The banner that hangs at the entrance to 2905 Buford Highway bears an important date: Feb. 9, 1976. It’s the day that Cuban immigrant Guido Benedit Sr. opened Havana Sandwich Shop.
In its 44 years in business, the family-run Havana Sandwich Shop has become an Atlanta institution. But those four-plus decades of dishing up affordable Cuban fare have come with plenty of hurdles. In 1996, Guido Benedit retired, leaving the business to his son, Eddie, and Eddie’s wife, Debbie. Eddie passed away in 2001, but Debbie Benedit and their son, Eddie Jr., kept the place going.
In 2008, the building was heavily damaged by a fire, forcing the restaurant to close. For a short time, Debbie and Eddie Jr. tried to operate a Canton location that never quite took hold. A year later, they brought the Cuban concept back to Buford Highway, this time a few miles down the road in the Crossroads Village shopping center in Chamblee. When the shop’s original space became available in 2015, Debbie snatched it up. A couple years later she permanently shuttered the Chamblee operation, closing that circle of the restaurant’s history.
The coronavirus has forced Havana Sandwich Shop to enter a new chapter. It’s one that Debbie wishes she didn’t have to face.
“In the 44 years I’ve done this, I have never, ever, ever, ever experienced so much uncertainty,” she said. “Even with my fire and recessions and my husband’s death and whatever else was going on, I was able to have some control over the situation. I’ve had no control over this at all. That’s been the scariest part.”
Debbie has been able to navigate the beloved cheap eats shop through the public health and economic crisis without laying off any of the six members of her all-female staff. Many have worked at the restaurant for as long as 25 years.
But moving to a takeout-only scenario in mid-March led to a 90% decline in revenue that forced tough conversations with “her girls” who settled on reduced shifts when hours of operation were cut by nearly half. And it prompted Debbie to sign up with a third-party delivery service via DoorDash. “I never felt the need,” she said.
She described sleepless nights of submitting and resubmitting a federal small business loan application and then “there was nothing I could do but wait.” The final answer: approval. “It was a godsend. I could look at my ladies and say, ‘You’ve all got a job.’ That was such a weight taken off my shoulders.”
Havana’s customers have also helped ease the burden of being a restaurant owner. “My loyal customers have kept my doors open,” she said. “They’ve come from Newnan, Peachtree City, North Georgia mountains, and placed orders for entire families. I am so grateful.”
She has reopened the restaurant for dine-in service in the 1,100 square foot dining room and the side patio, but limited seating capacities that allow for up to three dozen people are a far cry from brisk lunchtime business that the eatery experienced during pre-COVID times when 80 seats would fill up and turn over two to three times in a two-hour window.
But there are more hurdles ahead.
“I don’t know about the supply chain,” she said, citing problems sourcing whole chicken and also pricing for beef that tripled in a matter of just a few weeks. She said that her priority is to secure foods such as pork and ham for Cuban sandwiches, beans and rice, plantains, and key ingredients for empanadas. “As long as I can have those staples, I can keep going,” she said.
Although Debbie is concerned for the future, she’s determined to stay the course. “It’s hard for me to see an end. Where are we going to be in six weeks, 10 weeks, six months, a year? I don’t know. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll do what I have to do. Havana has been part of Atlanta all these years. And Atlanta has been part of Havana.”
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HAVANA SANDWICH SHOP
What I ordered: Cuban sandwich, ropa vieja (shredded beef in tomato stew) sandwich with cheese, mushroom, jalapeno and cheese empanada, picadillo (beef) and cheese empanada, tamale plate, yuca con mojo, maduros (sweet fried plantains), flan. Sandwiches were loaded with meat and the bread kept its crispiness during travel. Every order should include empanadas, especially the piquant, cheese-laden mushroom option. Among sides, the yuca is both filling and flavorful. The tamale plate is a full meal, coming with black beans, rice and bread. The super-silky flan is a fine way to finish a Cuban feast. Even when this affordable dinner was split among three people, there were still leftovers.
Service options: Order via phone, online or in-person. Contact-free curbside pickup upon request. Delivery via DoorDash.
Safety protocols: Following all COVID-19 state-issued guidelines for restaurants.
Address, phone: 2905 Buford Highway, Brookhaven, 404-636-4094
Hours: 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Mondays-Wednesdays, 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays
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