Every so often, Louis Capdevila seems to forget he’s in front of a photographer and reporter watching his every move. Lunch is still in full swing at La Teresita, and the restaurant’s second-generation owner has regulars he needs to greet, either stopping them at the entryway of the dining room or jumping up for a hug when they tap him on the shoulder. Even when he travels, Capdevila says, he’ll peek in on a live security camera feed. If he spots a regular, he’ll call the restaurant and have a server put them on the phone so he can say hello from half a world away.
That personal connection with customers is one of a few elements of La Teresita that Capdevila refuses to mess with. The others would be good food, great service and fair prices. But as the business approaches its 50th anniversary next year, evolution has been its true key to success.
“The industry’s changed,” Capdevila says. “We’ve been open 48 years. Well, 48 years ago, Publix didn’t have a deli and didn’t have hot food. 7-Eleven didn’t have food. Forty-some years ago, there were no food trucks. So we’ve had to keep reinventing ourselves to be able to [compete].”
La Teresita started as a grocery store, founded in 1972 by Capdevila’s parents, Maximino and Coralia, across Columbus Drive from the current location. Capdevila was 15 when the store opened and had already been working for years in his uncle’s meat market. The Capdevilas — Maximino, Coralia and their four sons — put in 16-hour days, 365 days a year, to turn La Teresita into a supermarket with a ﬁsh and meat market and a coffee and sandwich shop.
“It was hard for us because we were always working,” Capdevila says. “When we bought the grocery store, it’s almost like everything became La Teresita. The home life, family life. We celebrated at the [store].”
By the 1980s, La Teresita’s eatery had grown too popular for the grocery store space, so the Capdevilas purchased a gas station across the street. There, they opened La Teresita’s now-famous café, serving up Cuban sandwiches, café con leche, and yellow rice and chicken, with seating for 50 around the horseshoe-shaped bar. Their most ambitious move came in 1992, when the family decided to open a two-story, 14,000-square-foot restaurant. They already owned the property, and the cafeteria was a huge success, but banks — wary of the restaurant industry’s high failure rate and razor-thin margins — wouldn’t bite on the new project.
So, Capdevila says, his father cut costs wherever he could to save money for a potential opening, taking trips to Sam’s Club each week to buy staples like milk and orange juice by the crate. One day, he was spotted by a loan officer from Citibank who asked him what he was doing. Max Capdevila explained exactly how much money he was saving per week, month and year; a few weeks later, the loan officer ran into Capdevila again and offered to fund the restaurant project. Today, La Teresita is iconic for its huge servings of Cuban food at the sit-down restaurant (named Capdevila’s at La Teresita) with banquet space on the second ﬂoor, an expanded café with the classic horseshoe bar and the bakery, which is housed in the original gas station property and is now the site of the restaurant’s takeout operation.
All the hard work the Capdevila family has put into La Teresita helped steel, if not entirely prepare, them for all that 2020 had in store.
“Before COVID, we had this saying that we were a recession-proof restaurant,” Luis Capdevila says. “When things got tough, people came. When things were good, people still came.
“But when COVID hit and they shut down everything, it took care of that philosophy,” he adds with a laugh.
Early on, the restaurant’s employee count dropped from 100 to 13. Capdevila says they’re back up to 75, but like it’s been for just about every other restaurant in the country, he says ﬁnding staff has been a tough task. But of those who have stayed around, some are essentially like members of the family to Capdevila and his brother, Albert.
Like the café waiter Abel Rocha, who was hired at La Teresita in 1980 and still works three shifts a week as a waiter in the café. He was taught the basics of how to run a business by Max Capdevila, and he has applied those skills to a real estate career he maintains alongside his gig at La Teresita. Rocha’s potential real estate customers know through word of mouth to come into La Teresita during his serving shifts to talk business — an arrangement that suits Capdevila just ﬁne, as it means the business lessons his dad imparted are still paying off.
“This is [Rocha’s] office,” Capdevila says. “So he doesn’t dare leave his [day job] because he doesn’t want to lose all the deals that come through [here]. … My dad taught him what we’ve done, and he caught on and applied it to himself.”
If a rainy Tuesday afternoon visit to La Teresita shows anything, it is that the restaurant’s business has not slowed. Takeout has long since been a part of the business, but as they embraced UberEats wholeheartedly this past year, Capdevila turned the bakery storefront into a dedicated pickup spot for to-go orders. “It’s all a plus,” Capdevila says. “We do an UberEats business that a lot of restaurants would love to have [as their primary business].” Adding a drive-through is next on Capdevila’s to-do list to keep La Teresita competitive in a cutthroat business.
That’s not to say he’s planning to run La Teresita forever. At the beginning of 2020, Capdevila had a series of three nearly fatal heart attacks that put him in the hospital for three months. Between his own experience and that of watching his father work until he became ill at 78 and passed away four years later, Capdevila is looking to make the most of his golden years. So he’s looking ahead to the possibilities that the third generation (his three kids and his brother Albert’s three kids) brings. Perhaps La Teresita franchises across the country?
“That’s my dream, that they take it nationwide,” Capdevila says. “Mexican food is huge, but Cuban food is pretty much a virgin in the sense that really no big operation has taken Cuban food and put up stores.”
They’ll also have the responsibility of meeting expectations. Capdevila says it can be a lot of pressure to maintain the reputation La Teresita has cultivated, but seeing the amount of life lived, the special moments created inside the walls his family built, is worth it. One of his all-time favorite stories was about wealthy older customer who ate at La Teresita with her kids after church every Sunday. She left her loved ones with a little extra surprise.
“She passes away, and when they go to read the will, [it says] in order to get your ongoing inheritance, you’ve got to eat at La Teresita once a month.”
Capdevila lets out a hearty laugh at the memory, then a deep sigh. For as big of a role as customers have played in the Capdevilas’ life, La Teresita has played perhaps a bigger role in theirs.
“Yeah, that says a lot,” he says. “For a lot of reasons. I guess by them meeting here, it brings back the memory of mom. But [we have so] many stories like that — people who have met here and gotten married. Just story after story.”