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One Year After Maria, Puerto Rico’s Young Restaurateurs Hope to Grow Community

The island’s new generation of cafes and restaurants forge on amid challenges to the environment and local economy

Karla Ly Quiñones García and Abner J. Roldán Rivera, owners of San Juan’s Café Comunión
Courtesy Café Comunión

Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, resulting in the deaths of nearly 3,000 residents and causing $80 billion in total damage. Though electricity has now been mostly (but not completely) restored, earlier this June, the start of the 2018 hurricane season, many residents still didn’t have access to power, in what’s now acknowledged as the largest blackout in U.S. history. One year later, 45,000 homes are still left without roofs.

The hurricane’s effects on Puerto Rico’s economy, unsurprisingly, were severe. The economy shrunk by nearly 8 percent, according to a government study released in June 2018. Nine months after the hurricane, research by the United Retailers Association reported that nearly 5,000 to 7,000 small businesses remained permanently closed. The hurricane also accelerated migration to the mainland United States: While the Pew Research Center found that almost 500,000 people moved from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland from 2005 to 2015, more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans arrived solely in Florida about two months after Maria. It’s unclear exactly how many have returned, but an NPR report from last week suggests a permanent population drop — the island’s school enrollment dropped by 38,000 students, or 10% of the student body, year over year.

It’s also unclear how many restaurants have remained shuttered in the wake of the hurricane. In January 2018, the number was reportedly more than 1,000. But for some young entrepreneurs — some who opened restaurants in the months before the hurricane, and others afterward — the way forward is looking for opportunities to innovate in the industry.

“Ten, 12, 16 years ago, the food that we consumed was from chains: fast-food burgers and hot dogs,” says Rafael Ruiz, the founder of La Mafia Puerto Rico, a gastronomic platform that works in the local culinary and bar scenes. “It was part of this supposed evolvement, to technology and modern cuisine. We just forgot about our Puerto Rican food.”

The present is different. In recent years, local farmers and organizations like Fondo de Resiliencia have worked to reconstruct Puerto Rico’s food system, which has historically relied on imports. And despite Maria and the pre-storm difficulties like confusing government procedures and Puerto Rico’s decade-long recession, young entrepreneurs are betting on starting restaurant businesses, hoping to contribute to the local economy and food system post-hurricane.

Married couple Karla Ly Quiñones García and Abner J. Roldán Rivera, the owners of Café Comunión in the San Juan district of Santurce, moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2015, to learn more about the coffee industry — but they always planned on opening their shop in their native Puerto Rico. When Hurricane Maria arrived, the interior of their coffee shop was ready for the opening, but the storm punched a hole in the entrance’s wall-to-ceiling windows and brought water leaking through the roof, changing their timeline. The damage ultimately cost between $6,000 and $8,000.

Quiñones García and Roldán Rivera were able to officially open Café Comunión in late 2017. The shop focuses on specialty coffees — “we always wanted to be multi-roaster, to buy from different roasters around the world,” Quiñones García says — and also includes Puerto Rican coffee on the menu.

But Puerto Rican coffee hasn’t been easy to access, especially after the hurricane. Maria destroyed between 80 to 90 percent of the island’s coffee crops, according to estimates, and those losses only added to the local coffee industry’s already existing problems. Quiñones García and Roldán Rivera explain that not enough coffee is produced in Puerto Rico to meet the local demand (one estimate by economic development non-profit ConPRmetidos suggests that Puerto Rico’s coffee farms were producing at just 16 percent of their capabilities). To compensate, the government buys coffee from other countries. “No one is serving Puerto Rican coffee; it’s usually blended with other origins,” Quiñones García says. “Usually they bring semi-roasted coffee to Puerto Rico, for example from Mexico, and they will blend it with a percentage of Puerto Rican coffee. But by now, [even Puerto Rican coffee reserves are] super low.”

Many in the local coffee industry think that this post-Maria time is a make or break moment; others suggest that exporting coffee could be beneficial. For Quiñones García, educating the locals to appreciate Puerto Rican coffee — “to teach people from seed to cup” — will strengthen the coffee economy, not just on the island, but also in a way that creates demand abroad.

“We wanted to create a coffee shop that was known outside of Puerto Rico,” Roldán Rivera says. “Our purpose here is to elevate the way that we serve, and also to expose Puerto Rican baristas, Puerto Rican producers, Puerto Rican coffee outside Puerto Rico.”

