An ‘80s-themed milkshake bar. The oldest operating Jewish deli in Miami-Dade. An 18-tap craft beer hotspot. A sustainably and locally sourced burger joint.
What could all of these different concepts possibly have in common?
Welcome to Kush Hospitality.
Matthew Kuscher, known by his friends (and now us) as Kush, opened his first restaurant in 2011 in Miami. “I’m a third-generation restaurateur—it was my mission to open a restaurant.” His grandfather ran multiple restaurants and bars, including The Plantation Nook in Florida’s Broward County, a breakfast spot where Kush spent his childhood summers working. From the age of seven, he worked in nearly every position at his father’s cafeterias in the Washington DC area. These experiences introduced him to the hospitality industry at a young age, naturally sending him on the path to becoming a restaurateur himself.
“The greatest gift of this country is entrepreneurship. You can come from anywhere in the world and start a business and make something of yourself.” And he did just that—with flying colors: The Juan’s Fidy-Fidy burger at LoKal was named one of America’s best burgers and number one in Florida by TimeOut. Travel + Leisure praised LoKal for its eco-friendly efforts, a “rooftop garden, compost program, and up-cycled boho décor,” naming it the best farm-to-table restaurant in Florida. Even the chips and dip are top notch: the smoked fish dip at Kush by Spillover was named the best dip in Florida by the Food Network.
Our recent chat with Kush covered his diverse collection of dining concepts (seven and counting), what it means to be a part of the Miami culture, and why he’s grateful that his mom has a tough time throwing anything away.
How were the launches for your first concepts, and how did you set yourself up for success?
I opened my first restaurant in 2011 called LoKal. It’s a farm-to-table concept here in Miami using local grass-fed beef, local beers. It was kind of an immediate success. So we opened up Kush in Wynwood, which is a different suburb of Miami, and that was more of a beer concept. We kept the same principles of farm-to-table and making everything from scratch and in house, but it had more focus on beer. It ended up becoming its own animal and really becoming a restaurant as well.
When you open your first concept, the most important thing is to be there and to make sure that every guest leaves there thinking it’s the best place they have been. So for me, what I try to do is I try to hit every check mark. The food’s got to be good. The decor has got to be good. The service has got to be good. But then you got to go next level.
How’s the music? I hand select every song on my playlist because I want a certain vibe in there. I go extreme when it comes to music. I try to watch as many foreign films as possible just to hear new songs and new music that my next door neighbor will not be playing.
Do they have kids? Okay, great—I hand out toys to the kids. I have high chairs, and instead of having a high chair that looks generic and brown, I had a party and invited all the kids to paint the high chairs.
Do they have dogs? Well, we make homemade dog biscuits every day. We give them out for free, and any dog that walks by gets them. We have a doggy menu.
And you keep going down the list and down the list. When you open a new restaurant, you really have to hit the mark for every single guest. When you open your second concept, hopefully you’ve built a little bit of integrity, and they’ll start following you. I think I’m at the point where people know, and they’re going to give me a shot one time when I open a new concept. They’re not necessarily going to come twice, but they’ll give me at least one shot now.
What makes your restaurant concepts unique?
Nothing about my restaurants is cookie cutter. It’s all very personal. Thank God my mom is somewhat of a hoarder, and she saved a lot of cool things throughout the years, so I can implement my history, my toys, her artwork, or anything that she kept through the years. So when you go to one of the restaurants, you’re going to be like, “You can’t replicate that.” That’s my mom’s, that’s my dad’s, that’s my family’s.
I go out of my way to hit the areas of restaurants that people don’t pay attention to and make those the focus points. For example, you usually just buy a urinal cake and throw it in the urinal. Well, we’re in Miami. So I have Fidel Castro in the urinal cake, a picture of him. So we throw it in there, and everybody loves peeing on Fidel Castro.
Right now, I’m working on wine buckets. Soda crackers are a really big thing in the Cuban and Caribbean community. So I’m working on getting all the tins of the soda crackers and turning those into our wine buckets, instead of everybody just getting a generic wine bucket. So I really try to find the things that nobody kind of pays attention to.
I also have a milkshake bar, Vicky’s House. It’s themed after my mom’s house in the 1980s, and everything in there is literally from the ’80s, which is why it’s great that my mom is a hoarder because she had a lot of the stuff. And the reality is, if it looked like it was from the ’80s, it doesn’t make the cut. If it’s actually from the ’80s, it makes the cut. I love when people come in and say, “I’ve never seen that before. How did you think of this? How did you do this?”
That’s all I do is think about crazy wild ideas. I mean, as I’m sitting here, it’s my mom’s 75th birthday, and we just made a beer after her [holds up a can of beer with a decorative label]. And on it is the wallpaper at her milkshake bar that it’s themed after. And I grew up with this wallpaper in my house. So we did a limited run, and it’ll be gone by next week, but I love doing fun, crazy things like that.
How does the culture of Miami fit into your approach?
I want you to walk into my business and say, “I’ve never seen that before. I don’t even understand that if I’m not from Miami.” Or more importantly, if you’re from Miami, you’d be like, “Man, I love that. How did I not think about that?”
In Miami, the local community college is Miami Dade College, and everybody has pretty much either gone there or their brother or sister has gone there. And when you’re driving, either you have a Miami Dade sticker on the back of your car, or the car in front of you has it. So I did a whole wall of just the “I am MDC” stickers, which is kind of their logo, and put that up as a big art piece.
And I’m not from Miami. I was not born and raised here. So as an outsider who’s been here now 20 years, I think my eyes and my lens are a little different. I appreciate everything in Miami; I love Miami. I want to spread my wings here, and I want people to appreciate what I see, which maybe they don’t appreciate because they see it every day and overlook it.
