The Lion King: Can Robert Rivani conquer Miami’s restaurant jungle?

Inside Black Lion Investment Group's plan to dominate the city's fine dining scene

Jan.January 02, 2023 07:00 AM

Robert Rivani (Photo by Paul Dilakian)

After dropping $19 million on the ground-floor retail space at the Miami Beach boutique condominium Marea at the end of 2021, Robert Rivani wasn’t finished.

The Black Lion Investment Group founder immediately began eyeing another prime retail space down the street owned by the same sellers, A&D Group Realty’s Domenico Albano and Americo D’Agostini.

For several months, D’Agostini recalled, Rivani would occasionally ask whether they were ready to make a deal for the ground-floor space at One Ocean, another luxury residential property in Miami Beach’s South of Fifth neighborhood, home to the city’s most expensive condos and some of its hardest-to-get-into restaurants, like Carbone, Papi Steak and Joe’s Stone Crab.

We weren’t ready to sell,” D’Agostini said. “He kept giving us a better offer. He kept increasing the price per square foot.”

At the time, Black Lion Investment Group was still based in Los Angeles. But trips to South Florida during the pandemic showed him that the fine-dining scene in Miami and Miami Beach — where some establishments can count on a steady stream of well-heeled dinner parties spending tens of thousands of dollars on a given night — is a lucrative sector of commercial real estate worth dominating. 

Hospitality is here to stay,” Rivani, 32, said in an interview. “Amazon can’t change that. The metaverse can’t change that. People are social. They want to go hang out and dine with their friends and family.”

When Rivani offered to pay $12.2 million for the Ocean One commercial unit, or more than $900 a square foot, it was a done deal. 

Robert is very direct, and he is very proactive,” D’Agostini said. “He met our deadlines, didn’t let time pass and stayed on top of his offer.” 

In person, Rivani doesn’t fit the profile of the wheeling and dealing commercial real estate investor so much as the guitarist for a death metal band or a mixed martial artist in a caged ring. He wears his hair in a slicked-back mohawk and sports a bushy beard that extends to his chest.  However, his methodical approach to investing belies his wild image.

Most successful guys in real estate are in their 50s, 60s and 70s,” Rivani said. “The younger generation can’t relate to that.” 

After more than a decade buying strip malls and shopping centers, Rivani refocused his strategy by targeting commercial condos in luxury high-rise buildings in Miami and Miami Beach. Since the summer of last year, Black Lion has paid $77.1 million for commercial units at six properties. Rivani’s wager is that he can persuade the national and international fine-dining establishments catering to A-list crowds that they should move into his spaces. 

Black Lion also paid $13.5 million for Wynwood Arcade, a retail building in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood. Rivani recently leased the rooftop to Fabel Miami, a speakeasy and supper club charging $96 and $298, respectively, for chicken and steak entrees. Along the way, Rivani’s elevated his profile, recently landing a spread in the Wall Street Journal about the $13.7 million Beverly Hills compound he and his wife, Krystal Rivani, have turned into a whimsical castle that pays homage to Harry Potter and “Game of Thrones.” 

It takes a lot of confidence to be who you are,” Rivani said. “Over the years, as you make money and you develop your craft, you start to fall in line with who you are. The time is now for a real estate disruption. Who better than a guy with a mohawk and a beard to lead that trend?” 

From sneakerhead to property baron

A Los Angeles native, Rivani got his entrepreneurial bug as a teenage sneakerhead, he said. He amassed a collection of rare and limited editions of popular shoes, including Nike Air Jordans, that he said he sold for $150,000 while still in high school. 

A college dropout, Rivani got into day trading using his sneaker profits. He lost most of his earnings betting on the wrong stocks. 

Day trading is a lot of fun if you have discipline,” he said. “Being a younger kid, I didn’t have much discipline. I would try to make as much money as I could, and I got my ass handed to me.” 

He spent his late teens and early 20s working for his family’s property management company, where he learned about REOs — lender-owned properties that banks failed to sell at foreclosure auctions.

His first REO deal, during the Great Recession, was for a 6,000-square-foot strip mall with a tenant roster including a Dunkin’ Donuts and a dentist’s office struggling to pay rent, Rivani said. He was able to find a lender that financed 75 percent of the $600,000 price tag. Within months, he increased the property’s occupancy by “walking the streets, pounding on doors, trying to get tenants,” including a Jimmy John’s franchisee. He sold the strip mall for $2.3 million. 

Rivani expanded his strategy, buying foreclosed retail centers and standalone fast food restaurants in Texas, Illinois, Wisconsin and Florida.

For a while, redevelopment of those properties was my bread and butter,” he said. “Banks just wanted to get those properties off their books.” 

In 2013, Rivani formed Black Lion, continuing his business model of finding partially or fully vacant commercial properties and turning them around. Three years later, Black Lion paid $14 million for Crystal Cove, a 120,000-square-foot office and retail complex in North Palm Beach. Rivani said Black Lion invested millions of dollars in capital improvements between 2017 and 2019.  

Last year, the firm sold Crystal Cove for $36.2 million, $22 million more than it paid for it. Since its inception, Rivani’s firm has transacted $500 million in real estate deals across the U.S., according to its website. 

In November, Black Lion sold a shopping center in Sunrise for $4 million, two years after buying it for $2 million. Under his brief ownership, the Shoppes of University rose to 100 percent occupancy at the height of the pandemic, Rivani said. He bought the property with a $500,000 down payment and financed the rest.

Black Lion’s acquisitions rely on capital generated from its real estate trades, Rivani’s growing personal wealth and bank financing, he said. His only business partner is his wife, Krystal. 

