For more than five years, Cuban Kitchen at 3799 S. El Camino Real in San Mateo has developed a local following looking for authentic Cuban food. However, financial uncertainty due to the pandemic has left owner Lynna Martinez looking for more business to keep her restaurant going in 2021.
“It doesn’t look good for me after four to six months,” Martinez said.
The Cuban Kitchen has struggled since the pandemic began with a loss of revenue and a changing customer base. Most of its sales before the pandemic came through corporate catering, but many employees have yet to return to offices. Cuban Kitchen had to replace those with individual and family orders. It lost 50% of its regular revenue through corporate catering because of the pandemic. Cuban Kitchen has stabilized to around a 20% loss of revenue because of help from its customer base and referrals.
“The more referrals our current guests give us, the more chance we have of surviving,” Martinez said.
Martinez grew up in Miami and always dreamed of owning a Cuban restaurant. She went to the University of Virginia and graduated in 1994 from the Darden School of Business. She started the Cuban Kitchen as a food truck in New York City and New Jersey before closing down. Martinez moved to California in 2013 and pitched the idea of the Cuban Kitchen to her current building’s landlord in a presentation in 2014. In 2015, she borrowed $1,000 from her mother and cousin, hired her first crew members, received an advance from her landlord and opened the restaurant. She now runs Cuban Kitchen with the help of her daughter and staff. Its Cuban cuisine-style is described as “qba,” which stands for quick but authentic. It includes preparing Cuban cuisine for today’s health and lifestyles while offering the island’s classic traditional sazón spices and flavors. Favorites include the Cuban Sandwich and Vaca Frita, a shredded flank steak sautéed with onions and lime. Other plates include lechón, a tender pork shoulder.
‘A blessing in disguise’
She is hopeful the restaurant can hang on until the next round of federal Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, payments or until things return to 2019 levels. She is set to use up all her PPP money by the end of the year. She has sustained monthly losses and will end the year with around $70,000 in the red.
Despite the financial trouble, Martinez says she has not cut staff.
“One of the nicer parts of COVID is how many people have taken a genuine interest in us and really have offered us their help and assistance in so many different ways, and it’s really heartwarming,” Martinez said.
Despite the financial challenges, Martinez remains hopeful due to support from her loyal customer base during the pandemic and grassroots efforts recently. She has been encouraged by recent business and hopes email and social media marketing efforts and community outreach will help.
Having corporate catering made it easier for her to rely on a steady clientele rather than reach for a new client base unfamiliar with Cuban food. She believes a shift of focus toward serving the wider community will be better for her business in the future.
“I view this as a blessing in disguise,” Martinez said. “Again, for us, it’s more about getting people to try it. They usually come back and love it.”
Shifting business model
Shifting to a new client base has been one of the most challenging parts of the pandemic, but she views it as the best way to succeed. She doesn’t see buffets or cafeteria-style restaurants coming back any time soon, including catering.
“For me, it’s really more about continuing to expand the clientele base that is newer for us and wider-reaching because I don’t see corporate sales catering coming back in a year,” she said.
She also made the business switch to coincide with her goal of franchising Cuban Kitchen in other areas. She doesn’t believe she can rely on corporate catering as a primary business model when opening up other restaurants because not every city in America has a corporate base like the Bay Area.
“Growing the brand in this new direction will serve us better in the long run, even if we are losing money. I view it more as an opportunity to invest in the brand in a different way,” Martinez said.
Martinez has received requests for more restaurants to open up in other parts of the Bay Area due to the lack of Cuban restaurants. She says her restaurant gets a lot of people from all over the Bay Area.
“I’d like to be able to reach a wider target market, but that would require another store opening up in another city,” she said.
San Mateo County recently announced it went into a stay-at-home-order Thursday, Dec. 17, that bans in-person dining at restaurants and only allows take-out or delivery. Despite the added restrictions, Martinez said the impact on her business and operations from the new order would be minimal as most of her business is now delivery or take-out, which is still allowed. It also doesn’t offer outdoor dining, although some people do sit outside after ordering. Her biggest concern with a county lockdown isn’t the increased restrictions but the uncertainty of when changes will start or stop. Having no timeline for when things will return to normal hurts her restaurant and finances.
“I’m just more worried about how I am going to narrow or minimize the losses that I have so I can just stretch out the time that I need to survive until I either have a whole new client base that I can rely on, and I’m at either breaking even or profitable, or not,” Martinez said.
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