Tell us more about your presence in Miami’s Hialeah area specifically.
The Jewish deli was there since 1954. I purchased it two years ago, and the beautiful part about the deli is that it used to be in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Now it is a 99% Cuban neighborhood—North Cuba is what they call it. And the deli never left because there was a guy named Junior, who’s 84 years old, and he still works there and hand slices the pastrami and corned beef.
Because he never left and stopped doing those little tiny things like hand slicing, the deli survived. And even though it was on its last legs, I came in to revive it. So I went there because of the deli itself and because I thought Hialeah deserved more credit. I kind of cut the deli in half, and I opened up a cocktail bar, which is themed 100% after Hialeah.
How is Hialeah represented in the deli and cocktail bar?
There’s a guy named Hialeah Spiderman that goes around on 49th Street, selling women’s shoes. He has a Spiderman car and dresses up like Spiderman. And you can be from Miami, here your whole life, and have no idea who that person is. But if you’re from Hialeah, you know who that is because you’ve driven on that main drag at one point in the last 15 years of your life. So I themed my entire bathroom around Hialeah’s Spiderman. So people from Hialeah, they find a lot of pride because they’re like, “Wow, I know who that is. And how did you know who that is?”
And the other restroom is [themed after] Walter Mercado. We wanted to give love to what you would grow up with in your Spanish culture—your grandma would watch Walter Mercado. So you’re in a Jewish deli. You walk to the bathroom, and all of a sudden you’re in Walter Mercado’s bedroom. And it’s just a total flip flop of your brain.
Walter Mercado was a Puerto Rican television personality, most well known for his animated TV shows as an astrologer, sharing horoscopes with millions of viewers for decades. The Kush restroom paying homage to Mercado was even featured in the Netflix documentary “Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado.”
A lot of the artwork is also based on discount stores that are very well known here for people to buy clothes and send them to their home countries. So we did a whole art piece and made the storefront part of our art. We do a lot of fun things like that to really embrace Hialeah.
How do you come up with these out-of-the-box ideas?
There are a lot of people that throw in ideas. By no stretch of imagination is it just me. Right now, I’m working on a new concept, and I don’t like walking into cookie cutter shells. I like to see things with a little bit of swag to it or something that’s a little bit unique. Even if it’s dingy, I just love it. And immediately my brain goes nuts. So I get all these crazy ideas. My team knows that I have crazy ideas, so they have no problem and no shame throwing crazy ideas at me because they know that I’ll probably use them.
And then I use an artist, Camilo Rojas. I met him when we first opened LoKal. And he takes my crazy ideas and turns them into pieces of art. With me, it would just be a man cave. He turns that Walter Mercado bathroom into a piece of art that gets on a Netflix documentary.
How do you weave Latin culture into your decor?
We have a little waiting area [at Kush] because it’s so small. And that waiting area is called the Botánica. In Miami, there are more botánicas than anywhere else in the world per capita because we have a big Cuban and big Haitian community that still practices Santería—so we themed the waiting room around it.
My background is Puerto Rican, and my grandfather was involved in raising chickens and what not, so I have a lot of great artwork and trinkets [in the Botánica]—either things my mom made or things I kept from my family. So we pay homage to that part of Miami.
What is a botánica? El Viejo Lazano, a botánica and santería shop in Miami, describes it as “a type of drug store or pharmacy that sells a combination of products that are used in Western medicine and traditional products that have health as well as spiritual significance in Latin American cultures.“
What is your approach to staffing with so many concepts and positions?
We’re about 10 years in, and most of my higher-level staff are day-one employees because I really like to promote from within. My head accountant was a day-one server. My head of marketing was a day-one server. Two of my kitchen managers were day-one greeters or kitchen employees. My director of operations, who is my right-hand person, who basically runs the company at this point, I hired her at 16 years old as a greeter. And 10 years later, she’s running the company.
My big motto is, if you’re good to me, I’m going to treat you better. And I’ve been lucky and fortunate that people have been good to me, so I honor that and treat them better. Because of that, I think we’ve had a lot of longevity with a lot of our employees.
And I don’t want me to be the face of the company. I want the brand to be what it is and the employees to shine. I’d rather just be behind the scenes, making sure that everything runs properly.
What attracted you to entrepreneurship?
There’s a big difference between working for somebody and working for yourself. When you work for a company, it’s easy to go into somebody and say, “Oh, well, that’s wrong. I would do this differently. I would do that differently.” The reality is I don’t want to be the guy sitting behind a desk. I didn’t get into the restaurant industry because I want to look at a P&L and say, “Hey, this location is doing 2% higher than this location.” That’s not what my drive is. That’s not what my goal is. I like to be creative and come up with new concepts. And that’s just the kind of person that I want to be.
What continues to drive you?
There’s a big difference between a dream and a goal. When you have a goal, it’s the most satisfying thing in the world when you’ve actually achieved it. And nothing can take that away. I’ve created stories. I’ve seen people who’ve met on a first date and now have kids. I’ve impacted a life of stories in this community. That’s the greatest feeling I’ve ever had in my life, and I want to make sure that everybody that wants to have that feeling can share it. Not everybody wants to have that feeling, and it’s not for everybody, but for the people that do, it’s the greatest feeling in the world.
That said, it’s extremely difficult. It is not easy. But it’s worth trying, because I’m glad I’m sitting here today. If I was not sitting in this chair, the satisfaction I would have in myself would be different. I look at my wife and myself—we had nothing. And now we look at each other like, we’ve created this. And nothing, no one can take that away.
Kush was just one of the perspectives we soaked in to celebrate Latinx Heritage Month. Check out these restauranteurs as they share their passion for Miami’s rich Latin community and all the deliciousness that comes with it.
Photos from Kush Hospitality; interview by Emily Washcovick.
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