Friday, May 18, 2012

The Bonfire Restaurant Story


                                                 The Bonfire Restaurant Story
                                        A true story written 2010 rewritten 07/2015
                                                          Howard Yasgar

       This true story about Bonfire Restaurant were related to me by my good friend Richard Schneider who actually had reopened the restaurant.
       However the beginning of this story is based on common knowledge, known by anyone that was living in South Florida at the time, around 1965. By 1965, I had already been living in Florida for well over two years, having arrived in Miami in November of 1962.
       At the time you couldn’t help but notice, every evening on TV, that there was a particular restaurant that was always seemed to be mentioned on the local news, it was called the “Bonfire Restaurant”. And, for some reason unknown to me, The Bonfire was mentioned on the news as being one of the best barbecue restaurants in all of South Florida. I always thought that the hype over the restaurant appeared excessive. Any time some famous entertainer or a politician came to South Florida, the news channels would always mention that they had eaten at the Bonfire Restaurant. You just had to wonder why this particular restaurant got so much free advertising.   
       I had heard the name Bonfire so often that I no longer paid attention to it, but for some reason I always thought the restaurant was located somewhere on Miami Beach.
       Back then my family often drove to South Miami Beach because my mom lived there, so as we drove, I always kept half an eye out looking for the Bonfire, barbecue restaurant, but for some reason, I just never seemed to run across it.
       One day while we were driving to Miami Beach by the way of NW 79 Street, we passed through a small town called “Sunny Isles.” Now Sunny Isles is hardly more than a wide strip of land that attaches the mainland of Miami, to Miami Beach, It only had lots of upscale condominiums and restaurants, but there was another reason the town of Sunny Isles was famous, it was because it was constantly in the news, always involved in one scandal or another, usually it was something involving gangsters or their corrupt police force.
        At one time I remember, Sunny Isles hit the headlines because there was a Mafia style hit that happened on the main drag, in a restaurant called, “The Place for Steak”. They said some mobster was at the bar having a drink, when a hit man walked in and shot him right in front of everyone. At the time that really made Sunny Isle infamous. The news media played it up big, inferring that Sunny Isles was some kind of a magnet for the Mafia.
        So as we drove through Sunny Isles, I was looking at all the restaurant signs when I saw a strip mall on my right, and there, low and behold was the Bonfire Restaurant, I was very excited to have finally spotted it.
        Now that I knew where it was, I wanted take my family there for supper, I wanted to see what all the hype was about, not to mention they always said it was the best barbecue place in town, and who doesn’t like barbecue. Also, I thought we might get lucky and spot a celebrity there.
      There was a big neon sign over the front of the restaurant, it was depicting a bonfire and barbecue ribs cooking over it, what could be better, we had great expectations for a spectacular barbecue meal. However, once we were shown to a table and looked over the menu, we were disappointed to find little or no barbecue on it, as a matter of fact the menu had very little of anything exciting to offer at all, I saw that there was nothing on the menu that couldn’t be found at any other restaurant. Then as I looked around, the interior of the restaurant, it was somewhat formal, not what you would expect for a barbecue joint. But, I knew there had to be something special about the food, especially after all the years of hearing about it on the news.
       But unfortunately it turned out to be a real let down, there wasn’t anything special to be had there. The restaurant had a long bar that could seat perhaps thirty people and then there were tables for perhaps another hundred people. There was no hint of a barbecue pit or anything barbecue for that matter, even the d├ęcor was really nothing special. So after our meal, we all left disappointed, and we thought that it was pretty obvious that whomever owned the Bonfire restaurant had something going on with the news Media that give them all the free advertising they were getting. We put the Bonfire restaurant on the “Never go back again list”.
      Several months passed, and one day, the local newspapers and television personalities were just bursting with news about the Bonfire restaurant, it appears they had been raided by a task force of the FBI, and the restaurant was closed and the doors locked up. The headlines said that the Bonfire was Mafia owned and the head Mafioso Meyer Lansky ran the restaurant. They said
That the restaurant was a hub for the numbers rackets, prostitution, extortion, money laundering and a whole list of other crimes including bookmaking and loan sharking. The list of reasons that they had raided the restaurant for was pretty long.
