September 23, 2021

Morning News

This Business? You Bet

Men of Martin County – Stuart Magazine

Photos by Ian Jacob

Flourishing Franchisee: Dan Steppling

Long before Dan Steppling became a successful restaurant franchisee, he saw a future mired in medicine. While attending Martin County High School, the Palm City native played football and wrestled while excelling academically in health science and communications. “My best friend at the time and I made a pact that he was going to be a pharmacist and I was going to be a doctor,” says Steppling, now 30. He went off to the University of Central Florida to study pre-med, but two years in he changed his career trajectory to business and switched to a marketing major with a minor in finance. “I was making good grades, but I wasn’t having any fun,” he says, explaining the about-face. “Life is too short to spend your life doing something you aren’t passionate about.”

Growing up, Steppling had worked at his dad’s Subway restaurants in Stuart, Port St. Lucie, and Fort Pierce, learning important business practices like setting goals and maximizing customer satisfaction. At 24, he cashed in on that experience and acquired two of his own Subway franchises (which he co-owned with his brother Josh), in Jensen Beach and Port St. Lucie. “My dad had called me about two failing Subway restaurants and said we should take a look because there were deals to be had,” says Steppling. “When a restaurant goes under right away, it can be super cheap if all you have to do is pay the rent and liens on the equipment.”

Nearly two years later, he purchased his brother’s shares and invested in two more Subways, in Sebastian and Vero Beach (he sold his Martin County properties in 2019). “I built a business model on buying failed franchises and souping them up,” he says. Then, in 2018, he crossed paths with Hurricane Grill & Wings owner Spiro Laskaris, who had recently launched a Greek dining concept called Spiro’s Taverna. Laskaris didn’t mind that Steppling’s experience was vested in fast-casual chains rather than casual-dining restaurants. “Spiro was adamant I could do it and took me under his wing,” says Steppling. “I trained at his Palm City restaurant and excelled fairly quickly.” Today, the Stuart resident owns two Subways and three Spiro’s Taverna locations (Port St. Lucie, Vero Beach, and Melbourne) and plans to accrue more.

While his businesses keep him very busy, Steppling is also an advocate of altruism. He has given back to the communities he was raised in, donating to myriad charities including Citizens for Clean Water and Susan G. Komen Florida, and he sponsors high school clubs and sports programs around Martin and St. Lucie counties. In his spare time, he enjoys running and weight training, family barbecues at his father’s house, and playing two-man touch football with his three brothers.

Fast Talk

3 WORDS THAT DESCRIBE ME: “Fun, ambitious, persistent” CURRENT READS:
The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday and George S. Clason’s The Richest Man in Babylon” HOME-COOKED DINNER DATE: “Lasagna—because everyone likes it, and I can’t make much else” SIGNATURE SIP: “Jameson Black Barrel whiskey on the rocks or with a splash of Coke”

 Stuart Magazine, Martin County Men, K.C. Daniel, Photo by Ian Jacob

Smooth Talker: K.C. Daniel

Stuart resident K.C. Daniel can speak at a hypersonic rate, an extraordinary skill he
accrued working in the auction industry for more than 20 years. His accent is so neutral that even when he slows down, it’s impossible to guess he was raised in Kentucky.

He spent his childhood drawing cartoons and dreaming of becoming an animator for Disney. At 14, he moved to Stuart to live with his father, shifting his focus as a teenager to designing apparel that empowered the feminine form. “I was like, ‘Why do I want to draw Mickey Mouse when I can design clothes that make women feel more beautiful?’” says Daniel, 43. At Western Kentucky University, he studied art and philosophy; after two years, he left to pursue fashion design in California. “My plan was to stand outside Calvin Klein until they gave me a job,” he says wryly.

His fashion design plans were waylaid after he spent the summer in Yellowstone National Park. “A college friend had moved there the year before, and she told me it was a great place to work and meet people,” he recalls. Another schoolmate dropped him off at the park’s Wyoming entrance, and he found employment as a chef at the Canyon Lodge Dining Room.

In the years that followed, he held several quirky jobs, including crewing hot air balloon adventures and taking tourists on cave tours, in cities like Portland, Houston, and Colorado Springs. In 2000, when Daniel was 21, his then-wife became pregnant with his first child, and he decided to relocate his family to Stuart and join his father’s auction business, Karlin Daniel & Associates.

While learning the auctioneering business from the ground up, he studied business
administration at Indian River State College and received an associate’s degree. Degrees in finance and real estate from Florida Atlantic University followed.

