How One South Florida Cuban Restaurant Chain Is Staying Afloat During The Pandemic
The pandemic has altered what it means to run a small business, especially in the restaurant industry. South Florida restaurant owners are trying to maintain business while figuring out how to keep their workers and customers safe. One of those owners is Carlos Gazitua.
He grew up watching his grandmother and mother run Sergio’s, the popular Cuban restaurant chain. Now as CEO, he’s facing unique challenges.
“One of the things that they’ve never seen — my grandmother, my mother — was a pandemic,” Gazitua said.
In March, three Sergio’s locations were forced to temporarily shut down while the others switched to takeout and delivery. By the end of May, restaurants were allowed to offer dine-in options. Gazitua said Sergio’s was focusing on ramping up safety protocols and training employees.
Then at the beginning of July, as South Florida saw a surge in COVID cases, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez banned indoor dining again.
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“When you run a business, you try to have government out of the way so you can make proper decisions,” Gazitua said. “But when [the] government is making decisions that intrude on your business decisions, it really makes it very difficult to run a business.”
Although Gazitua understands the tough decisions Gimenez had to make, the announcement was a hard hit. Sergio’s in Miami Lakes had just re-opened a few hours before the news went public.
“You hear the bad news, and you hold your breath,” Gazitua said. “Then you start kind of looking at everyone’s eyes and thinking ‘Okay, what do we do? What do we do next?’”
Raul Abreu works alongside Gazitua. He started off as a dishwasher more than eight years ago and moved his way up to corporate management.
“I have 14 years of living in this country, and I have 14 years of doing hospitality,” Abreu said. “I have never had to struggle so much with my career than this year.”
Both Gazitua and Abreu worry they will lose customers’ trust.
“They don’t want to go out and eat,” Abreu said. “Because what you do when you say a message saying, ‘We’re closing the restaurants,’ it sounds like the restaurants are mainly the problem.”
With less clientele, Sergio’s struggled to keep all of its workers. Abreu mentioned over half of the employees were either furloughed or let go.
“You know that they’re good employees and good people that they need that job,” Abreu said. “Sometimes you even know their families … You’re a human being, so you still have feelings.”
Marlene Oviedo works at Sergio's ventanita in Doral and has been part of the company for the last 20 years. She has maintained her schedule during the pandemic but acknowledges that not all of her coworkers were as lucky. With so many employees, not everyone can receive the same number of hours they were used to.
Oviedo said she now has to lend a hand in different areas of the restaurant – from baking to waiting tables.
Even though Sergio’s isn’t bringing in as many customers as before, Oviedo is starting to see more people coming to eat outside.
“Today we were full. There were people waiting to be seated,” she said in Spanish. “But because of the distance between tables, we have to wait. We tell them to stay in the car and then we call them when the tables are ready.”
Oviedo said one of the biggest struggles of working at the ventanita has been customers who don’t want to cooperate with safety guidelines.
“There are lots of people that you ask to put on masks at the window,” she said in Spanish. “And they don’t want to. Since you don't want to take care of yourself, do it for others.”
After months of working through a pandemic, Oviedo still has a positive attitude. She hopes that once a vaccine is developed, people won't be as scared and will start going out more.
“I'm not afraid of the virus,” Oviedo said in Spanish. “We have to learn to live with it, but by taking care of ourselves.”
Sergio’s leadership is finding new ways to bring in income. They are now shipping Cuban baked goods and meal kits across the country — something Gazitua said they’ve never done before.
“We’ve received some orders from Oregon, California, Nevada, Texas, New York because, again, we’re trying to diversify,” Gazitua said.
Although Sergio’s is surviving the pandemic, Gazitua says they can’t wait to move past just staying afloat.
“I like to think of it like there’s new waves,” Gazitua said. “You’re in the ocean and you’re just riding a wave and riding a wave ... and unfortunately, we don’t see any land in sight.”
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