How Jeff Zalaznick Built the Major Food Group Empire
The real estate heir always loved food. Now he's taking it to the next level.
It started as an ordinary work trip. Jeff Zalaznick flew to Saudi Arabia to pursue the possibility of opening his company’s first restaurant in the Middle East.
The restaurateur, one-third of the partners who run Major Food Group, was working on a project that would introduce the group’s flagships—including New York’s legendary Carbone and the lox-inspired brunch concept Sadelle’s—in the Arab state. Throughout the trip, murmurs of a contagious virus spreading in China began to percolate. China was locking down. Asia was masking up.
Zalaznick quickly made it back to New York, where he got ready to take his family on a ski vacation to Aspen, Colo.
By then a case of the COV-SARS-19 disease had been detected in Europe. Then in Seattle. Soon it was nine cases, then 14. It was in California, New York, France. It was rampant in Westchester. It was devouring Italy.
The family left for Aspen. En route, news broke that a group of visiting Australians in the ski town were showing symptoms of the new virus. Zalaznick rerouted his family to Miami, where they checked into the Surf Club resort. No reservations. No end date. No idea what came next.
They never left. Instead, Zalaznick and Major Food Group shifted their focus to Miami, which had become a destination for Northerners freed from the office and fleeing lockdown. Even before the migration started in earnest in the fall of 2020, Zalaznick could sense the building momentum. And he was going to preempt it.
Zalaznick began searching for second-generation restaurant space, so that Major Food Group could move quickly. In September 2020, he went to see the vacant space that had once been Stephen Starr’s Upland in South Beach.
“The second I walked in I immediately felt it was the perfect location for Carbone,” Zalaznick recalled. “I said, ‘Not only is this gonna be Carbone, I know how we’re gonna get this open in the fastest time anyone’s ever opened a restaurant.’”
Just three months after signing the lease, Zalaznick and his partners, chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, were hosting A-list celebs, New York expats and real estate bigwigs — including Barry Sternlicht, David Grutman, Craig Robins and J.P. Perez — for a preview night at Carbone.
The restaurant opened its doors to the public that week, in late January 2021, just as the first winter wave of COVID-19 was reaching its peak. In the following weeks, the 160 seats of the Miami branch of the New York concept, known for its theater as much as for its food, were fully booked as the pandemic death toll hit new records, cresting 5,000 deaths per day in early February.
“It was absolutely, immediately embraced,” said John Ellis, a Miami retail broker at Newmark. “In Miami when you’re hot you’re hot, and when you’re not you’re not. And they were hot.”
The opening galvanized the surge in Florida-bound migration, and many more New York institutions began to follow Major Food Group’s lead. “What Carbone coming to South Beach did was validate that Miami was a vibrant community and a foodie scene,” Ellis said.
It’s decisive moves like the swift Carbone opening that have made Major Food Group one of the most recognizable restaurant groups in the world. Born from the storied Torrisi restaurant in a Mulberry Street storefront in Manhattan’s Little Italy in 2010, Major Food Group is now expanding at an eye-watering pace, with eight new restaurants in South Florida alone, and another 20 in the works globally. There’s also a renewed Torrisi, a collaboration with Kith in Paris, a hotel in Boston, and for its newest move: a branded condominium with Michael Stern’s JDS Development in Miami.
The drift from hospitality to real estate is a natural one for Major Food Group, whose other name brands include Parm, ZZ’s Clam Bar and Dirty French. They are masters of showmanship. With each concept, the food, the design and the performance all work together to transport guests into a themed world, whether that’s a 1950s family-style Italian restaurant, a Jewish deli or a naughty French steakhouse.
“They’re capturing lightning in the bottle over and over again,” said chef Eli Kulp, who worked with Major Food Group in its early days.
The role that space plays for Major Food Group properties goes back to the beginning, to the tiny storefront where Torrisi and Carbone joined forces to open an Italian eatery that quickly became the talk of the town.
“We were three talented chefs in a 500-square-foot kitchen cooking as hard as we could, as creatively as we could,” said Kulp, who later founded his own restaurant group, High Street Hospitality Group.
The three young chefs served their interpretation of classic Italian deli sandwiches for lunch, and a seven-course prix fixe dinner in the evening, in a dining room that could barely seat 20 people. New York was enraptured.
“We saw this jewel box restaurant turn into an overnight success,” Kulp said.
It was in that cramped space that Zalaznick first met with Torrisi and Carbone. A New Yorker to his bones like the two chefs, Zalaznick had always loved food and cooking, but hadn’t seen it as a career path. As a scion of the Milsteins, the prominent New York real estate family, Zalaznick initially followed the typical track for monied heirs of his generation: he went into finance, landing an investment banking job at JPMorgan after graduating from Cornell University in 2005.
