In The City — 19 April 2018
Lotto winnings fund an ambitious spirit

By Eric Barton

Photography by Candace West

City & Shore Magazine

It’s a question every one of us has pondered after a rough day or when scratching off a lotto ticket or maybe just all the time: What would you do with a near limitless amount of money?

There’s a decent chance your answer involves a cocktail with its own umbrella, a stretch of sand and a lifetime of luxury without an alarm clock.

That’s exactly the opposite of what Miguel Pilgram has done. Eight years ago, he won big. That quick-pick lottery ticket – worth $52 million – was enough money to never go into an office again.

Instead, Pilgram got to work.

On a cloudless Thursday afternoon recently, Pilgram answered the door to his world headquarters. The office has the kind of comfortable waiting area you’d expect in a law firm or maybe a high-end recording studio. But there’s no waiting this day, because Pilgram is ready to begin the tour.

“Let me take you through my vision,” he says. 

Pilgram, who turned 49 on May 1, zips out the front door and heads toward an adjoining building at 107 SW Sixth St., catty-corner to Fort Lauderdale’s downtown Publix. He’s walking quickly, long strides that make it tough to keep up.

Slowing down is rarely on the agenda for Pilgram. Not even after winning $52 million in 2010. He took the lump-sum payout, and one day he was worth a literal fortune. 

Twenty-nine-million dollars in his bank account one day. 

“You have to understand,” he says, when asked why he’s not sitting on a beach somewhere, “whatever your vices are before winning the lottery, they are going to be multiplied four times.”

Pilgram isn’t a man who has vices. Unless you count the near-daily crossfit-style workouts he does on the beach. Instead, he multiplied his entrepreneur spirit by four.

Taking a left turn, Pilgram darts down an inconspicuous alley that will serve as a speakeasy-like entrance to the club – which opened on April 14. Below are simple pavers, a fence off to the right, an exposed gas line to maneuver around – nothing to give away what’s waiting. 

“I love when people say, ‘What are you doing here? It makes no sense.’ And then they see it, and they get it,” he says.

The alley dead ends in an L-shaped courtyard. There’s a field of faux grass and then a small shipping container that’s been cut open and turned into a stage. Facing it is a bar – half inside, half out, thanks to a wall of windows that defies gravity by folding straight up. The bar’s curves are modeled after the shape of a piano, and it’s surrounded by metal and padding, old school style, like the place has been here for decades. “Keep in mind we are blending urban and contemporary and vintage. That’s not easy.”

At the stage nightly, Pilgram says, will be jazz, local bands and sometimes national touring acts. Occasionally you’ll find spoken word and jam sessions, open mics, or simply something entirely unexpected.

“Every night,” Pilgram says, “this is going to be jazzy.”

Pilgram leads the way to a conference room in his office and sits down at a chair near the head of it. Behind him is the kind of timer clock you might see ticking down at a big event. In big red block letters, it reads all zeroes.

The jazz club was actually an accidental idea that came first out of a hurdle. Back in 2015, Pilgram opened the first of what he imagined would soon become a restaurant chain. New York Subs and Wings, in Oakland Park, closed in March 2016. It was simply too big of a space, he says, and he learned a lot from the place not making it. 

For the second location, he bought this building near the downtown Publix. The before photos show a dilapidated two-story with not a lick of personality. Now, the outside stucco is covered in murals of jazz greats. The courtyard is covered in a louvered roof that can retract to let in the breeze. 

The newest version of his restaurant, now called New York Subs, Wings & Cheesesteaks, occupies a quarter of the building. It’s an order-at-the-counter space painted in crayon-bright green and yellow. The wings are made with an authentic Buffalo recipe, and the cheesesteaks are New York style, with provolone instead of Cheez Whiz. 

Originally, Pilgram was just going to do the restaurant. But then he realized the space was too big for it. So then he envisioned the jazz club surrounding it, with a VIP cigar bar someday occupying the second story. He named the club NYSW Jazz Lounge, after the restaurant concept. 

While launching the new venues, Pilgram also began work on an entirely new idea, the Miguel DuVon Collection, a line of men’s clothing full of bold colors, V-neck shirts, and frills and detail work like you haven’t seen elsewhere. Pilgram and his daughter even traveled to a market in Zambia to buy exotic fabrics. 

For months now, Pilgram has been overseeing every detail of the ventures. He says he gets that from a Navy upbringing – his dad, brother, sister, Pilgram himself, and now his son, have served. He says the Navy ingrained in him to work hard. He spent six-and-a-half years in. During Desert Storm, he was on an ammunition vessel, the USNS Kiska, trying to avoid mines in the eerily still Indian Ocean. A sister ship wasn’t so lucky, and he can still remember the message coming over the radio about the explosion. From there it was a constant worry that the Kiska would be next to set off a mine. 

After serving, he moved to his father’s hometown of Memphis and took a job in security at a casino. One night after work he saw a man being beaten nearly to death. Pilgram stepped in, and the attacker shot him in the stomach. Recovering in the hospital, he decided he needed to see more of the world.

Pilgram took a job on a cruise ship, and he worked his way up to the No. 2 of security for the entire company. He spent years in China and taught himself Mandarin. 

By the time he won the lottery, Pilgram says he had already made it. Yes, the money was nice, but it wasn’t something he needed to survive. It’s clear talking to him that Pilgram doesn’t want the lottery to define him; he wants his work to be what people remember. “Winning the lottery is part of the story that started a long time ago,” he says. 

Pilgram used to spend $20 a week on tickets, and the winning ticket sat in his car for a week. He was in a hurry to get to dinner with his girlfriend one night and went in to a Shell station in North Bay Village for a bottle of wine. The clerk told him someone had hit the winning numbers from the week earlier. Pilgram got the tickets out of his glove box. He had the winner. 

There were quickly some downsides. Pilgram says friends and family members came out of nowhere looking for a slice. He made a rule: no loans, no cash gifts, no start-up pitches. “The problems don’t go away,” Pilgram says of winning the lottery. “They become huge, huge challenges.”

Soon, he created a vision for himself post-lottery. His idea was to buy up distressed properties and transform them. In addition to the jazz club-restaurant building, he bought a chunk of land on Sistrunk Boulevard. He’s planning to turn that into a restaurant-slash-club too. It’ll also have a performing arts venue that he envisions becomes a place where generations will learn the arts.

 His work earned him recognition. The County Commission earlier this year declared Feb. 6 the Miguel Pilgram Day. It was an award that Pilgram says just reminded him to work harder. 

“Honestly? The goal is just to be better,” Pilgram says. “What rewards me is when I can finish a project.”

NYSW Jazz Lounge and New York Subs, Wings & Cheesesteaks

107 SW Sixth St., Fort Lauderdale, newyorksubsandwings.com

 

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