At Cabra Tostá Coffee House in Mayagüez, which opened just one month before Maria hit, co-owner Adrian Otero also hopes to expand outside the island, and he speaks passionately about his love for his hometown, his desire to create as many jobs there as he can, and his desire to foster a sense of community among small business owners in the area, which is close to the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez campus.

Otero recalls how lucky he was that the electricity returned quickly, so the coffee shop was able to reopen about three weeks after the hurricane. It was a chaotic time. Communications were down, but Cabra Tostá became a meeting place, per Otero, where people would go to use the Wi-Fi, to fill their buckets with water, play card games, and more. “We always try to help in whatever way we can,” he says of the efforts he and co-owners Gabriel Curet and Enrique Caldaz, along with Carlos Alemañy, spearheaded during the storm. The group, along with Puerto Rican boxer Tito Trinidad, led efforts to get food to 2,000 families in nearby Las Marias and Maricao.

When it comes to naming goals for his business, Otero spoke about his desire to create as many jobs in Mayagüez as he could: The coffee shop currently employs 15 people. In a departure from the typical grab-and-go coffee house food, Cabra Tostá’s menu includes wraps and salads, which Otero says draws a diverse crowd, ranging from university students to the elderly to visitors to nearby doctors’ offices. Echoing a familiar goal, Otero says the space is meant to be like a third place between a workplace and home.

Edmanuel Lorenzo and Jorge Luis Soto at they rehab the Escape N Roll space after Hurricane Maria.
Courtesy Escape N Roll

Elsewhere in Mayagüez, there is currently a sense of how significant it is to engage with local businesses. “It’s important to support what’s local, and to mutually help each other,” says Edmanuel Lorenzo, co-founder of Escape N Roll. Lorenzo opened the hybrid ice cream roll shop-escape room with his cousin Jorge Luis Soto, a fellow UPR Mayagüez alumni. After the hurricane hit, the duo combined their visions to create an entertainment and food venue, incorporating ice cream rolls that Soto had seen while on his honeymoon trip to California, and escape rooms that Lorenzo had seen in the United States.

Escape N Roll opened in June 2018; its original interior had been destroyed by Hurricane Maria and developed fungi. The co-owners said that they found a gap in the market — a space with a combination of food and entertainment — while at the same time, allowing them to support the local economy in their own ways: The duo buys products for their ice cream from Puerto Rican brands and uses local fruits.

North of Mayagüez in the beach town of Rincón, couple Alexis Torres Velázquez and Suhelen Yuriar Fonseca, who opened Nopales Mexican Bar & Grill in 2016, also say there’s a growing sense of community among small business owners. “I think that in the time of crisis, that is when more opportunities arise,” Torres Velázquez says.

According to Torres Velázquez, the restaurant suffered little damage as a result of Hurricane Maria. But the storm hit at the beginning of the high season of Rincón. “For the rest of the year, we pretty much struggled with no visitors in town,” Torres Velázquez says. The restaurant also remained closed for 40 days due to lack of power, and suffered about $2,000 in losses from food spoilage. It “was very hard for us to find the gasoline to power the generators,” Torres Velázquez says of the weeks following the hurricane. “Logistically, it was highly complex for us to open.”

But like many local entrepreneurs, Yuriar Fonseca and Torres Velázquez are not giving up, choosing to look towards the future. “We have to get together, the ones that stay here, and we have to adopt our country,” Torres Velázquez says. “We cannot just abandon it and look back afterwards. That’s the reason I decided to come back, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity here. It just might not be as easy as in other places, but it still can be done.”

While all of the business owners have gone through their respective hardships and challenges, they expressed the belief that Puerto Rico can become an internationally recognized gastronomic or culinary destination. “I think we have so much variety and so much to offer,” Torres Velázquez says. Quiñones García of Café Comunión suggested the creation of coffee museums and coffee hotels could also establish Puerto Rico as a coffee destination.

Otero of Cabra Tostá Coffee House offers a message of hope for future business owners. “I come from a really humble background,” he says. “We didn’t have money growing up, only food on the table and a roof... People always have an excuse, ‘I don’t have money, I don’t have this, I don’t have that,’ but neither did I, and I did it. The sky’s the limit, as long as you have the will and drive to do it, you’ll achieve it.”

Mariela Santos-Muñiz is a freelance writer and journalist whose work has been published by NBC News Latino, Nylon, The Culture Trip, and more.
Editor: Erin DeJesus