems with the city, according to Starkman. "It was one of the most beautiful stores I’ve opened, but the city was giving us a very hard time. It was a very weird chapter; it was unfortunate and cost us a lot. We’re not ashamed of it. It is what it is."
Epicure was known for its hot-foods counter that carried classics such as brisket back in the day, but it has gained a fresh attitude with the help of rebranding and love. Three years ago, Starkman enlisted the help of chef and author Michael Love, who was brought onboard to create new recipes, including plant-based items, while giving classics a healthier twist.
The exclusive brand Epicure With Love was cocreated by Starkman, and Love items are found throughout areas of the market, including the refrigerated and hot sections. Almost all the meals are created in-house, including 30 varieties of salads that change daily. Other Epicure With Love items are salad dressings, soups, and baked goods.
“We first had to address the culinary revolution and get away from the oils, preservatives, more greens, less fried foods, not only to compete but to keep our tradition of best-quality products and doing it in a fresh, new way,” Love says. “I started doing cooking classes here and around South Florida, and continued at Epicure as we introduced all-natural foods.”
Since then, the Epicure team has worked diligently to incorporate that sense of respect for people and food into all of its products. A redesign of the flagship market includes brightened walls, lower shelves, and new packaging for microwaveable and recyclable containers.
Although aesthetically the store has been updated, the heart of the business has remained the same, with some of the original team members still working there. Employees such as general manager Mark Burnstein and gourmet-cheese lady Ann Chassen have worked at the store for more than 20 years. Chassen says it's been a lot of fun and an excellent place to learn about people.
“We have the best customers. If they like something, they buy it. We have a lot of young people coming in, and if you’re not people-oriented, you couldn’t sell a thing at this job, but I love it here, and I would probably work for free. It’s so much fun in this store because we have people from everywhere, and everyone has a story.”
Love and Starkman both agree it’s their reputation and knowledge of the way things were done in the past that have kept them afloat during tough times. To compete with larger chains, Starkman has also dropped prices on products.
“I want people to come in here and eat what I make. Why would I make them go somewhere else because the prices are different? I don’t want people to feel they are being punished for coming here to get what they want. Times have changed,” Starkman says. “When you call something a 'gourmet market,' it needs to feel like home. At any given time, I’m here or at my other store. We try to interact with our customers all the time. Friends have asked me why I haven’t installed a computer at the deli for people to order, but I don’t want to go that direction. I want you to talk to somebody. That’s business. That’s what we do. That personal touch is what I’m striving to keep.”
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