How These 4 Women Are Reshaping Restaurant Culture In Puerto Rico
Less than seven percent of U.S. restaurants are led by women, including head chefs and restaurant owners. And now, irrespective of gender or location, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, restaurants around the world have taken an unprecedented hit. As of September, 100,000 restaurants nationwide have closed temporarily or long-term, according to a survey released by the National Restaurant Association.
During Puerto Rico’s up and down lockdown, I’ve been fortunate to dine at a few women-owned establishments across the island, and learn about how they’ve navigated running their businesses pre-Covid and in the Covid era—when at times they’ve had to shut down completely or been allowed to stay open at 25% capacity, which economically hurts small restaurants more than it helps them.
Here’s a look at how Puerto Rico-based restaurant owners Karla Ortiz, Loyda Rosa, Sarah Windover, and Cristina Angelique Colón are redefining restaurant experiences.
For Karla Ortiz, the classically trained chef and owner of bo.ka.do, a vegan restaurant located in La Plaza del Mercado in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, lockdown hasn’t been too harsh. After closing from March to June, and then offering a limited menu for pickup and delivery, the restaurant quickly picked up steam again, and she started getting more private party clients than before the pandemic.
“I wasn’t scared about losing business [during lockdown] because I know this is a time when people are looking for alternatives to what they normally eat,” Karla says of her vegan menu options. “We’re taking care of ourselves more.”
Born in Puerto Rico, Karla left the island when she was eight years old and came back when she was 33 with only $500.00 in her pocket. She had just left her husband and needed to feed her kids, so she started bo.ka.do in her house. A few years, later she landed in La Plaza del Mercado, where she connects directly with the ingredients she uses.
“Farmers’ markets should be the heart and soul of any community, especially in urban downtown areas,” says Karla. “Bo.ka.do is so much more than a restaurant. It’s me. It’s a journey. Life is a journey.”
Part of this journey entails being as creative with food as possible. On this front, Karla said: “The fact that I’m in this neverending competition with myself has kept me going. I don’t ever follow trends. I don’t look at what other people are doing. I get into my kitchen, and then I walk to the farmers’ market, and I pick something out and say, ‘How can I make this root vegetable into a steak? Because this restaurant isn’t just for vegans; it’s for people exploring vegan food. The more exotic the better.”
In Old San Juan, Loyda Rosa is rethinking operations for her restaurant, Verde Mesa, a popular favorite among locals and tourists that’s been closed since Puerto Rico’s lockdown started in March.
A pioneer of sustainable food sourcing, Loyda is in no rush to reopen her establishment. “It’s suicidal to reopen and do what we’ve always done,” she says. “I need to reopen with a different perspective. Any business cannot grow on top of my shoulders. It has to grow with me. It has to grow organically.”
After running Verde Mesa for nearly 12 years, she’s noted a lot of factors about Old San Juan that she believes started pushing local customers away from dining in the city, such as parking tickets and the area’s dependence on tourism, which has led to a number of businesses shutting down during quarantine.
When first developing Verde Mesa, Loyda funded the venue by waitressing and selling jewelry. She wanted to do things her way, and offer the same kind of organic food she bought a few miles from Old San Juan at the farmers’ market in Hato Rey when she was younger.
“I became a dreamer,” says Loyda. “I thought, ‘Wow this food is so wonderful, so different from the supermarket, so different from what Puerto Ricans are eating at home.”
But the farmers she spoke to weren’t able to provide enough food for a restaurant. That didn’t stop her from moving forward. She found a patio that someone offered to her to use as a garden, so she started growing Verde Mesa’s first variety of crops there. Later, local farmer, Efrén Robles, saw the struggle to source enough food, and organized a group of local farmers to deliver to his farm, so he could provide produce, and eventually cruelty-free meat, to restaurants in need.
“Verde Mesa is more than a business,” says Loyda. It’s been more like a social responsibility entity. Our vision is to build and enforce a new restaurant culture model based on honor, imagination and beauty, and that proves that local sustainability is the true nourishment of humanity.”
Shifting The Odds
Loyda’s ethos runs parallel to the sustainably-driven mindset of Sarah Windover, owner of the Reina Mora Kitchen & Supple Club, located in the iconic west coast surfing town of Rincon, Puerto Rico. What started as experimental pop up dinners two years ago, quickly turned into a brick and mortar farm to table experience run by Sarah and her husband Alex, who both relocated to Puerto Rico from New York 10 days before Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017.
“Our idea from the beginning was to use all local produce,” says Sarah. “Here on the island, it’s rare and hard to do because 89 percent of the food comes from the States or further away. We wanted to switch that. What if everything we served was 99 percent from this island? We had no idea if that was going to work or not. So we did test runs of intimate dinners with 10 people, and then we grew an organic following.”
Three days before Puerto Rico’s March 15th executive order was made, announcing restrictions including the in-dining closure of restaurants, Sarah and Alex had already made the decision to switch to carry-out service because they wanted to do what was right for their local community. Adhering to the latest executive order from the Puerto Rico governor, they’re currently holding super clubs with 12 people in the restaurant at a time, while offering carry-out.
During the pandemic, one of the biggest advantages Reina Mora has had sourcing all of it’s food from local, organic farms, is that its supply chain hasn’t broken.
“I think it helped our business even more, because during the pandemic people have been wanting to know where their food comes from,” shares Sarah. “We can tell you where every single ingredient came from and where the person grew it.”
Never bringing any middlemen into the fold, Sarah and Alex, kick off every week at the farmers’ markets in Aguadilla and Rincon. It’s not uncommon that the couple will drive an hour away just to get chocolate.
Having A Vision
Meanwhile, on the east coast of the island in the Palmas del Mar resort community of Humacao, Puerto Rico, Cristina Angelique Colón is preparing to reopen her Italian restaurant, Café de la Plaza, in November. Like many other restaurant owners, she shut down the establishment in March.
“We had to look out for the health and well-being of our employees, clients and friends,” says Cristina. “The future is going to be about making dining more comfortable for people, so that’s our goal.”
Like the aforementioned restaurants, Café de la Plaza strives to source local food whenever possible. The business has a 50-acre farm, where plenty of the venue’s vegetables are grown.
“In season, we’re able to grow pumpkins, zucchini, eggplant and squash” shares Cristina. “I always try to buy locally. You have to support your farmers. Agriculture and restaurants go hand in hand.”
Growing up, Cristina’s family had restaurants on the side, so she always knew she’d work in the industry. At the same time, pursuing a law degree was a dream of hers. So, after several years of running Café de la Plaza, she started law school in Miami, all the while flying back and forth to Puerto Rico, so she could keep running the restaurant. Those times weren’t easy. Neither were her early days building the establishment as young entrepreneur.
“When I came in as a restaurant owner, not only was I a woman, I was very young,” she reflects. “Opening night someone sent the police to the restaurant to see if my licenses were in order. My licenses were on the wall. There’s definitely a tax people have to pay to go above and beyond, to stand out, and do well.
While she’d like to see more diversity in the restaurant industry, Cristina is seeing early signs of change. “Young owners are popping up, so hopefully, in the next five to 10 years, we’ll see more. There’s a lot of opportunity for innovators here.”