       Everyone in South Florida, knew all about Meyer Lansky, as he was the Mafia finance man who once ran the mob’s casino’s in Cuba. Meyer was always in the news, he had been indicted several times for various crimes, I’m not sure, but I don’t think he was ever convicted of anything, but it was big television news when Meyer attempted to leave the United States and go to Israel and become a citizen, he tried doing it to avoid being indicted. I remember seeing him on television returning to Miami, as Israel would not let him in.
        After that, my aunt Lillian (My mom’s sister) told me that when she took the bus on Miami Beach, she would always see Meyer walking his dog in front of his condo building, but eventually it was reported that Meyer had died of a heart condition, while he was still living on Miami Beach. After Meyer’s death no one ever mentioned anything about the Bonfire Restaurant anymore, it was closed, boarded up and forgotten.
        For several years, just out of curiosity, every time I drove by the Bonfire restaurant I would look to see if anything was happening there but it just remained boarded up, closed for good.
       Now enter into the story my friend Ritchie Schneider.
       I met Richard Schneider because at one time he was involved in a similar Automotive and marine parts business as I was, then when I went into the Marine business, It wasn’t long before Richard and I became good friends, as he liked all things marine.
       One day, while Richard and I were talking, he mentioned the Bonfire Restaurant. I was really very curious as to what he had to say, so I asked him about it and he related to me the following story:
       As a young man, Richard had worked for his fathers paint manufacturing business in New York City, and when his dad passed away, Richard had received a substantial inheritance. He then married a lovely girl who was a registered nurse, and they moved to South Miami, where they raised a son. To earn a living in Florida, Richard started a business flying in live Maine lobsters into Florida and selling them wholesale, mostly to restaurants.    
       Richard told me, that he had a grandfather who was also living in Miami. His grandfather he said was about eighty years old at the time. Richard’s grandfather told him that he had formerly been the chauffeur for the famous mobster Meyer Lansky, and Richard’s grandfather still wore a pistol strapped to his ankle just like he did in the old days when he drove Meyer around.
       Richard’s grandfather told him that Meyer had entrusted him with the keys and papers to the old Bonfire Restaurant, and he still had them. His grandfather suggested that he and Richard open up the old restaurant. He said that because Richard was already in lobsters business they could make the old bonfire into a lobster restaurant.
       So Richard’s grandfather suggested that they renovate and open the place up again. Richard could move his lobster business there, and together they could run the lobster business and the restaurant, it all sounded like a great idea.
        Exactly how Richard’s grandfather had ended up with the keys and papers to the old Bonfire restaurant, was never questioned, because he did have the keys, and the documents.
By that time the Bonfire restaurant had been shuttered for several years and the interior would require a complete renovation, and to make matters worse Richard had no restaurant experience.
        But Richard did have his inheritance money, and he used it to fix up the old Bonfire restaurant building. There were contracts to be signed, furniture and supplies to ordered, and because the building had been neglected for so long, just about everything needed to be replaced. Not to mention the long liquor bar that needed to be restocked. And then Richard had to get all the new licenses, as well as set up leasing agreements for laundry and all the things you needed to do when running a big restaurant. I think Richard said that as his grandfather was a felon, his name couldn’t be involved on any of the leases or contracts he signed, so it wasn’t long before
Richard’s inheritance ran out, and he started signing for loans and leases personally.
       Eventually after several months, the old Bonfire restaurant did open up again and the customers started coming.
       Richard then said, that the work of running his lobster business, and then running the restaurant was endless work, and the hours were long. He said he worked all day and all night,
And on many evenings some of the local Miami drug dealers would throw big lobster parties, and those parties lasted into the early morning hours. So Richard found he was working around the clock, with little sleep and then every day new supplies needed to be ordered.
       Richard found he no longer had little time for his family, the restaurant business required all his energy and attention, and it consumed all his time. That’s when Richard started to notice there was not enough money in the till to pay all the bills. He knew that he had no choice, he had to closely watch what was going on.
       The first thing Richard noticed was that whenever there was a few hundred dollar bills in the cash register, his grandfather would remove a few of them and stick them in his stocking.
        Richard said his grandfather’s main job was supposed to be watching the liquor bar for theft. So every day his grandfather, would go there with a ruler, and he would measure all the whiskey bottles to make everyone think he knew how much booze they had sold, he thought it would keep the bartenders and waitresses honest.
