Catered to Death

A hard-charging wheeler-dealer, a catering perfectionist, and a bitterly dissatisfied wife -- it was a lethal mix

As police swarmed the building and discovered the murder-suicide, news trickled out among the employees gathered downstairs. Many quickly concluded that it was Berlin who had shot Pecora -- not because Berlin was a violent man but because Pecora, according to everyone who knew him, was a man incapable of killing.

But unknown to most of the people who worked with him, the low-key, deferential Pecora was caught between two powerful forces -- forces that he could not reconcile. On the one hand, he was engaged in a long-term one-sided struggle for control of the direction of the company with his aggressive partner. On the other, he was contending with the expectations of his increasingly demanding wife, one of the most visible administrators of the catering operation and a frequent Berlin antagonist. Pecora was a people-pleaser, perhaps the most valued trait one can possess in the hospitality business. He went the extra five miles for customers, colleagues say, and his business was built on that principle. But Pecora's diffidence left him largely defenseless against the hard-charging Berlin. For years, company insiders say, Pecora had used a calm persistence to make his wishes felt, though more often than not, he had grudgingly given in to Berlin on personnel issues or business matters. Mrs. Pecora had no such qualms about confronting Berlin, and she frequently urged her husband to hold firm against his partner and "stand up for your wife."

The brooding, deceptively mild-mannered Pecora, it seemed, was forced to look for a resolution outside his own nature.

Long-time Signature employee Andrew Juska (above) says Pecora and  Berlin worked well together as a management team. David Yablin recalls that Berlin fired a young receptionist  for not calling him "Sir."
Rocki Cook
Long-time Signature employee Andrew Juska (above) says Pecora and Berlin worked well together as a management team. David Yablin recalls that Berlin fired a young receptionist for not calling him "Sir."
Berlin's blend of charm and political passion made him the  perfect fundraiser, Neal Sonnett says
Rocki Cook
Berlin's blend of charm and political passion made him the perfect fundraiser, Neal Sonnett says

Michael Pecora wasn't your typical young college student. He had a vision. "Even back then, he was intense," recalls Andrew Juska, who attended hospitality-management classes with Pecora at Florida International University in the mid-1970s and eventually became one of his friend's top managers. "It was perfect or nothing. It was either done right or you didn't turn it in."

Juska worked with Pecora on a couple of major school projects, including planning and creating a small business that they named Wakeup Miami Coffee Co. "I remember being at his place and turning on the TV to watch Happy Days," Juska says. "He was incredulous: 'What are you doing? We're working.' I said, 'But this is the Fonz. '"

Pecora displayed the same single-mindedness on the job during and after college at Mada'n Kosher Foods, which specialized in kosher airline meals. "He was a very bright person," says Mada'n owner Sam Weiss, who took a fatherly interest in Pecora. "He was innovative. He didn't sit behind a desk and wait for people to give him something to do."

Few of his friends or associates knew that the affable Pecora had a license to carry a concealed firearm.

By 1978, Pecora had risen to vice president of operations. He and Michael Selig, who was executive chef at Mada'n, then founded their own catering business, Quality Food Systems. Pecora was 26 years old.

While working at Mada'n, Pecora had become acquainted with David Yablin, a salesman for a Miami restaurant supply company. Pecora approached him about buying equipment for the new company. Pecora's charisma and personal charm was such that he easily overcame the obstacle of being cash-strapped.

"I liked him -- very much. His personality, his drive," recalls Yablin, who was 15 years older than Pecora. "I think he had a lot of foresight for a young man. He was about $15,000 short of what he wanted to buy. I went to the owner of the company, who wouldn't extend him any credit, so I signed a personal note guaranteeing the $15,000." Yablin and Pecora became close friends, and Yablin supplied him with most of the equipment he was to need during the next 25 years.

Juska recalls: "As soon as he'd formed a company, Michael stopped by and said, 'I don't know where I'm going with it, but why don't you come along?' You had to figure he was going to be successful, and it definitely was going to be interesting." Working from a kitchen in downtown Miami, the men provided frozen kosher meals for hospitals and other institutions. Pecora landed a contract for the in-house catering at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach in the late 1970s. "He did a tasting for the board of directors," Juska says. "It was a very big deal. It was the premier kosher catering temple on the beach, probably Miami. It was gorgeous. We did some very, very high-end parties, as much as $100 a person -- which would be goodness knows how much now."

Pecora and Selig desired more, however, than just working out of someone else's kitchen or schlepping food and equipment around for the so-called gypsy catering. Even when they were just starting off, Pecora repeatedly assured Juska, with a look of visionary determination, that someday they wouldn't have to worry about foul-ups with catering equipment. "When you're an off-premise caterer, you've gotta lug all the dishes, pans, and whatever, and if you forget a salt and pepper shaker, you forgot it," he explained. "You don't have it."

The realization of that dream was Signature Gardens, a swanky, streamlined catering facility that opened in Kendall in 1985, a showily elegant place with a curved staircase of imported tile and skylight atria. "We had plenty of equipment to do the job right," Juska says. "It made us do the job better. Ask any caterer who was there: The hallways were at a width for a specific reason, because this was going there, etc. The layout of the kitchens was designed from a business standpoint but also from the catering standpoint. That's what Michael was an expert in."

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