A look at man behind empire of South Fla. restaurants

John Kunkel force behind Khong River House, Yardbird, Swine, among others

MIAMI - There's a good chance that most people living in South Florida have eaten at a Lime Fresh Mexican Grill.

Most people might not know the man behind Lime is a 43-year-old former dishwasher named John Kunkel, who is the force behind an empire of other booming restaurants in South Florida.

Kunkel sold Lime to Ruby Tuesday for $24 million, keeping the original one on Alton Road on South Beach. He would eventually grow his business to three more restaurants, one lounge, 500 employees and is estimated to gross $50 million this year alone.

Local 10 met Kunkel at Khong River House, one of his newest restaurants off Lincoln Road.

Affable and respectful, Kunkel was more than willing to talk about his unique entrance into the restaurant business. He didn't go to culinary school: He learned on the job, in the kitchen.

"I've been in business since I was 15 years old. I think my first job washing dishes at a restaurant, it took me all of two weeks as I watched the guy running three stations on a busy night going, 'Boy I want to do that,'" he said.

Hard work didn't scare him off.

In 2001, Kunkel opened Taste Bakery Cafe on South Beach. He said he had no help from investors; he took out a second mortgage on his house and worked as his own general contractor to renovate the building.

Before he sold Taste, that's when he opened Lime, which grew from its original location on South Beach to nine more locations in South Florida.

The sale of Lime in could have marked the end of Kunkel's work in the restaurant business, but instead, Kunkel said it made possible the next chapter in his career.

"I think you have to love this business or it'll chew you up," he said.

In 2011, Kunkel and his company, 50 Eggs, opened Yardbird Southern Table and Bar.

The next year, he opened Khong River House off Lincoln Road and Swine in Coral Gables.

All three have received popular and critical acclaim.

"We haven't had any failures, knock on wood -- but we've always had stumbling blocks along the way," he said.

One issue was in June 2013, when Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, the chef at Khong, left nearly seven months after the restaurant opened. 50 Eggs filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. Court records show the chef countered with a motion to dismiss. The matter was settled and dismissed, according to Arreeratn's attorney.

Kunkel has plenty of advice to up-and-coming chefs and restaurateurs. In a nutshell: Work hard, do the dirty work and never stop learning.

"A lot of chefs coming into it are passionate about the food and their craft of what they put their time into. But the restaurant business is so much more than that," he said. "You can cook for your friends, you can cook for your family - but when you are moving hundreds of people through your restaurant every day, and kind of focusing on consistency and really trying to be the best within your trade and your industry, that really just takes constant learning along the way."

To learn more about restaurants in the 50 Eggs group, click here.

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