Opening a restaurant means going into enormous debt and betting that you can cook and serve your way to the other side—a journey that is rarely a straight line. Here’s how the enterprising husband and wife behind Phuc Yea, a beloved Vietnamese-Cajun restaurant with a hip-hop attitude, played the odds and won.
Back in 2011, Cesar Zapata and Ani Meinhold found themselves in a dire spot when a restaurant partnership crumbled: unemployed, out $15,000, and wondering how to keep chasing their shared dream of opening a spot of their own. That’s when they conceived of Phuc Yea as a pop-up, the first ever in Miami.
The two found a breakfast-to-lunch café that was struggling with rent and made an agreement: They would cover the $1,600 in rent in exchange for being able to use the space at night. Deal made, they maxed out a credit card at $2,500, using the money for food, supplies, and decorations, and opened up with fingers tightly crossed.
On Phuc Yea’s first night the demand was so high that all the food sold out long before closing. “This was before Instagram, but I went nuts trying to get us mentioned everywhere possible,” says Meinhold. Soon the novel operation was bringing in $10,000 a week, allowing them to pay down their initial investment, earn back what they’d lost, and stow away money for a more permanent venture.
After closing down the pop-up after three months, the two switched gears, investing $50,000 into creating their first restaurant, a new American tavern called The Federal Food, Drink & Provisions. With $50,000 from another investor, they figured they could get it up and running smoothly.
“Never again will I be so naïve!” says Meinhold, explaining that after the build-out they had no reserve funds. Though they made Federal work for five years, earning accolades, covering the $8,500 in rent along with food and labor costs, their days (and nerves) were constantly frayed. “From day one we were basically operating without any operating capital,” says Meinhold.
In 2016, their landlord at Federal raised their rent 20 percent. “We didn’t have a liquor license, we didn’t have the $200,000 you needed to get one, so we just couldn’t see making it work,” says Zapata. They closed the doors and decided to bring back Phuc Yea, but as a brick and mortar. “That’s our baby, what put our names on the map,” says Meinhold. “Now the question was: How to swing it?”
Years of praise helped them secure a lender who would finance Phuc Yea’s build-out of $400,000. The plan was to open the substantial space—4,100 square feet, 120 tables—in three months. But difficulties with the contractor and permitting derailed everything, and the new landlord required them to pay the full $15,000 monthly rent throughout the delays. “I thought we were going to lose the place before we even opened,” says Meinhold, who dealt with the blow by doing a lot of the work herself. “What was once a very well-funded restaurant was suddenly losing a lot of money. That’s when I went from not knowing how to screw in a lightbulb to becoming a carpenter, building tables, building the bar, anything to save money.”
Phuc Yea opened in 2016, 14 months later than expected, with crowds pouring in for the beloved dishes from the pop-up, along with an expanded menu. By the end of their first year, the couple was confident that they’d built a business that could carry its overhead and give them the life they were seeking.
Then, in August of 2017, Hurricane Irma hit South Florida, shutting down their power grid for three weeks. They lost $100,000, and often covered costs by forgoing their own salaries and operating as a pop-up with a grill in front of the restaurant. “And again, it was like: Is this ever going to just work?” recalls Zapata.
Rebounding, the restaurant enjoyed two years of steady growth. When COVID-19 emerged, in 2020, the couple was well prepared, having learned from their experience with Irma. “We created a delivery/takeout model when the pandemic was still a whisper, keeping it invisible on our website and then going live the moment the shutdown came,” explains Meinhold.
Today, on the eve of Phuc Yea’s seventh year, the restaurant has become as smooth an operation as any independent restaurateur can hope for. “We’re still paying down the initial loan, and have a million line items like everyone else, but we’re able to create cash reserves and keep growing,” says Meinhold.
Recently, the two opened up EatPhomo, a fast-casual spot in the Time Out Market, and a Phuc Yea booth at the Kaseya Center that operates during basketball season, and are presently revamping Phuc Yea to maximize the space for special events and live music. “What started as $10,000 a week from a pop-up is now three different operations that are bringing around $4 million a year,” says Meinhold. “It’s still a hustle, but now we can actually take vacations.”