        Richard started checking the bar receipts, and things just didn’t add up, so he started watching even closer. Every day the head bartender would show up for work early and put on a big show of cleaning and prepping the bar, Richard said the guy even brown bagged his own lunch. What Richard didn’t know at the time, but the bartenders brown bag contained a large bottle of Vodka that the bartender was serving Richards customers from it and the bartender was pocketing the money. It appeared that the bartender was a whole lot smarter than Richard’s grandfather and most of the profits from the bar were going to him and not to the restaurant.
        Next Richard started watching the waitresses, and he noticed that some of them had actually copied the restaurants receipt book. Whenever a customer was going to pay for a big meal in cash, the waitress would write up a phony receipt for pie and coffee and turn that receipt in, pocketing the cash. Everyone was stealing from Richard and the problems were becoming too great for him to handle them all.
       Then to make matters worse, Richard’s wife divorced him, and when that happened, Richard thought that he was at the end of his rope, he was considering giving it all up.
       One evening Richard was laying on the floor in the kitchen, he was fixing a leaking hose under the dishwashing machine. As he loosened the old hose, the dirty water and garbage came flooding out all over his face and chest. Just as that happed a waitress came in the kitchen and told Richard that there was a drunk loudmouth customer in the restaurant that wanted to see the owner. So Richard slid out from under the machine and wiped the garbage and water off his face with a towel. As he walked out into the dining area, Richard was worrying as to how he was going to handle a drunk, complaining customer.
       As he reached the table, the drunk customer asked if Richard was the owner and Richard
       Richard replied that he was. The drunk then extended his hand to Richard, and said, “Best lobster dinner we ever had”. Richard said his heart stopped pounding. And he returned to the kitchen, at that point he knew he had enough, he had lost all his inheritance money, he had lost his wife, lost his grandfather, and he was in debt up to his ears.
      The Bonfire Restaurant was then officially closed for good.

The Burning Military Tank Story

                                                  The Burning Military Tank Story
                                                                A true story
                                       Written 12/2010 rewritten 04/27/2016 unedited                                                        
                                                              Howard Yasgar

      This true story tells all about one of the biggest coincidences that I have ever encountered in my entire life. In 1957, I was nineteen years old, and living in Westville Connecticut, working part time as an apprentice, to an excellent auto Mechanic, his name was Bill (It may be better to not mention his real name).
      I had met Bill who was an excellent mechanic, when I was working for his cousin Tony. Tony, at the time was managing a two bay Gulf gas station in Westville, Connecticut, and both my cousin Allen and I worked there as part time as gas station attendants, pumping gas, greasing cars and changing oil.
     Our boss Tony, who was a local born New Haven Italian, was a nice enough fellow. He had served in the army during the Korean War, and was psychologically affected by what happened to him there. Tony was at the Chosin Reservoir, and watched all his friends being killed, and he couldn’t ever get over it.
     So it was Tony who first introduced me to his cousin Bill, who was the mechanic. Once I met Joe and I saw what a good mechanic he was, I knew I wanted to go to work for him. Bill looked like a typical Italian guy, he was average height, slender, with wavy black hair. Despite looking Italian he never acted like he was Italian and he told everyone that he was Irish. Why I don’t know, but I do know that his stepfather was Irish, and when I met Bill’s girlfriend she also was Irish.
     Eventually I met Bill’s stepfather, and he actually matched the Irish stereotype, not only did he have a bulbous red nose from a few too many drinks, but he spoke with an Irish brogue and best of all, like many stereotyped Irishmen, he worked as a railroad cop.
     Bill told me that his stepfather had once almost lost his job as a railroad cop. It seems that he was patrolling the New Haven railroad yard when he heard someone breaking into one of the box cars. He scared the crooks off but when he saw the box car was full of shoes he climbed in and was caught trying a few pair on.
      At the time I met Bill the mechanic, he was managing a large three bay Gulf gas station on Derby Avenue, in new Haven, so I went to work for him as his gas attendant and apprentice mechanic. That’s when I learned that managing a Gulf gas station and being an auto mechanic didn’t exactly go hand in hand.
      Most people don’t know this, but  all  gas stations come in different sizes, it could be a two bay station, a three bay station or even bigger. The amount of working bays you had, signified the extent of what kind of work you were allowed to do, and the Gulf Oil Company was very strict about it. If you leased a two bay station from them, you could do only minor repairs, like changing oil, and greasing cars, fixing tires and washing and waxing cars. If you were in a three bay gas station you were allowed to do tune ups and replace small parts like windshield wiper motors. But you couldn’t do any engine overhaul work, or transmission work or anything major like that, so when Tony, who had a small two bay station had any bigger repair jobs to do, his cousin Joe would come at night and we would all quietly do the work with the doors closed.
