A Manhattan native of Puerto Rican descent, Suarez started out in the ad business, working for the legendary George Lois in the late 1960s at Papert, Koening, and Lois before going out on his own with partner Bob Giraldi in 1972. It was at Giraldi Suarez that the future dining mogul made his money, crafting campaigns for blue-chip clients like Pepsi. (It was Suarez who produced the commercial on whose set Michael Jackson's hair famously caught on fire.) While maintaining their successful ad business, Suarez and Giraldi made their first foray into restaurants in 1986, opening a Flatiron Italian spot called Positano, which they would later transform into the well-received Latin restaurant Patria. In 1991, they hooked up with a rising star named Jean-Georges Vongerichten and helped finance his first solo venture, the Upper East Side bistro JoJo. The partners have since opened over a dozen restaurants, an assortment of hits and (to a lesser extent) misses including Vong, Jean George, 66, Lipstick Café, Mercer Kitchen, V Steak, and Spice Market in New York, as well as satellites of those restaurants in London, Shanghai, and elsewhere. The duo's latest, Matsugen, opened in 2008 in the space that formerly housed 66.
While Vongerichten serves as the public face of the restaurant empire and is responsible for what goes on in the kitchen, it's Suarez who scouts for new locations and manages the finances. (Giraldi still has a financial interest in the company.) In May 2006, Suarez and Vongerichten inked a major deal with Starwood Hotels—owner of the W, Westin, St. Regis and Sheraton chains, among others—to install Spice Markets at various Starwood properties around the world. And Suarez has a finger in a number of other restaurants around town, too: He and Vongerichten are co-owners of Wylie Dufresne's wd~50; he and Giraldi co-own Gigino Trattoria, the Italian standby on Greenwich street; and he independently owns Lucy of Gramercy (née Lucy Mexican Barbeque), a restaurant inside the ABC Carpet Store on East 18th Street. He's also a founding owner of the largely defunct online food mag StarChefs.com.
On the side
Suarez executive produced the 2001 mafia- and restaurant-themed movie Dinner Rush. Danny Aiello was the lead; Suarez's former partner, Bob Giraldi, was the director. Giraldi, for his part, has done some restaurateuring outside the Suarez-Vongerichten partnership too, notably opening the AvroKO-designed East Village restaurant E.U. in 2006.
Suarez and his white-haired wife, Lucy (after whom Lucy of Gramercy is named), sold their place in one of Richard Meier's Perry Street towers in 2004 for $6.5 million via super-broker Dolly Lenz. They now live in the same building as Danny Meyer on Gramercy Park, where they acquired a second apartment in early 2008 with plans to turn the space into a duplex. Casa Suarez is home to an extravagant annual Christmas bash every year. Six top chefs cooked at the 2006 holiday party and the guest list included such Suarez pals like Richard Meier, Andre Balazs, and Uma Thurman.