Cooking with Gas

You want to order some wines. You phone a number, and a cheery voice says, ‘€œGas Station.’€ You do not have the wrong number. You are calling El Carajo International Tapas & Wines in the Coral Gables section of Miami, FL. It is often referred to as ‘€œMiami’€™s Best Kept Secret,’€ but you wouldn’€™t think so to go there. The locals are very much aware of this unique establishment. And this is in spite of there not being any signs outside, except for ‘€œLA Food Store and Deli’€ painted on the front of the building, right behind the gas pumps. In this case, ‘€œLA’€ stands for Latin American, not Los Angeles.

It is, in fact, a bp gas station on the outside, but instead of seeing cans of motor oil in the window, you will see wine bottles. Enter and you will find a convenience store, selling snacks, bottled water, beers and lottery tickets. Keep going, and you will see small tables, chairs and a long communal table seating about 50 people. Finally you come to shelves filled with almost 2,500 different wines. The selection is one of the largest in the area, and the wines, with prices that range from moderate to expensive, are considered well priced and good values by customers. On a recent visit I saw bottles of Ornellaia, Tablas Creek, Chateau Simard 2000 in half-bottles, and Stag’€™s Leap Wine Cellars, all at very attractive prices. Further, besides simply buying a bottle and taking it away with you, you can be seated, order food, and have your bottle opened and served for a $10 corkage fee on top of the wine’€™s retail price.

Owner Richard Fonseca, of Cuban/Spanish descent, has created a charming little slice of Spain in his establishment, even though more than half of his clientele is English speaking. His menu is in Spanish, and Spanish is definitely spoken throughout the store. But this is not niche marketing. His market is adventurous ‘€œfoodies’€ as well as fine wine collectors, thanks to his extensive selection of both tapas and wines.

His inspiration came back in 1990 when he was in Italy, driving on the Autostrada. Stopping at a service area to get some gas, he was impressed to find a good restaurant and companion wine shop in the same rest area. He immediately thought of a piece of property that he owned, which was a gas station and auto repair shop. By 1992, he had removed the car wash and built a wine store. What he has created, since 2006, is a 1,400 sq. ft. restaurant inside of a 1,500 sq. ft. wine store, inside of a gas station.

Fonseca keeps a full-time chef for his food service, which offers considerably more than hot and cold tapas, including salads, soups, main courses and Spanish cheeses. The wines that people have picked out to consume with their food are put on their restaurant check, along with the corkage fee.

Fonseca’€™s website, www.elcarajointernationaltapasandwines.com, is set up for easy purchasing, displaying bottle images of most of the wines. A copy of his menu is also on line.

If nothing else, this unique operation certainly opens up many ideas for creative co-marketing.

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