Becoming a good auctioneer meant understanding the legal environment surrounding auctions, which prompted Daniel to pursue a juris doctorate at Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad College of Law. “We deal with estate and partnership dissolution, so knowing what the attorneys are talking about is extremely important,” he says.

After graduating from law school, he worked for circuit court Judge Cynthia Angelos as a lawyer, then as a lobbyist/public policy advocate for former Florida Senate President Ken Pruitt, and taught law-related curriculum courses part-time at Indian River State College.

But after he won the Florida Auctioneers Association Bid-Calling Championship in 2010, his decision to remain in the auction business was solidified. Two years later, he launched Associate Auctions, an estate-liquidation company that also specializes in real estate sales, and opened the live public auction house Stuart Downtown Auction last year.

Since then, the single father of two has partnered with myriad nonprofits in the Treasure Coast and volunteers at local philanthropic organizations including House of Hope and the Martin County Education Association. Auctions, he explains, do more than sell property and personal effects—they often bring hope and relief as well. “It’s one of the feel-good parts of my profession,” says Daniel. He once worked with an elderly mother whose son had passed away from cancer, representing the son’s estate. “She just hoped she’d be able to get a car with air-conditioning in it,” he recalls. “We made her so much money, she could have picked out any car she wanted at the parking lot.”

When he’s not tongue-twisting sales or giving back to his favorite charities, Daniel
enjoys drawing, reading, and spending quality time with his daughters, Milan and Chloe.

Fast Talk

GO-TO RESTAURANTS: “District Table, Dolphin Bar and Shrimp House, and
The Gafford” FAVORITE ESCAPE: “Sailing, because the journey is also the destination” ON MY NIGHTSTAND:The Encyclopedia of Furniture by Joseph Aronson and Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life by Lisa Chaney” PERFECT DATE: “Figuratively speaking, one that doesn’t end” 

Stuart Magazine, Martin County Men, Alex Haigh, Photo by Ian Jacob

Enterprising Outdoorsman: Alex Haigh

Alex Haigh fondly remembers visits to his father’s hunting preserve in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, where he spent time skiing and snowboarding in the winter and hiking and rock climbing when the weather warmed. The nature-filled adventures spawned in him a fascination with the great outdoors.

In high school, he captained his varsity football and wrestling teams, was an all-star in track, and was a sectional wrestling champion. With hopes of becoming an instructor for the outdoor adventure nonprofit Outward Bound, he attended the University of New Hampshire, where he majored in kinesiology with a specialty in outdoor education and minored in forestry.

At 22, he moved to Tucson, Arizona and became an instructor with the city’s Survival Wilderness Adventure Training, a program that teaches rock climbing, backpacking, whitewater rafting, and other skills to inner city kids. “To be taken out of their environment and taught how to overcome obstacles was, hopefully, something that translated into their everyday lives,” he says. Impacted by the positivity he gained from mentoring young minds, he spent the next summer spearheading a camping and hiking program at a private boys’ camp in Maine.

Eventually, he landed a job on a commercial sea urchin fishing boat out of Maine. But while the  money was good, the novelty of spending time out on the ocean in the middle of winter quickly wore off for Haigh. With only $500 dollars (and $25,000 in credit debt), he decided to head south, driving down to Fort Lauderdale. There, he walked the docks until he was offered a job crewing a 120-foot super yacht owned by the late Len Stuart, co-owner of The Second City in Chicago. In the years that followed, Haigh made six Atlantic crossings, cruised to exotic locales like Monaco and Portugal’s Azores islands, and tested for his 100-Ton Master Captain’s License.

When the repeat trips to The Bahamas lost their appeal, Haigh opted to give real estate a spin—and it stuck. He credits his father, a successful broker in New Hampshire, and Robert T. Kiyosaki’s personal finance bestseller Rich Dad Poor Dad: What the Rich Teach Their Kids About Money That the Poor and Middle Class Do Not!  for catalyzing him into the industry, saying he learned invaluable lessons from the book about real estate investing.

Today, the 48-year-old Stuart resident sells multimillion-dollar estates for eXp Realty and has built a core team of seven buying agents, including one, Haigh says, who has been pivotal in the company’s expansion to Panama planned for later this summer. He also takes a sort of fatherly pride in mentoring the new recruits he holds Zoom calls with every morning.

