Jose Luis Pla Elias, proprietor of Miami's most beloved sandwich shop, has died.
The 70-year-old owner of Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop on NE 29 Street in Wynwood passed away last night, according to Miami publicist JennyLee Molina, a friend of the family who held many 305 Cafecito events at the eatery.
Frank Martinez, a close family friend and business associate, knew Pla for 30 years and was there when he died. He describes Pla as "an incredible friend and mentor" who cared deeply about his community. "He helped support a community and gave without asking for anything in return. I learned a lot of life lessons from him, and I love him very much."
Two years ago, the patriarch of the family business was diagnosed with cancer after undergoing open-heart surgery, which didn't seem to slow him down. Two months ago, Pla suffered a stroke. A few days ago, he was placed under hospice care at his home, where he died surrounded by loved ones. He is survived by his wife Lucia, daughters Leidys and Belkis, and grandchildren Melanie, Luis, Giancarlo, and Marcos.
Pla was born in the Matanzas province of Cuba to a Cuban-Lebanese family. He began his Miami career as a master baker at several establishments around town before buying Enriqueta's, a small Cuban café that has been around since the '60s.
Pla purchased the iconic sandwich shop in 2000 for his two daughters — Leidys and Belkis — and himself to run. As owner/operator, the senior Pla could frequently be found at the register, chatting with the cross-section of locals who frequented the place. From construction workers to business executives, people from all walks of life came for the cafecito, the Cuban sandwiches, but mostly for the ambiance. To many, Enriqueta's felt like a second home.
In an ever-changing city, Enriqueta's was a familiar spot Miamians could count on for friendly faces and good, simple meals. In 2013, an electrical fire closed the business for four months. It reopened with a fresh coat of paint but the same beloved menu. And as the area — at the crossroads of Midtown, Edgewater, and Wynwood — quickly gentrified, Pla refused to give in to the developers who surely saw that much-loved establishment as little more than a money grab.
As word spreads of Pla's passing, friends, workers, and fans of the café have been sharing their condolences. The following comment was posted on Facebook:
Sometimes life's hardships hurt, and we don't always understand why things happen. We come to learn that life can be unfair. We worked so many years with you, Jose, an incredible boss who was good and honest. He wasn't just our boss, he was family. He was the type of father we all wanted, the type of grandfather you see in movies, and a friend few people have. He was a special person. God knows how much this loss hurts us and that we love him and will miss him. Rest in peace, beautiful old man, and may God give strength to every person in pain over his departure.
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Former New Times editor-in-chief Chuck Strouse calls Enriqueta's one of the last authentically Miami places in Midtown. "Everyone met at the ventanita to talk sports and politics. It was a taste of Little Havana in Midtown," Strouse says. Strouse describes a place that buzzed with activity during breakfast and lunch, with one man at the center of it. "All the while, Pla was there to ask how your meal was."
Out of respect for the man who was the heart of the little restaurant, Enriqueta's is closed today and will remain so through the weekend. A funeral for Pla will be held Saturday, September 28 — on what would have been his 71st birthday. Pla was a frequent supporter of St. Jude Children's Hospital, and the family requests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the organization in his name.
Additional reporting by Alexi C. Cardona and Zachary Fagenson.
Enriqueta's Sandwich Shop. 186 NE 29th St., Miami; 305-573-4681.