This is Jeremy Merrin, the founder and CEO of Havana Central, a Cuban restaurant known for it’s large portions, live music and killer mojitos. A native New Yorker, Jeremy was working in e-commerce and looking for a career change when he decided to make a list of things that he was interested in pursuing and the idea for Havana Central, he says, “just took hold”. Even though he doesn’t come from a food background (in fact no one in his family had ever been in the food industry), he thought this idea presented the biggest opportunity and it was the one he was most excited about. The idea was inspired by a popular Latino restaurant that he lived next to called The Caridad. He started talking to a friend about the food and realized that, outside of Mexican food, there were very little full-service, high-quality restaurants serving the Hispanic market. So he started doing some research into the industry, interviewing Latino and Hispanic people as well as diners in general and eating at every Latin restaurants in the tri-state area to figure out what they were doing well and what could be improved. Through his analysis it became clear to him that there was an audience for this food and although there were a good amount of mom and pop restaurants in NYC, there weren’t any reputable, full-service concepts. So Jeremy decided to create a restaurant whose atmosphere is so immersed in the smells, sounds and tastes of Cuban culture that visiting it makes you feel like you’re taking a wonderful mini-vacation in Havana, Cuba.
Once Jeremy had identified this gap in the market, he started looking at what items were available to them, i.e. traditional Cuban dishes. He realized that since most dishes required relatively inexpensive ingredients, it would allow them to sell and deliver large platters of really good food for reasonable prices, which he thought was key for the economy in 2001. He hired a hospitality, restaurant and retail consultant, Arlene Spiegel, to help create a clear brand for the business and to get it up and running. They hired a food engineer, who helped them come up with the initial recipes for the menu but the real significant base of what they have on their current menu was created by Stanley Licairac, the first person that Jeremy hired to be a part of his team at Havana Central. Stanley was the executive chef at Havana Central for 11 years and was very talented with recipe creation, so most of their dishes are still ones that he put together. But it took about ten or eleven months of menu creation and business preparation before Jeremy was able to open their first location in 2002. And it would be a few years before he was able to fully transition Havana Central into the full-service operation that he knew it could be.
For the first Havana Central location, Jeremy had purchased a little deli on 17th Street off of Union Square and converted it into a small restaurant with only counter service in about six weeks. The line was out the door the first day that they opened and business was so consistent that within the first three months, they were able to start doing dinner service. Dinner service very quickly became successful as well because they were selling a lot of alcohol from the small bar that they had added to the space. Jeremy realized that a lot of people were coming to the restaurant to drink and as that became a bigger factor, he began to pivot away from his initial plan of counter service. He had always wanted a full-service restaurant but their alcohol sales were so substantial that it made the bar and full-service dining more important than ever before and gave him the ability to transition from a fast- casual restaurant to a full-scale service. They reconstructed the bar in the front of the restaurant and closed off the counter at dinnertime for dinner service, eventually getting rid of the counter completely and making the entire space a full-service operation. As they continued to grow, Jeremy realized that the smaller space was no longer fitting into their capabilities, as they had become a much larger scale restaurant. And although Jeremy admits that their first location was really used as a laboratory, all of that experimenting allowed them to clearly determine what their concept was, upscale the food and to get a good handle on their operations. So by the time their 10 year lease had ended at the 17th Street location, they had already opened two 200+ person locations in Times Square (in 2005) and on the Upper West Side (in 2007).
Jeremy now has four Havana Central locations: Times Square, Yonkers, Long Island and New Jersey (the Upper West Side location is now closed) and at each restaurant he tries to create a family atmosphere, both in the restaurant and on the corporate side, especially because a lot of his employees have been there for 10+ years. So all of the employees are very friendly with one another and most of them have developed a group friendship where they go out together or hang out outside of work. He tries to create a collaborative environment and make sure that there’s no sense of “me against you” so that in the restaurant the back of house is working equally as well with the front of house as they are within themselves. At their core they’re a team and one can’t function properly without the other so he always promotes that belief at both at the restaurant and at their corporate office. For Jeremy, the people he works with are the best part of the job. They’re good people who he enjoys being around. However, the people is also the most difficult part of the job for him, because people are a factor that he can’t control. He can control food, labor and food costs (the basic financial variables) but he can’t control personalities, emotions and personal lives, which are much more complex. Also, there are so many different factors to consider with employees: finding the right people, making sure that they’re keeping customers happy, making sure they’re doing the right thing at the right time and making sure that they’re in positions where they can succeed. Figuring out the balance with your employees is a never ending process and an area that Jeremy is always trying to improve upon.
Although they’ve opened locations pretty consistently over the last 17 years, Jeremy would like to speed up the process. He says that Havana Central is constantly in an state of improvement and he’s always looking for ways to grow and expand the business. Outside of fear of failure, which he admits is a big motivator for him, he really enjoys what he does for a living and still very clearly envisions what the future of Havana Central could be. There are other restaurants that have already done what he wants to do with Havana Central but since the Latin market is still somewhat untapped, there is a huge market available to them and those possibilities really excite him to get to the next level. In the future he hopes to expand Havana Central across the U.S. and make it like the “Latin PF Chang’s” or the “Latin Cheesecake Factory”. But for the moment, he’s happy building the Havana Central brand, making sure that every part of every restaurant that he operates is reminiscent of Havana, Cuba and makes the customer feel as if they’re sitting in a night club or restaurant there, even if they’re only taking a lunch break.
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