Under One Roof | NACS – Magazine – Past Issues – 2014 – February 2014
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Under One Roof

A Miami convenience store has evolved into a fine-dining destination, café and wine store — with gas pumps.

​By Sarah Hamaker

At first glance, El Carajo has a bit of an identity crisis. From the outside, the Miami business appears to be a gasoline station and convenience store. But once inside, three other distinct personalities emerge: the Bakery Café, the Wine Shoppe and the International Tapas Restaurant.

“This is a developing idea based on my theory that convenience stores need to evolve, that the industry has been taken over by drugstores like Walgreens and CVS,” said owner Ricardo Fonseca. “So we moved on to food and wine, and kept only a small, typical convenience store.”

Modest Beginnings
When Fonseca first operated the BP-branded gasoline station and convenience store in the late 1980s, he also ran a car wash attached to the store. But 20 years ago, his love of fine wines pushed him to take a gamble and convert the car wash into a wine store stocked with more than 1,800 bottles of “good wine,” as he put it. Today, the Wine Shoppe has more than 2,200 bottles for sale. “We chose wine because it requires a lot more skill to serve and stock,” he said. “We also wanted to be set apart in the marketplace.”

Soon after the Wine Shoppe launched, a trip to Italy fired Fonseca’s imagination. Upon his return, Fonseca tried a number of different formats to try to capture the taste and feel of the gourmet food he had experienced in Italy at highway rest stops. Finally, he decided to incorporate a fine-dining restaurant in the middle of the wine store, similar to ones he had visited in Italy. “Several famous restaurants started out as wine cellars or stores,” he said.

The final result: The International Tapas Restaurant, which seats 55 diners. The fine-dining restaurant debuted eight years ago, with a menu based on Spanish cuisine. “At least 40% of the menu is Spanish food, the rest is Spanish fusion,” said Fonseca. The full-service kitchen — with a head chef, sous chefs and line cooks — tackles an extensive menu featuring fresh salads, soups, hot and cold tapas, entrees and dessert. The cuisine has garnered numerous awards, including being listed in the Best of Miami 2013.

The wine list has wine for sale by the glass or guests can purchase a bottle for the table with a $10 corkage fee. The beverage menu is supplemented with specialty beers, such as Twisted Pine Ghost Face Killah Chili and Stone Cherry Chocolate Stout. Three years ago, with the wine shop and restaurant gaining a following, Fonseca added the next piece to the El Carajo puzzle: a bakery-deli, which serves fine chocolates, fruit tarts, Spanish desserts and chocolate pastries.

Today, El Carajo has gasoline pumps on the forecourt and four distinct areas inside that flow into one another. Customers first encounter the bakery with its circular pastry case. A downsized convenience store is tucked into a corner with SKUs of candy and salty snacks, a cooler door for bottled water and soda, and cigarettes behind the counter. Accessed through the bakery, the wine store displays thousands of bottles. Nestled around the shelves, the International Tapas Restaurant offers diners four-top tables and two trestle tables.

A major advantage to having several businesses within one building is that El Carajo is rarely slow. The bakery brings in customers during the morning and lunch dayparts, while the restaurant keeps the traffic flowing into the dinner hour starting around 6 p.m. The only time that could use a boost in customers is the 3:30 pm to 5:30 pm slot — which has Fonseca thinking up ways to stay busy in the afternoon.

The uniqueness of El Carajo has garnered attention from local and national TV, radio, newspapers (including the Miami Herald and New York Times) and magazines such as Southern Living. “We don’t have to advertise because of all the free publicity,” he said. Word of mouth also generates new customers, who come to try the tasty tapas or fine wines.

Nowadays, Fonseca has largely given the running of the enterprise over to his three sons, but it was his vision that brought El Carajo to its current iteration — and critical acclaim. Future plans include enlarging the bakery’s seating area from the current six seats to accommodate customers who want to sit down and enjoy their lunch. “When we added the food, we became a more specific destination,” Fonseca said, adding that he hopes the success of El Carajo will inspire other retailers to try something different.

Sarah Hamaker is a NACS Magazine and NACS Daily contributing writer. Visit her online at www.sarahhamaker.com