MANATEE — During its first three years, Jose’s Real Cuban Food seemed to struggle for every dollar.
“Was it tough? Ha ha! It had grizzle in the middle of it!” says owner Jose Baserva, an outgoing native of Cuba described by one customer as a cross between Cheech Marin and Billy Joel.
But for the past four months, Baserva says, business has been booming -- so much, in fact, that Baserva is looking to open additional local sites and even a Jose’s in Oklahoma City.
“What we do on a Friday and Saturday night nowadays would have been a record week, by far, just six months ago,” says Baserva, “Our revenue’s up 68 percent for the first three months of this year, compared with the first three months of last year. Now, we do for lunch what we used to do in three days,” adds cook Harley Coons.
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The newfound success of Jose’s Real Cuban Food, which marked its fourth anniversary this past Wednesday at its 8799 Cortez Road W. location, is partly due to a highly-publicized visit in March from Guy Fieri, the spikey-haired host of the Food Channel series “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” A feature on Jose’s will air sometime in the next two months.
But months before Fieri’s visit, Baserva says, Jose’s started to experience an upturn. A growing interest in ethnic food might be part of the reason: the National Restaurant Association noted at least five ethnic food trends including regional ethnic cuisine among its list of the top trends of 2011.
Baserva credits three other factors: his commitment to true Cuban flavor, great employees who care about their jobs, and community networking.
A self-described “mama’s boy,” Baserva says he spent hours as a child watching his mother cook. He picked up the pots and pans himself at age 7 and throughout his cooking life has followed several key rules -- chief among them, “don’t let one spice overpower another.”
Baserva also teaches his cooks to pay attention to sequence. For example, one key to arroz con pollo is to let the chicken simmer for several hours before adding chicken broth.
The result is a balance that true Cuban food aficionados can recognize, Baserva says. “My food isn’t spicy. If you go to a place that says Cuban food and it’s hot spicy, then it’s not really Cuban food.”
Coons, who starts pots simmering at 7 a.m. daily, is an illustration of Baserva’s ability to find experienced, reliable employees. “When I find good people, I pay them well, and I make sure they know they’re appreciated,” Baserva explains.
The former nightclub owner’s ability to network is evidenced in his diverse relationships including the many doctors for whom Jose’s Real Cuban Food provides catering.
Baserva also offers a standing discount to police officers, military personnel and government workers; provides deals to visiting musicians playing at the nearby Aces Lounge; and offers tourists preparation of their freshly-caught and fileted fish, along with sides of plantains, black beans and rice, for less than $8.
Jose’s earned its spot on The Food Channel’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” when a dozen customers sent emails into Fieri’s show. One particularly vivid email, signed by a Longboat Key resident known only as “Rorrie R.,” described how “my husband left moaning in ecstasy over his lunch” of lechon asado.
Other longtime customers are equally descriptive of what they love about Baserva and his 12-table diner. “From the outside, from the road, the place looks like, ‘I don’t want to go in there,’” said Dr. Doreen Dupont, a fan for two years of Jose’s Cuban sandwich, which she describes as tangy, crispy and not fatty. “But the food doesn’t get any better. I’ve told so many people about their Cuban sandwich, and everybody I ever turned on to it agrees that it’s absolutely delicious.”