“I started 32 East from a foodie perspective. Good food, good wine, good service. In our opinion what we do and where The Avenue is heading are incompatible.” – Butch Johnson, Managing Partner of 32 East
This interview originally appeared in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on September 1st, 2017
The bad news is that 32 East, one of South Florida’s top restaurants for more than two decades, will likely eventually close to make way for the latest outpost of Louie Bossi’s in Delray Beach. The good news is that 32 East will remain open through the winter season and well into 2018 as remodeling permits for the Atlantic Avenue site are finalized, according to 32 East managing partner Butch Johnson.
“I’m turning 70 in May,” Johnson said in a telephone interview Friday. “The plan is to keep 32 East open through Mother’s Day and then I’ll go find my next thing … I wanted this to stay under wraps until we got closer to the date because it creates all sorts of issues. There are a lot of hurdles between today and Mother’s Day. Anyone who’s been in this business knows — until the check changes hands and the papers are signed at closing, it’s not a done deal.”
News of the pending sale to Big Time Restaurant Group, which owns Louie Bossi’s, broke last month. “These guys came along with an attractive offer,” Johnson says. He and wife Barbara Straub will retain ownership of the land and building, which they bought in 1996. Johnson says Big Time Restaurant Group has agreed in principle to a 40-year lease. Part of the deal, Johnson says, is for Big Time to find job opportunities for 32 East employees who want to work for the outfit, which runs 12 restaurants in South Florida, including Rocco’s Tacos, Big City Tavern and City Oyster.
The prolonged timeline until 32 East shutters is good news for fans of fine dining, with the chance for loyal patrons to enjoy last suppers and say proper farewells in coming months.
“There’ll be a lot of sadness this winter … I’ve made a lot of friends through the years,” Johnson says. “I started 32 East from a foodie perspective. Good food, good wine, good service. In our opinion what we do and where [Atlantic Avenue] is heading are incompatible.”
By that he means the area has grown too congested, rents have gotten too expensive and independent bars and restaurants are getting squeezed out to make room for national chains, including stores such as Urban Outfitters.
Johnson says he might try to open a smaller restaurant in an up-and-coming part of Palm Beach County, mentioning areas near Dixie Highway in northern Boynton Beach and Lake Worth.
Longtime 32 East general manager John Bates shared a draft of an email that will be sent in coming days to customers on the eatery’s mailing list. He wrote that the sale is not firm and that “there needs to be a stamped and approved set of plans before there is a sale payment. If the city of Delray Beach and Big Time Restaurant group [owners of Louie Bossi’s] can’t agree on their desired changes then we will continue to operate. We will be open no matter what till at LEAST Mother’s Day – if not longer.”
When Johnson and Straub bought the two-story building and opened 32 East in 1996, Atlantic Avenue was a desolate stretch of mom-and-pop stores. “The area was blighted,” Johnson says. 32 East spurred the growth of a dining and entertainment corridor that has become among South Florida’s most vibrant.
32 East has maintained high quality through the years, consistently attracting loyal customers and garnering rave reviews, including a four-star review earlier this year. The restaurant survived the departure of longtime chef Nick Morfogen last year, smoothly transitioning to new executive chef John Thomas, 35, who grew up in the area and who started working for Johnson in 2003.
“JT is going to stay on until the end, and he’s got a bright future ahead of him,” Johnson says.
For at least eight more months 32 East has a future, too.