Elvin Garcia made the move to Colorado from Miami, Fla., six years ago to work in construction with a friend. He lived in Loveland, then Larkspur and finally made the move to Colorado Springs in 2015. But Garcia sensed something was missing from the Pikes Peak region.
That’s where friend and business partner Carlos Rodriguez, also a Miamian, came in.
Garcia and Rodriguez, a veteran of the south Florida culinary scene, had a mutual acquaintance, and Garcia used that connection to pursue Rodriguez’ expertise to open a local eatery. The result: On April 3, the two celebrated the grand opening of HavanaGrill on Astrozon Boulevard — bringing the flavors of Cuba to Colorado Springs.
Lechon and tostones
After some prompting from Garcia, Rodriguez came to the Springs about a year ago to have a look around.
“I fell in love with the town; I love the weather and I decided to take the plunge,” Rodriguez said.
He’d been involved in the Florida restaurant scene the majority of his life.
“I’ve been managing restaurants since I was 19,” he said, adding he shadowed his father, also a veteran of the restaurant industry, long before then. Rodriguez owned three restaurants at varying times in Florida before selling his latest interest and moving west.
“My father used to run restaurants or fix ones that had problems,” Rodriguez said. “Since I was 7, I’ve been working in restaurants. It’s what I wanted to do. And I never thought about leaving Miami, but I hated the weather down there — so hot and humid. When I came here, I loved the outdoors and cold weather.”
The idea for HavanaGrill was Garcia’s, “but having [Rodriguez] in my corner, I knew this was going to be a hit. He took some convincing. It took about a year, but I put him in a headlock until he said he’d do it,” he joked.
The concept is simple: “For us, this is the food we grew up eating on a daily basis,” Rodriguez, a Cuban native who was raised in the United States, said. “There’s diverse ethnic backgrounds here, a lot of Cubans but no Cuban restaurants in the Springs.”
And being within close proximity to military bases, which bring in people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds, doesn’t hurt, Garcia said.
“We have people from Fort Carson coming in and thanking us — not just Cubans but Puerto Ricans, and they’re bringing their American friends. Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisines are very similar, other than a few dishes. Puerto Ricans love roasted pork and do roasted pork at Christmas, the yuca, the beans. We call them frijoles; they call it abucheos, but it’s the same thing.
“We also see Dominicans, even Panamanians. I didn’t know there were so many Panamanians here.”
The business employs two head chefs, Enyelberth Phillips and Isaac Murray, who make authentic Cuban dishes, to include chicken stuffed green tostones (a Latin American dish of fried plantains), vaca frita (shredded beef), lechon asado (roasted pork) and the traditional Cuban sandwich.
“We get asked often if we know how to make a good Cuban sandwich,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been making Cuban sandwiches since I was 12 years old.”
Every three weeks or so, HavanaGrill ships in pallet of Cuban pastries from Miami.
“We get them raw and frozen and bake them here,” Rodriguez said. “We do the same thing with our Cuban bread. It took us six days to figure out how to cook the Cuban bread because of the altitude here.”
During HavanaGrill’s grand opening in April, the restaurant offered free meals (not just samples) to each guest.
“We had 2,000 people come,” Rodriguez said, adding the business felt the impact from its promotion for weeks after. “Business has been good. It’s exceeding my expectations. Especially starting in a market where you’re unknown. I’m very happy.”
‘We just do it’
The strategy for the business partners, which includes Garcia’s wife, Jolly, points to expansion.
Rodriguez and Garcia said they’d like to open a second location in northern Colorado Springs within the next year and a half.
“Once we’re stable here, we know we can make this work there,” Garcia said. “We have people coming from Monument asking if we’ll go a little more north. They said they’d come down anyway, but to please put one up north.”
The business is also applying for its liquor license, with a hearing scheduled today. If it’s approved, Garcia and Rodriguez are flying out a mixologist from a Gloria Estefan-owned Cuban restaurant in Miami to teach the crew how to make mojitos.
“We also want a patio this summer,” Garcia said. “We figure we can seat an additional 22 outside, but that will be dependent on the liquor license.”
Additionally, HavanaGrill relies heavily on take out, delivery and catering to supplement slower days in the restaurant.
“Most of the businesses I worked at in Miami doubled their sales in take out and delivery alone,” Rodriguez said. “We’re doing about 20 orders a day in delivery here now.”
And Garcia said while many restaurants have a 3-mile delivery radius, HavanaGrill will go 6.
“Sometimes it will come in at 7.2, and they’ll tell us they’ll make it worth our time,” Garcia said. “We’ll just do it.”