Jimmy Rodriguez's story has all the elements of a fairy tale. In this story, a high school dropout helps his Puerto Rican father sell seafood from a pushcart alongside a highway. Slick cars whoosh past, ferrying baseball stars to nearby Yankee stadium, or across the river to Manhattan penthouses. The boy, possessed of a kinetic personality that any politician would envy, parlays the pushcart into a storefront, then upgrades that to a restaurant. A decade later he oversees a chain of four restaurants, each bearing his name: Jimmy. He is the one whirring down the highway in a Jaguar convertible; his friends are the baseball stars, his girlfriend a famous actress. And his restaurants, featuring fresh seafood like he once sold on the street, pull down over $10 million a year. By 2004, however, the ending of this fairy tale was clouded by the sale or closure of each of his restaurants. Would they reopen, returning Jimmy to fame? Or had something gone disastrously wrong?
Started Selling Seafood
on the Street
Born Jaime Rodriguez Jr. in 1963 to Puerto Rican immigrants, Rodriguez—known as "Jimmy"—grew up above a grocery store in the Bronx. It was a tight-knit community and Rodriguez blossomed in it, developing his trademark mile-wide smile and unflappable charm. A close friend later described Rodriguez to Crain's New York Business, saying "Jimmy walks into a room, and he'll say hello to 100 people before he leaves." Rodriguez was particularly impressed by his grandfather Francisco Rodriguez. "He taught me the value of a job, and that patience and kindness can make or break a person," Rodriguez told Crain's New York Business.
While in high school, Rodriguez joined his father selling seafood from the trunk of their car parked near the Major Deegan Expressway. Soon they added a seafood chowder Rodriguez's father whipped up from leftovers. The duo eventually set up a stand on a shady corner and added other Puerto Rican seafood dishes. Next they opened a 50-seat storefront named Marisco del Caribe—Spanish for Caribbean seafood. By this time Rodriguez had dropped out of high school to help run the business full-time.
The restaurant industry proved the perfect environment for Rodriguez's infectious personality. He thrived on the hustle and bustle, the constant hand-shaking. He later told the New York Times, "I love being the host." By the 1990s, Rodriguez decided to expand. He found an abandoned car dealership located on the same expressway where he and his father had once hawked seafood. With a clean credit rating and a successful restaurant, he turned to local banks for the $2.5 million asking price. "I figured we'd just be arguing over the interest rate," Rodriguez told Crain's New York Business. But he was wrong: every bank turned him down. Desperate, he even considered approaching a local loan shark. Fortunately Mother Nature stepped in. A snowstorm caused severe damage to the dealership, and the seller lopped the price in half. A friend of Rodriguez's agreed to lend him the money and, in 1993, Jimmy's Bronx Café opened.
Launched First Jimmy's Restaurant
Perched on a hillside, Jimmy's Bronx Café included a 300-seat dining room with wrap-around windows looking out to Manhattan. An outdoor deck sat another 400 guests. The food drew directly from the menu at Marisco del Caribe. "This is food from the Latin Caribbean—Cuba, the Dominican Republic, PuertoRico," Rodriguez told The Kansas City Star. The complex included a nightclub that featured live Latin music, from local bands to living legends like Tito Puente. The combination, headed up by Rodriguez's non-stop charm, proved a winner. It served $5 million in meals its first year and soon had 125 people on its payroll.
Rodriguez didn't just score a lucky hit with the café. He worked behind the scenes to acquire the secret ingredient that would guarantee the restaurant's success: celebrities. His uncle, Ellie Rodriguez, was a player's agent for Major League Baseball. He made sure that players who visited nearby Yankee Stadium stopped off at his nephew's restaurant. Soon, Jimmy's became a New York Yankees hangout. Ruben Sierra, a Yankees outfielder, invested $450,000 in the restaurant. Shortstop Derek Jeter held parties in the restaurant. The entire team donated signed jerseys to decorate the restaurant's walls.
With the sports stars in tow, other celebrities followed. Bill Cosby, Jennifer Lopez, President Bill Clinton, legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz, rap star Fat Joe, and a host of Big Apple movers-and-shakers dined at Jimmy's. The celebrity presence guaranteed press coverage and a steady stream of clientele. One prominent client, however, brought Jimmy's not only notoriety, but controversy. During Fidel Castro's 1995 visit to New York, Rodriguez hosted a dinner for the Cuban dictator. Though 300 guests jammed the dinner to hear Castro speak, Cuban groups protested vocally in person and in the press.
Over the next five years, Jimmy's Bronx Café continued to attract celebrities and money. Rodriguez became a man-about-town. He sponsored over 100 Little League teams and supported Bronx-based charities from food shelters to senior citizen housing. He also implemented a series of Bronx business mixers that regularly drew enthusiastic crowds of up to 500 small business leaders. "They don't have to sit around and listen to speeches," Rodriguez told The Bronx Beat, explaining the event's appeal. "Deals can be cut here. Someone can work a floor and meet three to four hundred people, all in one night."
