Skip to content

‘You pull in your people:’ uniting 3 generations of Cuban-American cooking | yelp

Key business takeaways

  • As Nancy Andrade says: “I always think about what’s better for the customer, not for the business, and it turns out that way it always is better for the business.”
  • Consider promoting from within, even if you’re moving team members across departments. Your current dishwasher might become the restaurant’s best salesperson.
  • Trying a new concept and changing traditions can be nerve-wracking—but just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean your customers won’t understand it.

With four restaurants in a one-mile radius, the Andrade family truly has something for everyone. You can enjoy Korean fried chicken at Amelia’s 1931, cocktails at Finka’s bustling bar, live music at The Doral Yard, or Cuban classics at Islas Canarias Restaurant, a Miami staple.

But no matter the menu, the family name is synonymous with quality food and a personal touch—a legacy dating back to 1969. After fleeing the Cuban Revolution, Raul and Amelia Garcia opened Islas Canarias to help rebuild their lives in a new city. Their love of Cuban food and community resonated with the Miami suburb of West Kendall; for generations, customers have flocked around the restaurant’s signature counters, chatting with Amelia over croquetas.

Today, her daughter Nancy Andrade helms the counter. And there are other changes too. Grandson Jonathan—the self-described Croqueta King of Miami—runs the factory where the family makes their signature dish. His sister, Eileen, now a giant of the Miami food world in her own right, serves up Latin-Asian fusion with a bustling bar atmosphere. Her latest concept of her, Amelia’s, named after her grandmother of her, pays homage to the family’s first establishment—counter service and all.

We heard more from Eileen and Nancy about preserving a cultural legacy through food, the importance of putting customers first, and what it takes to try something new.

How did you and your family get into the restaurant business?

Nancy: My father had restaurants in Cuba all his life with his brothers. They had five little restaurants in Cuba, and my father was about to retire—not retire, but live a better life—at the age of 45, when [the revolution] happened in Cuba, and they took my father’s businesses, and he was in trouble because he was trying to work against Fidel Castro.

We finally were able to leave the country and came here in 1969. The first job my father got was at a moving company, a week after he came here. He worked different jobs until he realized all he wanted was to have a restaurant again. We had a few little restaurants, but they weren’t very successful until we bought one on 27th Avenue and 12th Street Southwest, and he named it El Teide—it’s a volcano in Islas Canarias, where my grandparents are from.

There was a theater nearby, Miami Dade County Theater, and the ladies would come in long dresses and the guys with their ties and wait behind the stools for a place to eat. They would just call on my father. It was so nice. I remember those days as very hardworking, but it was such a warmth between us and the customers. Those people that were our customers at the beginning became the pillars of our community later on.

Years went by, and the customers still loved our restaurant and our parents. People would come up and tell me, “Oh, my grandfather passed away, but I go to the restaurant just to feel that I’m with them.” They had so much love for the restaurant that when I finished my studies, I decided this is something that my parents have built and something that I should keep alive.

Nancy: When we started, my parents and I interacted with the customers on a personal level—very intimate. We started on a counter with 18 stools, and they would come in and tell my father, “I want this done this way. The french fries—I want them thick, I want them thin.” It was such a personal interaction.

Now we’re serving the third generation of our first customers, and it’s always with that personal interaction, that personal feel for the customer. When I try to change my menu, I don’t think of what’s going to be more economically productive for me, but what is the customer going to like? What am I going to bring to the table that’s authentic and that’s going to keep our roots alive? I always think about what’s better for the customer, not for the business, and it turns out that way it is always better for the business.

How does your culture influence your business?

Nancy: We are very appreciative of the country that has welcomed us, and we love this country dearly, but I think it’s very important for our communities to maintain our origins and our cultures, and the best way to do that is to maintain the authenticity of our food. I think if we translate that to every following generation, we can keep our origin alive and our roots alive. I think we can still love everything that we love about this country but maintain our uniqueness, and I think that’s very important. That’s all we try to do.

I feel so confident in our Cuban food—that the more authentic we make it, the more people love it. It just makes me so happy when I see someone from out of town or from other cultures try our food, and they just go, “This is delicious, this is great, I’ve never had this before, but this is great.” I think that’s the key: the magic of making it authentic and keeping the original recipes.

What sets Islands apart from other traditional Cuban restaurants?

Eileen: The meat that we buy, the fish that we buy, even down to the rice that we buy is good quality, and we sell it at a fair price, and I think that’s what keeps the people coming back. It’s not like we’re giving you some crappy meat and we’re charging you the same price that everyone else is charging.

Nancy: My mom used to pick up food from the window where we served, and if she didn’t like what she saw there on the plate she would just turn it back to the kitchen, and just she would be so strict. She said: “If I don’t like it, nobody else is going to like it. They’re not getting something that I don’t like.” So she would turn back the food. I would say, “Mom, that’s money.” She said: “No, no, no, that’s a customer. You give them that, and you’re losing a customer.” I got that from her. The quality is always first, and you don’t give anybody anything that you wouldn’t eat yourself. I try to always give them the best value.

Eileen, what encouraged you to open a sister restaurant, Finka?

Eileen: I love food. I love being creative in the kitchen. [When I was 19 years old], I started making empanadas and bocaditos and pastries and worked my way up to manager, front of the house, and back of the house, learning all the stations. I had never imagined that I would be a chef or own a restaurant because I would see how hard my mom would work, and I would never want to get home at 3:00 in the morning, smelling like a croqueta. I thought, “I don’t want to live that life,” and then I realized that’s the life for me.

The idea for a brick and mortar started when my parents found a property near our house that was the perfect spot to open up a place. We were able to purchase the land, and my parents had said, “Do you want to go ahead and try your own thing?” I had a food truck at that point, I had my following already, and I was doing Latin-Asian fusion—keeping traditional flavors, but giving it a twist, so pretty much the opposite of what my mom does, but still keeping the traditional and authentic flavors in all our basic recipes.

We opened up Finka on July 1, 2014. My parents let me pretty much have the liberty of creating a menu that was very different for this area. Around here we have a lot of restaurants, but most of them are pretty traditional. We were the first restaurant in West Kendall to do Latin-Asian fusion—with a full craft bar, making proper cocktails, making our own syrups, bitters, and things like that.

How did you land on the fusion concept?

Eileen: For me, I think it was an obvious choice, just because I’ve always been a little different. I like to do my own thing. It did take a little convincing for my mom because I think she was nervous. She was like, “Do you think the people here are going to understand this menu?” Like it was weird. For her, it was weird because it hadn’t been done before, especially in this area. Miami had just started to become a food destination, so it was taking a big risk. But I decided: It tastes good. People just have to let their guard down and realize that you’re not going to have steak, rice, and beans everyday; some days you’re going to eat steak the way I make it, and you’re going to like it. I think it was nerve-racking for all of us. There’s a lot of money at stake, and our name—our family name.

Now, people are used to the way we cook at Finka. We have people who on certain days want to go have lunch at my mom’s place, but on a date night they will come to my place. We own four within a one-mile radius, so it’s kind of like we have a destination restaurant for every type of occasion, whether it’s a perfect breakfast, a family gathering, or a date night.

This is such a generational business. What motivates you to keep it going?

Nancy: I think it comes from the family feel. My father had eight brothers and sisters, and he was the patriarch of the family. He always tried to give the family all the tools that they needed. Everything that we do has to be thought out and careful because everything that we have built has come with a lot of…

Eileen: Hardwork.

Nancy: That’s how it should be, I think. The Cuban community got ahead because of that—because we helped each other out, because we pulled each other. That’s how you build a community: helping each other out. You pull in your people, and then you make everybody grow. It’s the same with the family, the community, the country. If everybody pulls everybody else in, it grows.

How do you pull in people to work at your restaurants?

Nancy: I’m so proud of people who come here and make a future for themselves. Maybe they move on, and maybe they leave, but they come back and they say, “Listen, now I’m a nurse, now I’m a doctor, I’m a radiologist,” and I feel just so proud of that .

Eileen: One of my favorite things is promoting from within. We’ve had some of our best servers—Diego—start off as a dishwasher, and he ended up being number two in sales, until recently. And then he bought himself a boat, and now he’s chartering people, which was his dream of him since he came from Cuba five years ago. Those things are the things that I love to see.

See more from the Andrade family and other restaurateurs as they share their passion for Miami’s rich Latin community and all the deliciousness that comes with it.

Photos from Yelp; interview by Emily Washcovick