Café Cubano’s owners Mayra and Javier Fernandez Jr. have spent 20 years building their restaurant at 7426 W. North Ave. in Elmwood Park. They relied on their years of combined restaurant experience to confront the challenges of the recent pandemic. PPP loans and grants helped the resilient Cuban eatery fight through the unprecedented challenges. But challenges continue for the restaurant known for serving nostalgic, home-style Cuban fare.
Despite their commitment to safety precautions the staff at Café Cubano was directly impacted by COVID-19. They almost lost their longtime cook to the virus and count his survival among their many blessings during this unprecedented time.
After a year and half Fernandez sees things coming back little by little, but they are still running an unsustainable ratio of 60% takeout orders to just 40% indoor dining.
“Our profit margins depend on indoor dining,” said Fernandez. “Unfortunately, right now, there are not enough people coming back. The biggest thing customers can do to help us now is to come in and have a meal here.”
Like most establishments on restaurant row, Café Cubano is struggling to staff their restaurant. Rising food costs and lost profits during the pandemic have made it difficult to meet income expectations for potential employees. While they are grateful their most faithful employees are still with them, the waitstaff shortage have made finding a proper balance inside the restaurant difficult.
“Teenagers are saving our restaurant right now,” said Fernandez. “They are happy and hardworking. I have no idea what will happen when they go back to school, but for now we wouldn’t be here without them.”
In response to the upheaval in the restaurant industry, Café Cubano has enhanced their outdoor patio with decorative flourishes including windchimes and fresh flowers to help attract customers looking to enjoy a meal outside. Additionally, they debuted a thoughtfully edited menu to help control costs. The streamlined offerings showcase all the most popular dishes the restaurant has to offer.
“We’ve cleaned up the menu and are sticking to our best loved dishes,” said Fernandez. “I want my customers to know what they are going to order before they even leave their house.”
Popular menu items include thin cut steak sandwiches and jibaritos, rich oxtail stew and indulgent lechon. Vegetarians will appreciate Café Cubano’s vegetarian plate featuring black beans, sweet plantains and rice. The perennially popular tapa combo remains on the menu featuring papa rellenas, empanadas, ham and cheese croquetas, tostones rellenos and yuca frita, while the camerones flamenco appetizer, featuring shrimp in tomato sauce with toast, is large enough to be enjoyed in lieu of an entrée.
To further lure dine in customers Café Cubano has a guitarist on site every Saturday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. While he mills around entertaining restaurant goers, Fernandez hopes to see customers enjoying a thoughtfully prepared cocktail like their well-loved mojitos. As summer continues Café Cubano will offer seasonal variations to their drink menu including watermelon mojitos and fresh peach sangria.
“We kept the doors open even though it wasn’t profitable and are hoping we can continue to stay open with this different set of challenges,” said Fernandez. “It is so hard right now, and we are doing everything we can to survive. Failing really isn’t an option for Café Cubano.”