At a Glance …
Born Jaime Rodriguez Jr. in 1963(?), in Bronx, NY.
Career: Restaurateur. Marisco del Caribe, Bronx, NY, owner/manager, late 1980s-1993; Jimmy's Bronx Café, Bronx, NY, owner/manager, 1993-2003; Jimmy's Uptown in Harlem, New York, NY, owner, 2000-04; Jimmy's Downtown, New York, NY, owner, 2002-04; Jimmy's City Island, Bronx, NY, owner, 2003-04.
Memberships: Hispanic Federation of New York City; Bronx Chamber of Commerce; South Bronx Board of Trade.
Awards: House of Representatives, New York, The Bronx, Tribute to Jaime 'Jimmy' Rodriguez, 1997; Crain's New York Business, 100 Top Minority Business Leaders, 2003.
Addresses: Office —c/o Jimmy's Downtown, 400 E. 57th St., New York, NY, 10022.
Moved His Magic to
In 2000 Rodriguez helped spark the Harlem Renaissance when he opened Jimmy's Uptown in Harlem. "The inner city is underdeveloped, and whoever gets there first is gonna cash in," Rodriguez told W. Rodriguez's piece of the action was a 17,000 square-foot restaurant he bought for $900,000. He sunk in another half million in renovations. Even before construction was finished, Rodriguez proved his celebrity pull when Woody Allen hosted an opening party for his film Sweet and Lowdown in the half-finished restaurant.
Rodriguez cemented his role in Manhattan nightlife in 2002 when he opened Jimmy's Downtown, an oasis of posh urban design. A 100-foot long bar lit by candles and boasting 10 flat-screen TVs led to a white oval dining room punctuated by a giant red pillar. The food was again Caribbean but with modern touches—yucca crusted scallops, duck empanadas, black bass in grapefruit mustard salsa. The crowd was again celebrity-studded, though decidedly more white than Latino or African-American. Paying heed to the quirks of the Manhattan elite, Rodriguez even had a doggie bar installed to provide pampered pets with bottled water and tasty treats.
Rodriguez soon became famous city-wide for barbecues thrown on the terrace of the sleek penthouse he had rented in upscale Sutton Place. Ambassadors, rap stars, socialites, and regular folk rubbed shoulders and munched on spicy ribs and chicken. "I like to introduce people who wouldn't normally meet each other," Rodriguez told The New York Times. "There are so many diverse cultures in New York and they need to mix more or else life gets really boring." Rodriguez began popping up in the society columns and he appeared in a celebrity fashion show. He also nabbed a role playing himself in the 2002 film Death of a Dynasty. Meanwhile, he began a relationship with Michael Michelle, former actress on the hit show ER.
In 2003 Rodriguez opened his fourth restaurant, Jimmy's City Island, in a nautical area of the Bronx. Like his other places, Jimmy's City Island was slickly designed and featured fresh seafood and Latin-themed dishes. Rodriguez's empire now had nearly 300 employees and raked in sales of $10 million per year. Rodriguez was named one of Crain's New York Business's top minority business leaders on a list that included musician Wynton Marsalis, American Express CEO Ken Chenault, and lawyer Johnnie Cochran.
Hit Hard Times
Rodriguez's fortunes took a downward spiral at the end of 2003. After being rejected for a renovation loan, Rodriguez decided to sell Jimmy's Bronx Café. He shut the doors New Year's Eve 2003. Patrons were disappointed. "It was a place that everybody identified as very much our own," Bronx politician Jose Serrano told The New York Times. Within the next six months, Rodriguez sold Jimmy's City Island and Jimmy's Uptown in Harlem. In July of 2004, patrons found Jimmy's Downtown shuttered with a sign announcing renovations. After avoiding the press for several days, Rodriguez finally gave an interview to The New York Times. "I love being around people, but the day-to-day operations of working with 300 employees—I don't love the day-to-day." He said his future plans were to reopen Jimmy's Downtown and then open another restaurant either in Miami or Europe. Patrons already hooked on his signature mix of Caribbean seafood and Latin sounds are eagerly waiting, forks poised, dancing shoes polished. By mid-2004, it was unclear how long they would have to wait.
The Bronx Beat, April 3, 1995.
Crain's New York Business, March 30, 1998; December 3, 2001; July 22, 2002; June 30, 2003.
Daily News Record, May 22, 2000.
The Kansas City Star, July 29, 2002.
The New York Times, July 28, 2002; January 3, 2004; July 3, 2004.
Newsday, August 23, 1995.
W, February 1, 2000.
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