The father of an 11-year-old daughter with Down syndrome who resides in West Palm Beach with her mother, Haigh is a staunch supporter of charities that advocate for critically ill children and their families. He serves on the board of directors of ARC of Martin County and volunteers at local nonprofits including Madison’s Miracles, Cleveland Clinic Martin Health Foundation’s LifeSaver Committee, and DDS4Vets, a philanthropy in Port St. Lucie that pairs shelter dogs with wounded vets. In his spare time, he enjoys perfecting his golf swing, paddleboarding on Hutchinson Island, and walking around downtown Stuart with his Russell terrier, Bruiser.

Fast Talk

THREE WORDS THAT DESCRIBE ME: “Loyal, focused, empathetic” BUCKET LIST: “Taking an interorbital spaceflight” GIVES ME BUTTERFLIES: “Words of
affirmation” PERFECT WEEKEND: “Enjoying a Balinese dinner and a virgin piña
colada on a black sand beach in Bali”

Stuart Magazine, Martin County Men, Sidharth Sethi, Photo by Ian Jacob

Dining Dynamo: Sidharth Sethi

Sidharth Sethi acquired his passion for entrepreneurism from his father, Amid, whose
myriad business ventures ranged from restaurants to trucking to precious gemstones. “He’s been an entrepreneur his whole life,” Sethi says proudly.

Originally from New Delhi, Sethi’s parents moved the family around a lot when he was growing up. Born in California, Sethi moved to British Columbia, Canada when he was 8, where he attended high school at Yale Secondary and played point guard on the basketball team. When his team won the province tournament championship, the 5-foot-11 freshman savored the moment from the sidelines. “I didn’t get a minute of playing time, but I was on the bench experiencing everything,” he recalls.

During his teenage years, his father bought his first restaurant, and Sethi helped out as a busser, a cashier, and a server. “It was a great stepping-stone in getting my feet wet and understanding how things like operations, front of house, the kitchen, reports, and numbers work,” he says.

In 2012, the family moved to Washington. Sethi had dreamed of going pro in basketball—but he was realistic. “I knew that making it to the NBA would be very difficult at my height and athleticism,” he says. “If I couldn’t be a professional basketball player, I was going to be an entrepreneur.” He attended the University of Washington, with a double major in marketing and business management. Between classes, he worked at his father’s steak house and ultimately rose to general manager.

His entrepreneurial nature started showing itself during his sophomore year. The young go-getter launched his own clothing line of graphic tees, hoodies, jeans, and accessories, which he sold online and in stores like Kleen Kicks and Officials Vintage. Unfortunately, without the capital to create fresh and trendy products, he had to shut it down after two years. He then purchased his first restaurant on Camano Island, but due to the area’s limited market appeal, he sold it a year and a half later. More restaurants followed, including a casual pizzeria in Capitol Hill near the Space Needle. He reshuffled the management team, introduced new menu items, and added a third-party delivery service—and grew the restaurant’s popularity exponentially. “Mad Pizza was the first project where I was really able to make some money and prove to investors and lenders that I had the knowledge and expertise to operate a successful and very high volume restaurant,” he says of the venture.

It was chance that landed him on the Treasure Coast. By 2018, he was ready to expand his business— but not in Washington, where the cost of living was high. After deals in California, Arizona, and Texas fell through, the then-24-year-old went onto the online marketplace BizBuySell and came upon The Twisted Tuna in Stuart. It was a golden opportunity—a seafood restaurant with breathtaking ocean vantages. He bought the restaurant and moved to Palm City, handing Mad Pizza over to his uncle.

The Twisted Tuna now projects over $9.5 million in gross sales and ranks in the top one percent of privately owned restaurants in the United States. In 2019, Sethi picked up another restaurant, Tavolino Della Notte in Coral Springs, a 7,500-square-foot American-Italian fine dining eatery that now touts over $4 million in annual sales. And today, 26-year-old Sethi is wrapping up his biggest project to date: a 17,000-square-foot seafood spot named Fysh Bar & Grill with a seismic rooftop bar overlooking the Halifax River at the Port Orange Riverwalk, which he hopes to open by the end of the year.

With all of this going on, Sethi still manages to squeeze in a game of basketball every day and also enjoys lifting weights to stay fit. He contributes to children’s charities like Madison’s Miracles and Coast 2 Coast Youth Cheer Association and donates fresh meals to House of Hope and other local philanthropies.

Fast Talk

BEST QUALITY: “I’m kind, and I care about people—qualities I credit to my upbringing.” GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: “There’s nothing more fulfilling than being able to financially support my family.” STYLE SECRETS: “I shop at Zara and Topman, and I have a serious shoe fixation.” GOOD ADVICE: “Love unconditionally and live life with pure intent.”