She is my boss, my investor and my everything,” Rivani said. “Having partners is an absolute nightmare. I have a different style than most people and the way I go about doing things.” 

Case in point: After buying the Wynwood Arcade, which had gone through a fairly recent renovation under previous owner East End Capital, Rivani decided to spend $500,000 outfitting it with fake foliage and colorful lighting, renaming it Wynwood Jungle.

Can you imagine if I had to go to a group of investors and tell them I decided to do that?” Rivani said. “They would think I was fucking smoking rocks.”

After he took over, Rivani said, the property’s net operating income went from $300,000 to approximately $2.5 million in 18 months. In addition to Fabel Miami taking the rooftop, Black Lion signed a country music bar to 8,000 square feet, and an existing tenant, the Salty Donut, is expanding from an 800-square-foot storefront to a 4,000-square-foot space. Rivani estimates the property is now worth around $45 million, more than triple what he paid for it.

That is why I want to be on my own,” Rivani said. “I want to die by my own sword and my own vision.” 

Building a commercial kingdom

Between 2015 and 2016, Rivani bought four commercial units at the Four Ambassadors, a condo complex built in the late 1960s in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood. Black Lion paid a combined $10.2 million for the spaces, which face a marina and Biscayne Bay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize all these new high-rises were being built and the Four Ambassadors wasn’t what it was in its golden days,” Rivani said. “It was tough to lease in the beginning.” 

Gekko, the restaurant leasing space at SLS Lux Brickell (Black Lion)

One of the units spanned more than 10,000 square feet on the mezzanine level, but the entrance was through the Four Ambassadors lobby, Rivani said. To attract a high-caliber restaurant, he added a private elevator so that patrons could valet their cars at the side of the building and go through a new entrance.

Last year, the owners of Delilah, a hip Los Angeles supper club, signed a long-term lease to open a third U.S. location in the space. In 2020, Black Lion sold the ground-floor units, which were also renovated, for $8.5 million. In May, it sold the Delilah-leased restaurant for $13 million. 

Fabio Faerman, a Miami-based commercial broker who represented Black Lion in buying and selling the Four Ambassadors units, said Rivani has a clear strategy that works in landing top-tier restaurant tenants like Delilah. 

He’s got a calculator in his head,” Faerman said. “Sometimes we have argued over the formulas for costs and returns, but he understands what number he needs to get to in order to make a deal work.” 

Faerman and his partner, Sebastian Faerman, also represented Black Lion in acquiring the commercial units at Marea and One Ocean, as well as the firm’s acquisitions of restaurant spaces at the Paraiso condominium complex in Edgewater, the Zaha Hadid-designed One Thousand Museum high-rise in downtown Miami, the SLS Lux Brickell tower in Brickell and the Continuum South Beach in South of Fifth. 

His vision for these commercial units started coming together as he became more familiar with the market during the pandemic,” Sebastian said. “He saw the growth that’s been taking place as people from California and other states were fleeing to Miami.” 

The allure of Miami

During the pandemic, as Krystal shopped for groceries and other daily needs online, Robert Rivani realized the threat e-commerce posed to brick and mortar retail, his bread and butter. 

My wife is in her early 30s and her shopping habits changed because of Covid,” he said. “As a shopping center developer, I was like, ‘ah, fuck.’ So I started thinking about other asset classes to get into.” 

Florida’s loose Covid restrictions were a boon to the state’s hospitality industry, especially in Miami and Miami Beach, where Rivani witnessed firsthand how hip, pricey restaurants drew large crowds that spent lavishly on dinners and bottle service. He also chafed under the tighter muzzles meant to stop the spread of the virus in California.

I felt like Los Angeles was falling apart,” he said. “As soon as the food is done, the mask has to go back on. You can’t enjoy yourself. Who the hell wants to live like that?” 

Around the midpoint of 2022, Robert, Krystal and Black Lion moved from Los Angeles to Miami. 

In addition to the units at One Ocean and Marea, Black Lion acquired the 22,500-square foot restaurant building at the Continuum South Beach, another condominium in South of Fifth, for $11.5 million. Catch, a chain of fine-dining restaurants in seven cities, is leasing the space and plans to open next year, Rivani said. 

In an Instagram story, Catch co-owner and New York-based restaurateur Eugene Remm told his followers that Rivani is a “dear friend” who called him in February to begin negotiations. (Remm did not respond to voicemails seeking comment.) 

He kinda looks like a Dothraki from Game of Thrones, but we love him anyway,” Remm said in the video clip, referring to a race of violent, horse-riding nomadic warriors from the fantasy series. “Three days later, we flew down [to Miami Beach].” 

I am a longtime customer of Catch in Los Angeles,” Rivani explained. “[The Continuum] is the perfect spot for them. We had a signed lease within 45 days.” 

At SLS Lux Brickell, Rivani brought in hospitality guru Dave Grutman, who partnered with reggaeton star Bad Bunny to open the Japanese steakhouse Gekko, a celebrity hotspot. 

I didn’t expect that to happen when we first signed the deal,” Rivani said. “I was just going for Dave. His landing Bad Bunny was the cherry on top.”

A spokesperson for City National Bank, which financed four of Rivani’s deals with loans totaling $36.5 million, according to records, said the bank doesn’t comment on dealings with clients, but Rivani says his relationships with his lenders are stellar. 

We have never had a late payment, even during Covid,” he said. “We have never had an issue, never had a foreclosure and never had any type of problem whatsoever. We follow through on all the things banks care about.” 

In the coming year, Black Lion’s goal is to buy and sell $400 million in real estate, including luxury single-family home developments, Rivani said. He sees the company eventually expanding into high-rise and hotel projects. 

Next year will probably be our biggest yet,” he said. “But we want to expand intelligently.”


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