We always hear about the shiny, new food companies. The Spot is a series about the Philadelphia area's more established establishments and the people behind them.
Before Barry Gutin and Larry Cohen opened Cuba Libre in Old City in 2001, neither had much experience running a restaurant - they were nightclub guys.
Gutin had gotten into the business following the footsteps of his father. After graduating from Penn's Wharton School with a business degree, he managed giant Glen Mills disco Pulsations and several other dance halls in New Jersey. Cohen came into the biz after he grew a Philly fruit-cup-stand business into an event concession juggernaut called Festival Food Management. Through connections made in that gig, he became a partner in a Delaware Avenue club called Egypt.
Gutin and Cohen met when they both joined a coalition of nightclub managers formed to negotiate better deals on such things as insurance and paper goods. The pair hit it off, and Gutin came in as a co-owner of Egypt. In the '90s, the duo launched a club called Shampoo on North Seventh Street (close to the Electric Factory) and it became one of the hottest party spots in town.
At the turn of the millennium, the partners decided to take their business in a new direction. Old City was the happening neighborhood of the day, so they scoped out options and found a property for rent on Second Street just below Market. Most recently a 60-seat Italian restaurant called Prego, it was a relatively small, L-shaped space fronted by a parking lot.
Gutin had come up with the idea to do a Cuban restaurant, since there weren’t yet many in Philly (if any at all). When he brought in friend Kevin Hale to help conceptualize the space, Hale had a suggestion: Why not extend a roof over the parking area to enclose it, turning the whole place into a much bigger establishment?
After six months of construction, Cuba Libre opened in spring 2001 with 140 seats, bars on two floors and a two-story main dining area decked out with palm fronds, tropical ceiling fans and faux facades that mimicked island villas.
Thanks to the breezy look and a menu designed by consulting chef Guillermo Pernot (then chef-owner at Nuevo Latino pioneer ¡Pasión!), the restaurant was immediately popular. So popular, in fact, that the partners realized they needed to enlarge the kitchen in order to keep up. They ended up buying both the original building and the one behind it and made the necessary changes.
Once things were sailing smoothly, Cohen and Gutin turned their focus to expansion. They bid for and landed the right to open a Cuba Libre in the Havana-themed Quarter at Tropicana; their Atlantic City outpost opened in 2004. Four years later, they launched a Cuba Libre in Orlando, and in 2010 followed that up with a fourth location in Washington, D.C. Along the way, they brought on Pernot as executive chef overseeing all the properties, and eventually made him a partner. They also shed their remaining nightclub interests, and launched a catering division called Brûlée (it’s now run in partnership with chef Jean-Marie Lacroix).
Sitting around a corner table at the restaurant where they first joined forces, Gutin, 60, Cohen, 54, and Pernot, also 60, took some time to look back on the last 15 years. They talked about Old City’s changing reputation, the time they hosted the Rolling Stones for a secret party, and how the new U.S.-Cuban relations are actually making some things harder instead of easier.
How did you finance all the construction and renovations needed to open this place? Did you have investors?
Not in this original location, no. We took out a lot of bank loans, and basically risked our homes as collateral. We bet the farm, so to speak. We originally had another partner and we lost him over that — he decided not to risk his house. But the two of us never had any doubts.
Because Old City was a hot neighborhood?
Yes, and also because there were no other strictly Cuban restaurants in Philadelphia. There was Tierra Colombiana in North Philly, which had some Cuban food, but not much else. Of course, six months after we opened, [Stephen Starr’s] Alma de Cuba opened. So very quickly there were others.
Has Old City changed over your tenure here?
It went through a period where there were clubs opening and not all of the owners did a great job in developing their clientele. So there were a lot of fights, and reputationally, the neighborhood was tarnished. We still did well here, but now it’s really coming back. A lot of the places that closed are become vibrant again - it’s a great place for a young chef to come and open up and get into the business.
Guillermo, how did you end up consulting on the opening menu?
Barry called me one day and said, "I need to open a restaurant, and I need you to help me." I said, "What kind of restaurant?" "Cuban." I said, "OK, we can do that." I consulted for something like 90 days.
And eventually you became a partner?
Yes. It was six years later or so, and I decided to leave ¡Pasión! Barry and Larry approached me and said they planned to keep growing the brand, and did I want to oversee it for them. We had a very hush-hush meeting - it was at Dave & Buster’s on Delaware Avenue because we didn’t want anyone to see us. I became executive chef for all properties, and then around three or four years ago I became a partner.
Most memorable nights?
When the Rolling Stones were here. It was the second-to-last day of their American tour. They were looking for a unique place to have a party for their entire tour company. They called and swore our sales person to secrecy - she didn’t even want to tell us! Eventually she had to, but we didn’t even tell the managers. When employees showed up to work, they had to surrender their phones, because there were no photos allowed - the band said, “If anybody finds out about this, we’re not going to come.” I didn’t even tell my wife until a half-hour before the party started.
At one point, Mick Jagger was dancing with two of the professional dancers we hired, and I said to his handler, “Dude, I gotta get a photo of that.” And he said, “Nobody gets a photo of Mick.” Ok then. I kept my phone in its holster.
What do the renewed U.S.-Cuba relations mean for the brand?
Well, Guillermo has already been traveling to Cuba for five years now. We always want to represent the cuisine in the best way possible, so he goes for research, to help our food be more authentic (his wife is from Cuba, but he is Argentinian). For the past couple of years, he’s been leading a culinary tour through Cuba with 24 guests.
So the open relations make that easier?
Well, not necessarily. It’s very busy. We were just there with a group earlier this month. We had a reservation in a hotel in Havana, and one day prior, they told us they didn’t have the rooms so they were moving us to a beautiful beach resort. Beautiful, great, but it was two hours away! We had to take buses back and forth every day. The increase in visitors means we’re having a hard time even securing reservations for our planned trip in October.
In Atlantic City, we’re about to put a wood-burning grill out in the dining room, so guests can see the flame and enjoy the scent as the food cooks. Depending on how it does, we may eventually also add that here. And we do have another Cuba Libre in planning - although we’re not ready to disclose the location.
10 S. Second St., 215-627-0666
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday