Culinary power couple Michelle Bernstein and David Martinez were among the first to temporarily shutter their operations when the novel coronavirus hit Miami. Martinez says they closed Cafe la Trova, the Little Havana hot spot they cofounded with Julio Cabrera, before the government stepped in "because we felt it was the right thing to do, and we didn't feel doing takeout and delivery was right for us either."
But management and staff have teamed up to keep the kitchen operating in order to feed the community.
"My general manager, Uliz Diaz, along with executive chef Abraham Vargas and sous-chef Erika Palma, spearheaded the efforts," Martinez tells New Times.
With assistance from the Miami chapter of Common Threads, the La Trova team was able to identify where meals were needed most.
At first, the team made anywhere from ten to 120 meals a day for students in Miami-Dade public schools. When the schools switched to remote learning, they hooked up with Big Brothers Big Sisters, again through Common Threads, to deliver meals to about 20 families in need.
Also, in partnership with the Kiwanis Club, they're feeding more than 100 Little Havana residents.
"We'll do this for as long as we can," Martinez says. "Everyone is appreciative of a good meal. Some people in a family of six will only take enough for three or four people so that everyone else has some food. This is a hard situation for everybody, but we can't forget about the people who live paycheck-to-paycheck."
The restaurateur says La Trova's storehouse of provisions has begun to dwindle. "We're running out of produce, and to-go containers are hard to get," he says. "So far, most of the efforts have been out-of-pocket, and we're trying to get some donations." (Through Common Threads, restaurant supplier Sysco Corporation is contributing some supplies.)
Martinez isn't sure whether he'll be able to keep paying his kitchen workers. "I don't know how much longer I can continue covering their salaries," he says. "They said they would continue to do this for free." He says he has extended healthcare coverage until the end of April for the hourly workers he had to lay off at La Trova and at Sweet Liberty in Miami Beach. In hopes of reinstating workers, he and his partners have applied for grants and loans.
"The [restaurant] industry is so fragile to begin with," Martinez says, noting he's not surprised by the heavy toll the pandemic has taken so quickly. "Even though we had a little bit of money saved for a rainy day, the restaurant business is not designed to weather these kinds of storms. Whether you're a big-name restaurateur like Danny Meyer or David Chang or own a little café, it doesn't matter. None of us can afford to retain a hit like this one."
Martinez singles out one huge positive, though.
"The only good thing is that we are in this together. In the past weeks, I've noticed the incredible acts of kindness and how people bond together. People are giving out groceries, and our customers are giving to funds. If it weren't for that, we wouldn't stand a chance."
Martinez sees dramatic changes in store for the industry.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"I think 30 days from now, you're going to start to see places close permanently," he predicts. "I think landlords and leases and even restaurant concepts will all have to be restructured. It's going to be a case of only the strong surviving. That's why it's my responsibility to keep my staff safe and to provide meals to as many people as we can."
Finally, he shares a bit of what life is like with Bernstein and their son, Zach, during the stay-at-home order.
"We're staying in most of the time, but we'll go for a little bike ride or a car ride. We're schooling Zach from home, we barbecue, we play Frisbee." He says sometimes his celebrity-chef spouse will drop off food to workers at Mount Sinai Medical Center or cook meals for their neighbors.
"She'll make batches of fried chicken," he says. "She has perfected her home cooking."