The Milstein empire started with Morris Milstein, an immigrant who founded a flooring company in 1919, then went on to lay the floors of New York City landmarks such as Rockefeller and Lincoln centers. Morris’ two sons, Paul and Seymour, expanded the family business into real estate in the 1950s, and quickly grew their wealth and influence. In the 1980s, the brothers developed a Madison Avenue building for Bank of America, were instrumental in revitalizing Times Square, and branched out into finance, acquiring the Emigrant Savings Bank — New York’s oldest savings institution.
By the turn of the century, the Milstein family’s holdings were worth about $5 billion, according to The New York Times. Shortly thereafter, a family feud ended in a split between the real estate and finance sides of the business.
That was right about the time that Zalaznick graduated from Cornell, and started his short-lived stint in finance. Zalaznick soon quit JPMorgan and went to work at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in guest relations, which gave him a frontline seat to the hospitality business, before turning to his own ventures.
This was early internet 2.0 days, the heyday of recommendation engines and the blogosphere. Zalaznick jumped into both, building and selling a food content site that started as a restaurant search portal called Always Hungry.
By 2010, the 27-year-old Zalaznick had had enough of being on the sidelines.
“I was spending so much time with restaurateurs, around restaurants, inside of restaurants, writing about restaurants, talking about restaurants,” he said. “I realized that I didn’t really want to be talking about restaurants, I wanted to be doing my own.”
And he was convinced he could do it better.
“He grew up in a sophisticated environment where he could dabble, and go to places that he loved,” said real estate mogul Aby Rosen, owner of RFR Realty, who would later partner with Zalaznick at the Seagram Building. “He has the bug and he had the money to do it, so he put his own money into his own place.”
After hearing the Torrisi buzz, Zalaznick went back for a second meal, then went out for a drink with Carbone, and they instantly connected over their shared philosophy on food and a vision for a possible future restaurant. From there, Zalaznick began to collaborate with Torrisi and Carbone, and his impact was immediately felt. “We saw our clientele shift, Jeff being so well-connected, plugged into the New York elite if you will — not that he’s an elitist,” Kulp said.
“Rich and Mario would have been successful on their own. They’re too talented on their own, too hardworking and dedicated to the craft,” Kulp continued. “Jeff just brings a different level, through his relationships with people, through his eye for what’s next.”
What was next was the original Carbone. One day, while Zalaznick was sitting in Torrisi — which doubled as an office of sorts — a guy came over, someone who knew Zalaznick from back in the day, and tapped him on the shoulder. His name was Josh Halegua and he had a restaurant space nearby that Zalaznick might be interested in—in fact they could go over to see it immediately. Halegua and Zalaznick headed over to Thompson Street and stopped in front of Rocco’s, one of the longest-running Italian restaurants in the city, known by its distinctive neon sign.
“Literally, the second I stood in front of it and saw the sign, I said, ‘We’ll take it,’” Zalaznick recalled. “It just felt so right.”
Most importantly, it had drama. Rocco’s dated back to 1914, containing within its walls nearly a century of Italian American cooking and culture.
“We knew we could tell the Carbone story the way we wanted to tell it in that space,” Zalaznick said. “It had all the things that we look for in real estate when we look for a space to tell a story, which is that it had the history and the soul of that story.”
Zalaznick’s only condition was that they be allowed to keep the glowing sign, which they left in place, tacking Carbone across the former lettering.
“It was foul when we walked in,” Kulp remembered. The previous workers had been working on wooden pallets on the kitchen line because the floors were so bad, and there was an open container of marinara on the counter with a ladle still in it, as if they had just walked out.
The trio set about transforming the space into Carbone, an upscale red-sauce joint that paid homage to Carbone’s Italian American roots. The establishment opened its doors in March 2013 to much acclaim — per The New Yorker, “an impossible reservation almost instantly” — cementing the reputations of the already lauded restaurateurs.
But they were just getting started.
In 2015, RFR’s Rosen, ever the provocateur, angered New York’s most powerful by announcing his intention to replace the fabled Four Seasons restaurant at the base of his Seagram Building, when its lease was up the next year.
Run by Julian Niccolini and Alex Von Bidder, the Four Seasons was a bastion of power in New York, where the who’s who of media, finance and politics mingled, and regular guests could count on being courted.
“I really never liked those guys,” Rosen said. “I basically decided to get rid of them.”
His reasoning was partially due to the politics of the space, which was predicated on exclusivity and a delicate chess of status and elitism, said Rosen, which he felt was outdated. “I owned the building, I loved the building, I didn’t care for that attitude,” he said.
The Four Seasons had operated in the space since it opened in 1959, and had hosted regulars like Jackie Kennedy and Henry Kissinger, and, once, Princess Diana. Designed by the architectural giants Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, it featured soaring 22-foot-tall windows, walnut paneling and an indoor pool.
In looking for a replacement, Rosen needed someone who respected the space architecturally, and could take it in an exciting direction that wasn’t too dramatic in its changes, retaining its classic elegance.
In the end, he went with the upstart Major Food Group, further aggravating the restaurant’s devotees.
