The Second Life of Little Havana’s Ball & Chain

Zack Bush 00B revamps a popular Miami hot spot.

By Lizzie Mahoney Boyer

Zack Bush 00B enjoys a cocktail at the bar of the completed Ball & Chain renovation.

Maria Lankina

Ball & Chain, a Miami institution with a storied past, reemerged in 2014 as a Little Havana hotspot and live music venue thanks, in part, to Emory alumnus Zack Bush 00B. In its past life, the iconic Ball & Chain was a gambling den owned by a notorious mobster, and played host to epic jazz sessions featuring the likes of Chet Baker, Count Basie, and Billie Holiday. Today, Ball & Chain is a wildly popular destination for locals and tourists alike, drawing people in from Calle Ocho with blaring horns, thrumming beats, and an atmosphere that pays homage to the bar’s 1930s glory and glamour.

Original Ball & Chain

The original Ball & Chain from its heyday in the 1930s.

For Bush, restoring this Little Havana hotspot in a way that is true to the neighborhood has been a mission and a labor of love. When Bush and his brother Ben joined forces with Bush’s childhood best friend and fellow alumnus Bill Fuller 99C to restore Ball & Chain, they agreed that they wanted to create a place that was authentic, accessible, and affordable so that anyone could experience a little slice of Miami history.

Chet Baker Poster

Jazz greats like Chet Baker and Count Basie were regulars at Ball & Chain. Bush ensures that the current music offerings stay true to their legacy.

“We consider ourselves stewards of this amazing Ball & Chain brand that we were able to revive,” Bush said. “Bill had been telling me about this magical place since we were 21 years old and graduated from Emory. It took us until we were almost 40 to bring it back to life, so we knew we wanted to do it the right way. If Ball & Chain had never closed, but had kept up with the times, what would that look like? That’s what we kept in mind throughout the renovation process.”

At the time that Bush, his brother, and Fuller decided to move forward with this renovation, Little Havana was not a go-to area for nightlife and the idea of restoring a vintage club, a place of the past, was all too rare in Miami. However, the three accomplished their goal in 2014 and were met with open arms from a community longing to be transported back in time to the heyday of Miami’s Cuban hub.

Bush describes their team as very hands-on, with Bush playing the primary role in managing the live music. Bush, who built quite the reputation for himself as an event producer during his 20s and 30s, leverages the contacts he’s made and relationships he’s built in order to make music a key aspect of Ball & Chain’s draw.

“A huge part of this restoration has been the music. We have over 80 hours of live music a week, and we never charge a cover,” Bush said. “I grew up a huge fan of jazz and music in general, and I feel extremely lucky to have my work tie so closely to my passion.”

Reviving Little Havana – One Project at a Time

People once again flock to Ball & Chain for a taste of authentic Little Havana, but Ball & Chain’s reopening has not been the end of Bush’s mission to breathe new life into this historic neighborhood.

Salsa Dancers

Salsa dancers also light up the stage, staying true to Ball & Chain's Cuban roots.

“I currently have three new projects all happening within the next 18 months, and all within a half-mile of Ball & Chain,” said Bush.

These projects include a historic revival of Little Havana’s The Tower Hotel, the restoration of a local authentic Mexican restaurant, and a renovation of the building next door to Ball & Chain that will eventually become a Cuban bar and event space. Bush continues to work closely with his brother and with Fuller on all of these endeavors.

“We make a great team. We are all very good at different things and bring different skills to the table, which has been key in our success working together,” Bush said.

Ball & Chain

The new Ball & Chain continues to grow in popularity with lines out the door.

Bush’s professional life hasn’t always been so glamorous. When he and his brother decided to take a chance on the Ball & Chain project, they had just walked away from a successful family business in the waste management and recycling industry.

“By no means was it my passion. I knew something was missing in my life,” Bush said. “This is a total 180 from waste and recycling and at the end of the day I’m extremely grateful for the transition I’ve made in my career.”

Bush attributes much of his success as a businessman to his degree from Emory and the skills he learned during his time at the Goizueta Business School.

When asked what advice he would give to current Emory students trying to find their way and determine their goals for the future, Bush offered this: “It is so important in life and in business to always be learning, and to always follow your passion, even if a pursuit isn’t directly for your career. You never know where one great choice may lead.”

Editor’s Note: One of Bush’s proudest accomplishments to date is his children’s book Made for Me which is scheduled to come out Father’s Day of next year. Bush’s book was inspired by the births of his two children and tells the story of a parent’s unconditional and incomparable love. Stay tuned in EmoryWire for more to come on this book.