       Finally Bill, who was a full time mechanic, leased the big three bay Gulf gas station on Derby Avenue in New Haven, he thought he could get away with doing major repair work with no one noticing it. His idea was that the profit he made from selling gasoline would pay the rent, and he could freely do any kind of repair work he wanted to do in the three bays. His idea was a good one until the Gulf Oil Company representative came by and caught him. That’s when I heard them arguing, and it was when Bill realized he would have to move if he wanted to continue doing major mechanical work.
      One day when I came to work Bill told me that he had located a place that we could move to. It was an unbranded gas station with a large shop area, the place was located on Derby Avenue right near the junction of Forest Road in New Haven. So the following week, I helped Bill move to the new shop location.
      For Bill the new location was perfect, few people ever came in just for gas, and he was free to do any kind of auto repairs he wanted with no one telling him what to do. For me it was also a good thing, as I didn’t have to pump gas anymore, and I had time to learn how to do all kinds of mechanical work like brake jobs, and rebuilding engines or changing transmissions.
     It was around early in 1958 when I started to get nervous about getting drafted into the Army. I became so worried about it, that I was thinking about joining the Army Reserves. I thought joining the reserves would be a lot better than waiting for the draft board to come and get me.
     I already knew that I wanted to be a mechanic in the Army, and if I got drafted, I might miss the opportunity to go to mechanics school and get sent right into the infantry.
     So as time passed, I knew that I had to make a decision, and it got to the point where every day, the problem, was weighing heavily on my mind.
     The only person I thought I could discuss it with, was my boss Bill. Because I thought I had once heard him mention that he had been in the Army.  So one winter day, Bill and I were sitting in his small office drinking coffee, and I mentioned my dilemma to him, I was hoping he could give me some good advice as to what to do.
     As soon as I mentioned the word “Army”, Bill rolled his eyes, and he said “I don’t think you should join the Army.” That’s exactly what he said to me, so, I asked him if he was ever was in the Army, and why he felt that way? “Yes” Bill said, “I was in the Army, but they let me out.” How did they let you out? I asked.
     “Well” Bill said, “That’s, a long story”, he was quiet for several minutes, and then he said, “Several years ago, I was drafted into the army and I was sent to school to learn to be a tank mechanic. After tank mechanics school, the Army transferred me to Germany. In Germany, Bill said he was assigned as a mechanic to an M46 tank unit that was training in the German countryside. At the time, He said that at the time the Army was using mostly all M46 tanks which had gasoline engines.
     One day, Bill’s sergeant, instructed him to weld a bracket on the back of a tank. The tank was parked on the edge of a big field. So, Bill said, “I drove my jeep over to where the tank was, the jeep already had my oxygen, acetylene welding torch on it”.
     Joe said, He started to weld the bracket onto the back of the tank. He then said, “I didn’t see it, or smell it, but there was gasoline on the grass, I think it was because the tank must have had a gasoline leak somewhere, and it caught on fire. I grabbed the fire extinguisher from the tank, but it didn’t work, so I frantically drove everywhere with the Jeep looking for another fire extinguisher. But by time I got back the whole M46 tank was on fire, and it was completely destroyed, ammunition was blowing up and everything”.
      Bill then said “The Army blamed him for everything that happened, and they wanted me to reimburse the government for the tank which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He said, the whole thing was totally unfair, they even wanted to court-marshal me, but then instead of making me pay for the tank, they gave me a dishonorable discharge, and that’s how I got out of the Army.” Bill’s face was now very serious and he was getting very mad, he said, “The Army just needed someone to blame for the accident, and that was me, that’s why I think you shouldn’t join.”
    That was the exact story just as Bill told it to me, while I was sitting in his tiny office that winter day in 1958, I was 19 years old at the time. I had listened intently to every word Bill had said, but I decided to join the Army Reserves anyway.
    Once I joined the reserves, I found out that they didn’t need any tank mechanics but they did need fuel truck drivers, so I was trained as a fuel tanker truck driver. You want to talk about a scary job, I thought driving a gasoline fuel tanker was like driving a bomb around. But eventually I went off to complete my eight weeks of basic training, which was at Fort Dix, in New Jersey. After the eight weeks of training all my buddies were assigned to active duty assignments all over the country, but I was assigned to come back and report to a motor pool again at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
    At first I wasn’t particularly happy about being a truck driver at Fort Dix, but soon I learned that being a truck driver in the Army was just like being a big shot, everyone wanted to know you, because riding in the back of a truck was better than marching in the rain.
