There are so many factors that can make or break a new restaurant. But for The Big Cheese, they had the right combination from the start – a pair of Miami Hurricane Hall of Famers, Melvin Bratton and Alonzo Highsmith, and a simple request that helped put this landmark pizza and pasta restaurant on the map in its very first year.
“We want carbs…. Lots of carbs.”
The duo needed loads of “fuel” and this new spot right off of US1, close to the UM campus, had plenty of it – great menu options to keep these hungry Hurricanes happy. The year was 1984, and word spread quickly among the team and fans that this was the new place to go.
But it takes more than a few football players eating at your restaurant to keep business going strong for 35 years. For The Big Cheese, a big part of their popularity and success was another important ingredient – unwavering commitment to quality.
It’s in the Ingredients
The Big Cheese puts great emphasis on quality of ingredients that go into their food and quality in the people who prepare it and serve it. In fact, the ingredients they use are the same you get at really expensive Italian restaurants.
From the tomatoes that come straight from the San Joaquin Valley in California, to the pasta imported directly from Italy, and the thousands of pounds of high-quality mozzarella they use each month, customers are treated to the finest ingredients – with the difference being they serve large portions at a family price.
This commitment to quality is something that restaurant founder Bill Archer and his lifelong friend Garry Duell learned from a very early age. Their first business venture was an avocado and mango stand on Sunset Drive when they were kids.
At the age of 14, Archer started working as a dishwasher at Chicken Unlimited before moving on to Parentes Pizza. Soon after, in 1976, he was hired as the opening pizza man at College Park Inn at age 16.
Go West Young Man
Within two years of graduating from Killian High School, Archer hit road to California to visit his brother who at that time was just discharged from service in Vietnam. With no set plan, he went with what was most familiar to him and got a job at Dario’s Pizzeria in San Francisco.
Assigned to work solo most of the time, he was stunned when he discovered that on the nights he was off, the pizza pit was manned by three pizza men working simultaneously. So basically, Archer was doing the job of three guys – and doing it well!
Dario’s Pizzeria also taught him about preparing all the staples an Italian menu offers. It was under these Italian and Greek chefs that he was schooled in making lasagna and other pasta dishes – the right way.
The impact Dario’s had on his life and career is something that remains dear to his heart to this day. In fact, the pizza pit at The Big Cheese is patterned after that old set up from San Francisco, with three pizza makers working in concert to prepare a constant flow of pizza on the busiest nights.
Tried and True
The current menu at The Big Cheese even features a tried-and-true recipe Archer took directly from Dario’s: The Big Cheese Hawaiian. Now this pizza is not what you normally expect to get in a Hawaiian. This version uses a sweet duck-sauce base and is topped with mozzarella, pineapple, Canadian bacon, and coconut shavings. And no tomato sauce. Now you know the secret!
For Archer, pizza making is a dying art. Anybody can take some dough and slap some sauce and cheese on it – but true pizza making takes time, experience, and passion. Opening and dressing a pizza and then mastering baking time in a pizza oven with multiple pies going at the same time is something that takes years to perfect. To be a pizza man at The Big Cheese, you have to earn it, by having at least three to five years experience.
It’s that very quality, experience, that truly sets The Big Cheese apart. Several employees have been with Bill and Garry in South Miami since the very beginning, with the average tenure of among the crew being 16 years.
Manager Salvatore Aiello started in 1985 and is still working hard despite two open-heart surgeries. And because it takes firm hands to manage the late shift, they’ve got Night Manager Angelo Montoya and Erika Chamorro managing the office and dining room to ensure everything’s running smoothly.
If ever you wonder why Archer refers to his staff as his “familia,” it’s because there’s real family among the ranks. Kitchen & Day General Manager Oscar Marquez has worked The Big Cheese alongside is his wife, a server & dining room manager, for 27 years – and now their daughter Andria is here as well.
Sauté Chef Oliver Urbina has been at the restaurant since he was in a baby carriage and now also serves as a manager. He’s the one who laughs so hard it reverberates throughout the dining room.
Most people think a restaurant has to work like an assembly line, quick and efficient. But Sauté Chef Xavier Martinez sees the controlled chaos of the kitchen as something much more beautiful.
“It’s a symphony,” he says, one that plays out best on a busy Saturday night as Martinez balances up to 22 different dishes simultaneously at his sauté station while the three pizza chefs strike a note of unity in preparing upwards of 14 pizzas at a time.
As The Big Cheese celebrate in its 35th anniversary in April 2019, Archer has been thinking back to the opening of original restaurant in 1984, and all the challenges they encountered moving across the street to their current location.
In fact, many customers would be surprised to learn that the original restaurant where the Hurricane players hung out 35 years ago was actually on the north side of SW 67th Avenue, in the red-and-white building now occupied by Wall’s Old Fashioned Ice Cream. Despite it being only across the street, that 300-foot journey took over two years to accomplish – due to a lot of red tape!
It was 1989, when Archer and Duell were all set to make the big move when the city informed them that due to limited sewer access they could only operate with 12 seats here. With the help of the Department of Environmental Resource Management, Miami-Dade Water & Sewer, and general contractor Henry Savage, they built a sewage treatment plant that allowed them to open with a higher capacity.
Despite the setbacks, Archer remembers the words Savage would say to him repeatedly during those trying times: “Get the doors open, son.” With a big slice of their budget literally gone down the drain, they were forced to cut back on décor upgrades. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as patrons appreciated the familiarity.
At midnight on April 3, 1991, they packed everything up and wheeled it all across 67th Avenue. Despite the challenges, the move resulted in having to skip just one lunch service. By 6:30 p.m. that day, they were open again and full of hungry patrons for dinner.
Players Bratton and Highsmith’s requirement to consume carbs has evolved into the restaurant being an official sponsor of the University of Miami. When you walk into The Big Cheese, you can see the storied history of it’s 35 years in operation proudly displayed upon the dining room walls.
And perhaps if you pay close attention, amidst the bellowing laughter and happy chatter, the full flavor and history of The Big Cheese will emerge before you, in the people who work there and in recipes perfected over 35 amazing years in business.
For more information, visit online at www.BIGCHEESEMIAMI.com or call 305-662-6855. The Big Cheese of Miami is located at 8080 SW 67 Ave., Miami.