Harris Rosen’s Storied Life
Talking restaurants, Khrushchev and Marilyn Monroe with the prominent hotelier.
They have a word for Harris Rosen in the Lower East Side neighborhood of New York where he grew up: shpieler, a storyteller, someone who tells a tale about anything.
At 70, Rosen has a pure white head of hair and the trim physique of a man who values a healthy diet. The owner of seven Orlando hotels, he takes great interest in the nine table service restaurants and the many cafes and coffee-and-snack bars on his properties. Each one bears Rosen’s stamp, from menus to room design, and each one has a story.
Red’s Deli refers to his mother’s nickname. Cala Bella, or “beautiful creek,” is a restaurant named for Shingle Creek, just outside. A Land Remembered, another high-end eatery, is named after Patrick Smith’s historical Florida novel.
Restaurants have been on Rosen’s agenda since his earliest days as a hotelier. In 1974, with the country suffering through an oil embargo, he bought the bankrupt Quality Inn, with its buffet bar, on International Drive. “In two years, I went from unemployed and no money to owning two hotels,” he says. “I carved the roast beef every night for two years. I enjoyed it.”
Other Rosen stories involve mobster Meyer Lansky, car engines, chicken soup and Rosen’s grandfather, who came from Russia in the early 1900s and opened a small restaurant in Manhattan.
“He believed he would find gold in the street,” Rosen says. “He didn’t.”
Then there’s Jack, Rosen’s father. To walk into the Rosen Plaza Hotel’s signature restaurant, Jack’s Place, and see the hundreds of autographed caricatures made by Rosen’s father is breathtaking. In his 30 years of working in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Jack Rosen sketched the images of Picasso, Gershwin and Queen Elizabeth that line the local restaurant’s walls. Salvador Dali hangs by the Dalai Lama, Frank Lloyd Wright decorates a wall near Charlie Chaplin and Apollo astronauts gaze across the room at Albert Einstein.
“Khrushchev,” Rosen says, pointing at a likeness of the former Soviet leader, “liked his sketch so much—this was right after he was banging his shoe at the U.N. in 1960—that he gave my father a huge hug. Cracked his rib.”
Rosen fondly recalls seeing baseball stars in the hotel elevator and meeting a “magnificent blonde lady” when he was 9—Marilyn Monroe. “I thought: I gotta get into this hotel business.”
The hotel business has been good to Harris Rosen, and he returned the favor in 2004 by donating 20 acres and $25 million to found UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, which has close to 3,000 students.
“I tell people the secret of my success,” says Abraham Pizam, dean of the college. “We have a sugar daddy.” While the Rosen College is not a culinary school, every student there is taught how to operate a working kitchen. “We’ve had a big local influence,” Pizam says. “We designed a training program for Darden when they opened Seasons 52. Hundreds of our students have gone on to work at the theme parks, some in very senior positions.” Rosen thinks so much of the school that bears his name that two of his children are enrolled there.
There’s a constant flow of greetings when Rosen walks through his hotels. Everyone says hello, from managers and chefs to cleaning staffers, and when he responds, it’s clear that he knows most of their names.
“Many of these people have been with him from the beginning,” says Phil Caronia, general manager of the Rosen Centre Hotel. “He’s not just the guy who owns the place. He participates in everything that happens in the restaurants.”
Having worked with Rosen for 15 years, Caronia says, “I can tell you for sure, he loves to eat.” Which naturally leads to a story. Rosen remembers his childhood, while sitting in the Cafe Osceola at Rosen Shingle Creek. “I grew up between Chinatown, Little Italy and the best delis in the world,” he says, leaning forward, his eyes wide. “When you live in that environment—you know, I never thought about it before, but that’s where the food thing started for me.”
Two chefs walk by, arms full of enormous stalks of dill, picked from the hotel’s herb garden. Rosen buries his face in the feathery stems and almost shouts with pleasure. Which, for this seasoned shpieler, will probably become a new story tomorrow.