    Now my job working as a driver in a motor pool, meant you hung around smoking cigarettes until someone on the base needed a truck and driver. So that meant that every day I might be assigned to a different place on the base. Now, Fort Dix being like a city itself, you never knew where you could be assigned next. There were hundreds of buildings and warehouses, where they stored the everyday needs of the base, and each one of the warehouses had a Staff Sergeant in charge of it, and each warehouse needed trucks to haul their stuff around.
     A Staff Sergeant was a noncommissioned officer who had come up through the ranks, he was usually a soldier that had traveled all over the world with the military, and usually he has already seen some military action somewhere. When a Staff Sergeant came close to their retirement, they were usually put in charge of one of the supply warehouses, it was sort of a final cushy job to repay them for their twenty years of good service. All of the Staff Sergeants I ever met were pretty serious and pretty tough guys, who all had a lot of experience behind them, most of them had seen combat, usually in the  Korean war.   
     On one very cold winter day I was assigned to report with my cargo truck to a supply warehouse at Fort Dix. They had requested a 2-1/2 ton truck and a driver, so I arrived there at nine in the morning and I went inside the warehouse. It was a freezing cold day, and all the old wooden warehouses had a pot belly stove going to create some warmth in the building. The stove usually was mounted on a foot high platform filled with sand so the stove wouldn’t burn a hole in the wooden warehouse floor.
     On this cold morning the five or six soldiers that worked in the warehouse were all huddled around the pot belly stove talking about nothing important. So I walked over and stood by the stove warming myself, that’s when I saw the Staff Sergeant who was sitting in his freezing cold office, he got up and walked over to where we were all standing by the stove. The Staff Sergeant was a pretty muscular guy, about 5 foot 8 inches tall. He had dirty blond hair and a crew cut, and a very ruddy complexion. His Army fatigues were tailored to fit him perfectly, and I saw he had paratrooper wings, which meant he had been military airborne. This guy’s face looked like it was chiseled out of a piece of stone, and he wasn’t smiling. He looked just like you would expect a real soldier to look like, he was the kind of guy you didn’t want to mess around with.
    As we stood the Staff Sergeant rolled up his trouser leg, and put his foot up onto the stoves platform to warm it up. I could see that his leg was horribly scared. It was really bad, it looked like he had a lot of skin grafts. What the hell happened to you Sarge, I asked?
     He looked at me, his facial expression changed, and he said, “I was a tank commander in Germany, and we were out on maneuvers, when my tank caught on fire and burned up.” He said. “Because I was the commander, it was my responsibility to let my crew escape before I got out, but by then it was too late, and my legs were burned pretty bad.” Jesus, I said, “how did the tank catch on fire?”  He replied, it was caused by some young little Italian asshole mechanic from New Haven, Connecticut.”  I could have swallowed my Adams apple. He said “It was a young mechanic named Bill, he was working on the tank’s engines, and he forgot to tighten up the fuel lines, the gas leaked into the tanks engine compartment and caught fire when we started it up.”
I was taken to a hospital in Germany, and later heard the little shit of a mechanic had been court marshaled. He said, “I’ll never forget that little prick, I talked to him when he was fixing the tank, he told me he had a stepfather in New Haven that was a railroad Dick.”  The Sergeant then said “I spent six months in the hospital recovering from the skin grafts, and after I got out of the hospital, I went to look for that little shit in Germany, I was going to beat the crap out of him, but I heard that he had already been dishonorably discharged from the Army.” The Sergeant went on to say that, “if I ever catch that little bastard, he made his hand into a fist, but he didn’t say what he would do.”
      After listening to the Sergeant’s story, and seeing his legs, I wondered if I should tell him that not only did I know the mechanic from New Haven, but that I worked for him. The story the Sergeant told was a bit more serious than the story that Bill had told me just a few years before. I knew the Sergeant had no reason to lie to me, and he had the scarred legs to prove his story. I thought, what a coincidence my meeting this Sergeant. The Army is so big and he was just one guy out of hundreds of thousands of soldiers that were stationed everywhere. I decided it would be better if I opted to say nothing more about Bill, and that’s what I did, I said nothing.