Relations between Cuba and the U.S. are improving—or at least they are in New York, where Havana Central has just opened its third location—and its first in mall–with lofty plans of many more restaurants to come.

The new restaurant in Ridge Hill Shopping Center, Yonkers (upstate New York), is a far cry from the small chain’s other two locations, both in Manhattan. But founder and president, Jeremy Merrin, expects it to be just the beginning of the chain’s growth.

“Yonkers was a spectacular location opportunity,” he says, explaining that the shopping mall the restaurant is located in is moderately upscale and already attracting a good crowd.

“This is our first mall location,” Merrin continues. “It’s different [to freestanding locations] for many reasons. There’s a built in flow. And if it’s a successful mall—which this mall is, and it’s getting busier every day as new retailers come in—you also get high visibility.”

But most important was which restaurants were already operating in the mall.

“I look for malls that have other peer restaurants and Yard House and Brio were already here. I don’t want to be the first person on the block. I want enough peer- type restaurants so it becomes a destination for food. But if there’s a successful Cheesecake Factory or P.F. Chang’s that tells me what I need to know. And this mall will have the largest concentration of better restaurants in Westchester county.”

There are downsides to a mall location, Merrin adds.

“They take a percentage of your sales over a certain threshold level, but they also maintain the mall and do marketing for the mall. I’m very encouraged by the mall experience and would do it again.”

Havana Central features lush décor inspired by the glamour of Cuba’s nightclubs, authentic Cuban comfort food, and live music. “Havana Central is Cuban, large format, high quality dining,” Merrin says.

“Nobody does what we do,” he adds. “There’s nobody doing Latin food that’s not Mexican, and in fact, there’s not much full-service Mexican out there. There’s a tremendous need and it’s not being filled. So we think the opportunity is right for expansion and we are only looking for high traffic locations with a solid lunch and dinner business seven nights a week.”

The newest restaurant opened April 18, following a soft opening for friends, family and regular guests from the other Havana Centrals, the evening before.

“Soft openings allow a restaurant to get their systems locked in before the restaurant gets very busy,” Merrin says. “It [also] gave my team practice with less pressure.”

But Havana Central did lots of pre-opening marketing.

A construction blog on its website began in January, “to keep everyone up to date on what we’re up to,” Merrin says. The company’s social media manager regularly wrote the blog, and also manned (and continues to man) Facebook and Twitter activity.

It’s important, Merrin says, “to create anticipation among a local base for the opening.”

Havana Central also plans to host a special social media promotion on May 18 offering a year’s supply of its signature empanadas to the first 50 people to arrive.

Merrin’s plans for expansion are slow and steady—opening two to three restaurants a year.

“We don’t want to grow at a crazy rate, but a steady rate. We have developed a training team who understand the living, breathing brand. The more we understand this and the more practice we have, the better we’ll be.”

The next restaurant will be on Long Island, N.Y., opening in October. Then the chain will move on to Miami and Washington, D.C., which, Merrin says, “are two of the hottest markets for casual full-service but they also have large expat Cuban populations down there.”

All future stores will be corporately owned, not franchises, Merrin says. “Our concept is a little difficult to franchise because it’s full service and all made from scratch. And this gives more control.”

It’s not just Havana Central’s locations that are expanding—the food is on the move, too. Later this year the company will launch a packaged food line featuring bottled hot sauces and frozen empanadas.

The sauces will be sold through the website and the restaurants—individually and packaged as a threesome—showcased in cabinets and at hostess stations.

But Merrin’s plans are grander than that, and he hopes to interest retailers to carry the products.

“In the beginning we will focus on areas that we have restaurants [in] to maximize the branding impact,” he says. “However, as demand grows, we may enter into markets where we do not have a restaurant presence.”

The packaged food will “absolutely” be a revenue driver, Merrin says, ”but also a terrific branding and marketing opportunity and getting people to see our name out there more often.”

By Amanda Baltazar


Industry News, Leader Insights, Marketing & Promotions, NextGen Casual, Restaurant Design, Havana Central