Marcus Lemonis wants to show America the ‘grind’ behind Miami’s Little Havana

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Rene Rodriguez
·11 min read
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If the shorthand term “Miami hustles” — having more than one gig going at the same time — ever makes it into the dictionary, Marcus Lemonis could be part of the definition. He’s the CEO of the largest RV conglomerate in the country, the star of two business-themed reality TV shows on CNBC, a former Democratic candidate for the Florida House of Representatives and an investor/adviser for small businesses that are struggling to stay afloat.

But Miami-raised Lemonis has a different word for the hustle: Grinding.

“Outside of Miami, the Cuban community is largely misunderstood,” he said. “People get confused by its political alignment and sometimes it gets confused with other South American countries. But if you grew up in Miami, you know the Cuban community really defined what Miami has become culturally and how the city just grinds. We grind it out in Miami, and if you’re not from Miami, you don’t understand what I mean.”

On Tuesday night’s episode of “Streets of Dreams,” the former local resident returns to his old stomping grounds — Calle Ocho and Little Havana — where his work ethic and love of Cuban culture were born. The hour-long episode, which airs at 10 p.m., is the third in a weekly CNBC series in which Lemonis explores communities that fuel the nation’s economy. Past and future episodes feature New York City’s Diamond District, Nashville’s Music Row and Denver’s marijuana-laden Green Mile.

Lemonis uses the word “grinder” in the episode’s opening minutes to refer to the multitude of businesses lining the eastern edge of Southwest Eighth Street and the people — most of them of Cuban descent — who helped raise the city’s profile. He visits with Emilio Estefan at his recording studio near South Miami. He talks with Pitbull at the site of the public charter school he opened in 2013 in Little Havana. He talks to the couple who postponed their wedding and moved back in with their parents to open Sanguich de Miami, a restaurant specializing in gourmet Cuban sandwiches on Eighth Street.

The show also drops in on a seafood restaurant where 80% of the fish are caught off the Florida coast; a cigar shop where every stogie is rolled by hand; and Ball & Chain, the beloved bar and restaurant that was shut down on Oct. 22, 2020 — and remains closed — due to code violations.

After the closure, Lemonis became a silent partner in the venue (the episode was filmed in January 2020, before the code violations were filed) because he credits Ball & Chain with kick-starting the revitalization of Calle Ocho and wants to get the landmark club-and-eatery back in action.

Marcus Lemonis takes the stage at the popular bar/restaurant Ball & Chain during CNBC’s ‘Streets of Dreams’ episode focusing on Little Havana airing on Tuesday Jan. 12, 2021.
Marcus Lemonis takes the stage at the popular bar/restaurant Ball & Chain during CNBC’s ‘Streets of Dreams’ episode focusing on Little Havana airing on Tuesday Jan. 12, 2021.

“It is true that Ball & Chain were not [code] compliant with a number of things and that the business needs to get things right,” Lemonis said. “It is also my opinion that there are people inside the city who picked this fight unnecessarily. I’m going to put my full weight, my financial weight, my public weight, to make sure they are complying with the city’s demands.

“However much money I have to put into it or whatever I have to do, our goal is to get Ball & Chain open again,” he said. “But I also believe we shouldn’t be suppressing entrepreneurship in South Florida.”

A born entrepreneur

Entrepreneurship is something that Lemonis, 47, whose estimated net worth is $900 million according to Market Realist, has been practicing since he was a teenager. Born in Lebanon and left at an orphanage four days after his birth, Lemonis was adopted by Leo and Sophia Lemonis when he was nine months old and raised around Miami, including Kendall, Cutler Bay and Edgewater Drive. His father was of Greek descent and his mother was Lebanese.

One of his earliest Miami memories is being sworn in as a U.S. citizen at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium while still a young child, then asking his parents to take him to Burger King as a treat. “When you’re from Miami, Burger King means something different than it does to other people,” he said.

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As a teenager, he worked weekends and summers at the Anthony Abraham Chevrolet car dealership on LeJeune Road and SW Eighth Street, where his father staffed the parts and service department (Lemonis refers to Abraham as his “adoptive grandfather;” Abraham’s parents were Lebanese immigrants.) For lunch, he would go to the Original Uncle Tom’s Barbecue across the street. (The dealership is now owned by AutoNation.)

“Both my grandfather and my dad were adamant about my work ethic,” he said. “I washed cars, I was a porter, a parts runner. I never had a glamorous job.

“My first job at work, my dad gave me a bucket and a mop and had me mop the parking lot. I said ‘How do you mop a parking lot? It’s concrete.’ And my dad said ‘By the end of the summer you will figure it out.’”

When he turned 16, Lemonis says he was sure he’d be pulling into Columbus High School the next day in a new Corvette, because of his connection with the dealership. Instead, his first car — a surprise gift from his father — was a Chevy Cavalier that had been soldered together from two different automobiles, so the front and back seats didn’t match.

The Miami hustle

After graduating from Marquette University in 1995 with a degree in political science, Lemonis returned home to work at the dealership but found the pay lacking.

“I was paid $1,500 a month even though I was a college graduate!” he said. “Everybody used to chuckle. They gave me a car and said ‘What else do you need money for?’”

That’s around the time Lemonis’ entrepreneurial spirit began to materialize.

“A lot of interesting things happened on Eighth Street back then,” he said. “Good things and bad things. There was prostitution at the time. Drugs were being sold. Guys would show up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash wanting to buy Suburbans to export back to Venezuela or Colombia.

“I had this guy walk in one day offering to sell me cheap Versace ties, so I started selling them after work at Versailles for $50 a piece,” he said. “They weren’t counterfeit. They were legit, and when you’re from Miami you don’t ask a lot of questions. I would tell my dad I made more money today selling ties than I did at the dealership!”

Marcus Lemonis, right, visits with Emilio Estefan on the CNBC episode of ‘Streets of Dreams’ focusing on Little Havana which airs Tuesday Jan. 12, 2021.
Marcus Lemonis, right, visits with Emilio Estefan on the CNBC episode of ‘Streets of Dreams’ focusing on Little Havana which airs Tuesday Jan. 12, 2021.

In 1996 came a failed run against the two-term incumbent Republican Bruno Barreiro for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. Lemonis ran as a Democrat, which angered his family.

“Running for office taught me I can do anything,” he said. “It taught me you can really change people’s lives if you stand there and listen to them. It also taught me that politics was not the way I could achieve those goals. If I really want to change the world, I can do it through capitalism more than through politics.

“It also taught me what it felt like to lose and be embarrassed,” he said. “It was a humbling experience. I didn’t think I was going to lose. I had this delusion of grandeur that how could I lose? I registered as a Democrat because the Cuban people are immigrants so I thought they would vote for me! It didn’t work out that way.”

After his ill-fated political stint, family friction led Lemonis to leave Anthony Abraham and go work for AutoNation selling used cars. Three years later, around 1999, Lemonis visited auto magnate Lee Iacocca, a close friend of Abraham’s, at his home in Bel Air, CA.

“He said ‘The auto business is filled with a lot of smart people and the ceiling is very low for you. Your ability to grow at AutoNation is very limited. You have to pick something that’s going to give you a chance to make your own mark.’ He said ‘I invented the Mustang. I invented the mini-van. What are you going to do? What’s going to be your claim to fame? What is your path?’”

The unlikely answer: Recreational vehicles. With Iaccoca’s help, Lemonis went to work in 2000 at a small RV dealership in Fort Lauderdale that was insolvent. He chose RVs because they were the closest things to cars he could think of. He managed to pay the company’s outstanding debts with Iaccoca’s help and open a new dealership.

Twenty years later, after buying more than 170 small privately owned RV dealers around the country, he is now CEO of Camping World Holdings, a publicly traded company headquartered in Illinois (where he lives with his wife in Lake Forest). It is the largest RV dealer conglomerate in the country. He is also CEO of Good Sam Enterprises, a national RV service chain. Combined, the two companies are worth nearly $6 billion, Lemonis said.

Marcus Lemonis stands at the intersection of SW Eighth Street and 15th Avenue during a scene from ‘Streets of Dreams,’ airing on CNBC at 10 p.m. Tuesday Jan. 12.
Marcus Lemonis stands at the intersection of SW Eighth Street and 15th Avenue during a scene from ‘Streets of Dreams,’ airing on CNBC at 10 p.m. Tuesday Jan. 12.

Industry-watcher Jason Epperson credits Lemonis’ decisiveness and instincts for helping him become the biggest fish in a big pond.

“Marcus is a guy who likes to make decisions and make things happen very fast,” said Epperson, editor of the trade website and host of the weekly RV Miles podcast. “Camping World is big enough to drive what happens in the RV industry. They have exclusive models that only they can sell.

“When you’re the big dog, a lot of what you say goes, so Marcus often ruffles a lot of feathers in the RV industry because his competitors can’t always match his prices.”

According to Epperson, the COVID pandemic has proven to be an unexpected boom for the RV industry, fueling sales because people were unable or reluctant to fly. As of Jan. 8, Camping World’s stock was trading at $27.63 a share, up from $3.89 in March 2020.

A TV career

Then came television. After two appearances on “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2011 (“Trump was very nice to me, but I never expected to be where we are today”), he went on to star in a one-shot episode of “Secret Millionaire,” where wealthy people return to their hometowns and live in poverty to connect with the downtrodden sides of their cities. At the end of the show, the guest hands out $100,000 of their own money to neighborhood associations, people in need and community groups.

“That was the thing that prompted me to want to do television. I realized I could get a message across on a platform and tell a story and try to get people to think differently,” he said. “By revealing myself — that I had an eating disorder, that I had been molested, a lot of things a lot of people didn’t know — I realized the power of television.”

In 2013 came “The Profit,” a CNBC reality show in which Lemonis seeks out small businesses in need of financial or managerial assistance and provides business and funding aid. The show recently concluded its seventh season.

Now, with “Streets of Dreams,” Lemonis is celebrating small businesses that have become crucial to the cities in which they are located. He’s also a natural on-camera personality.

“Marcus’ superpower is relatability,” said Denise Contis, executive vice president and head of content for CNBC Primetime via email. “As a self-made businessman, he understands first-hand the sacrifices and sweat equity required to make a business successful. This makes it easy for entrepreneurs to share their unique and inspiring stories. It’s these stories that are the foundation of ‘Streets of Dreams’ and capture the entrepreneurial spirit in everyone.”

And even though “Streets of Dreams” is designed to be a travel and infotainment show, Lemonis still can’t help himself when it comes to lending an entrepreneurial hand. That’s just the way his mind works. Suzy Batlle, owner of the Azucar Ice Cream shop in Little Havana, said Lemonis popped in for a visit during the taping of the Calle Ocho episode and started kicking ideas around with her on how to take her product national.

“He has a packaging company in New Jersey that I’ve been talking to,” she said. “For us, it would be a dream to get our ice cream into supermarkets around the country. I asked him ‘Why couldn’t I be the Cuban Haagen-Dazs?’ And he said distribution is the way to go.”

“Streets of Dreams” airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday Jan. 12 on CNBC. You can watch the first 10 minutes of this week’s episode about Calle Ocho here.