By James Maher
Name: Manny Garcia
Occupation: Owner, Cafecito
Location: Avenue C between 11th and 12th
Time: 5 pm on Friday, Feb 1
I was originally born in Jersey City but I grew up in Miami. My parents are Cuban. My father’s actually a Spaniard but he lived in Cuba for 25 years. I’ve been to Spain but I haven’t been to Cuba yet. I’ve been waiting till it opens up. I still have relatives there who’ve I’ve never met.
Miami is paradise. Most of my family is there. It’s very multicultural. But it’s too much fun and so it’s hard to get serious. It’s a party town, the weather’s beautiful — it’s 80 degrees and you’re trying to work. My first job was at McDonald's when I was 14 and after that I worked in barbacking and bartending and as an assistant manager.
At the same time I was going to FIU Hospitality School and that’s where I met my business partner for the restaurant. He was from New York and one day he called me and said he knew a neighborhood and he thought a Cuban restaurant would be perfect there. So I made a trip and we signed a lease for half the space we have now. Initially it was just a little takeout café with sandwiches, small menu, milkshakes, coffee, and we used to press the sandwiches at the bar. Then about a year later the bakery next door left and we combined both spaces.
Until a year and a half ago I lived right upstairs. I was very connected to my work. Living above made my life very intertwined with the restaurant. My whole life was the restaurant. Even on my day off… I didn’t have a day off. They’d call me and say, “Where are you?”
We just had our 10-year anniversary. There was not much around here when we first opened. On this block was just a bodega on the corner. There wasn’t much entertainment for the neighborhood. Esperanto and Zum Schneider were the only ones here, and people thought we were crazy. They said, “Oh, you’re opening here? Everything has failed here.” But the neighborhood has been great and they supported us from the beginning.
The first year was pretty much all locals. They’ve been our base and they were excited that they had a place to go that they could identify with. Even though there weren’t that many Cuban people in the neighborhood, there were a lot of Puerto Rican, Dominican, and every other Latin culture here. It was much different from working in a restaurant in Miami. Miami was crazy and 90 percent tourists. There were different people every night. There’s more of a community here.
Right after we opened we had the blackout in 2003. It was my birthday. We just opened the doors and gave everything that we had away. We had beers, food, and there was a line outside the restaurant. It was a blackout party.
The hurricane was tough, but we all chipped in together in the same way. We helped people and people helped us and it brought everybody together in the neighborhood. We supported each other. We were all in boots trying to drain basements with generators. Friends who had gas had to go to Jersey to get more gas for people. People chipped in with whatever was needed — flashlights, lights, ice, milk. People would take turns going to Costco on 116th. They would take a list and ask everybody what they needed. They would buy milk and pampers for the kids. The burden was on everybody.
The restaurant itself got hit pretty hard. There was four feet of water in the building and we were closed almost a month. We’re still trying to recover financially. We had to replace everything. We didn’t have power for 3 weeks and to this day we still don’t have Verizon. It’s five months later.
A hurricane, a flood, here? I’m from Miami and I would never think that I would move to New York and have it worse than in the tropics. It’s unbelievable.
James Maher is a fine art and studio photographer based in the East Village. Find his website here.