“I met everybody in town who was great; people from Europe came,” Rosen said “I always gravitated back to Jeff.”
He liked the mix of creativity, chutzpah and business acumen that the three partners offered, and how Jeff complemented the two chefs. “[Rich and Mario] are dreamers and lovers, and making money comes second. Their love for producing food and having a showcase is more important,” Rosen said. “With [Jeff], it was quite the opposite. He knew the food, and he loved the food, but he was there to make money.”
And all three brought total dedication to the craft.
“They agonized over every dish,” Rosen said. “We had a test kitchen built; they tried a dish 30, 40, 50 times before it was perfected.”
That went back to their early days together.
“At Torrisi we’d work until 11 p.m., then we’d meet at 8 a.m. at Rich’s apartment, with Jeff, culling over old menus, looking through archives in the New York library, trying to find gems of creativity,” Kulp said. “Finding creativity by looking back.”
Major Food Group did just that at the Seagram Building, mixing an obsession with the past and a flamboyant twist on the future in their take on the space, which was divided into The Grill and The Pool Lounge.
“That was a huge coup,” said real estate lawyer Jonathan Mechanic, who used to frequent the Four Seasons. “Stepping into the Four Seasons took [Major Food Group] to another level.”
By the time COVID-19 broke out in 2020, the restaurant group had already expanded its book of businesses, adding a range of playful, glamorous and extravagant eateries, including seafood bar ZZ’s, brunch spot Sadelle’s, and steakhouse Dirty French. The group had also branched out to new markets, with properties in Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Paris. And, always willing to play with the intersection of food and experience, Major Food Group had several collaborations on its roster.
“Our plan as Major Food Group is to not only expand geographically as a restaurant group, but to expand into other verticals, like hotels and real estate, where we thought that not only was there a huge opportunity for our style of hospitality, but also where we thought our restaurants would play a huge role in the value of those properties,” Zalaznick said.
A month after Carbone opened in Miami in January 2021, the group opened Sadelle’s inside the flagship of streetwear brand Kith in Paris. Designed by Snarkitecture, the statement store occupies three stories in the historic Pershing Hall as well as its courtyard. Parisians flocked to the store at brunch hour, keen for a taste of bagels served on an Instagrammable three-tier tower.
In Boston, Major Food Group worked with the developers of the Newbury Boston hotel, located in a historic downtown building on Newbury Street, to curate the food, beverage and other lifestyle elements of the hotel, including a rooftop bar called Contessa that opened last July.
“We handled the food and beverage, but we also did all the concepting around the hotel itself,” Zalaznick said.
So when Stern of JDS Development floated the idea of working on a branded condo, it fit neatly into the direction Major Food Group was going. In December 2021, the two companies confirmed that they would be collaborating on MAJOR, a 259-unit condo in Miami’s Brickell where Major Food Group would curate the entire lifestyle aspect of the property, as well as operate its food and beverage options.
“When I started thinking about what kind of brand partner we would want to have to develop this building with us, I immediately thought of Jeff,” Stern said. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we can figure out a way to bring what Jeff does in the hospitality and restaurant space into a residential property?”
The two met on one of Stern’s visits down to Miami in the spring of 2021.
“He approached me and said, ‘Have you ever thought about doing a building?’” Zalaznick said. “I said, ‘You know, my dream would be to do a building.’”
And, thus, a partnership was formed.
It helps that the two have similar styles, Stern said.
“When Jeff has an opinion, all sorts of etiquette about the way that you should break the news [when] you disagree with somebody are off the table,” he said. “I love that because I’m kind of similar in that way. We’re very blunt, borderline offensive blunt, when we don’t like something.”
It can be hard to put a finger on Major Food Group’s magic, but certainly the attention to form—from napkin and menu design, to the uniforms of the waitstaff—is paramount.
“It’s the ensemble of details that they cared about, and made sure that they did their way, consistent with whatever theme they’re going for,” Stern said.
In a way, with the condo project, Zalaznick has come full circle, returning to the family business. But entering real estate now is a natural extension of his vision of hospitality, not the other way around, he said.
“This is really the evolution of what has been the building of an incredible restaurant business,” Zalaznick said. “That’s where this comes from, not from a lifelong dream of going into real estate. My dream was to go into restaurants and create incredible restaurants.”
That said, he sees the symmetry.
“My grandfather was a great leader, a real estate guy, and hopefully I can honor his legacy,” Zalaznick said.
Maybe the grandparent he really takes after is Sadelle Cameron, the great-grandmother after whom the aforementioned restaurant is named. Legendary in the family for her cooking, the Brooklyn-born Cameron, serves as inspiration for the eatery’s menu.
“She’s the only one in the family, before me, that could cook,” Zalaznick said.
Only one item on the menu is a direct recipe that Sadelle herself made, and that’s the coleslaw. Everything else is an interpretation through the Major Food Group lens.
Because updating the past is what they do best.