Continental Divide

Richard Ampudia
(managing partner, Café Habana)
Income:$52,000 (1998)
Health Insurance:$179/mo.
Rent:$950/mo. Utilities:$90/mo.
Phone:$120/mo. Food:$200/mo.
Transportation:$320/mo.

It's all very chic in the silver and blue café and everybody is eating grilled corn with lime but then the water starts flooding out of the bathroom. "I tell people not to put paper towels in the toilet but they do it anyway. Then the whole restaurant floods. Everybody runs outside in a panic." Café Habana co-owner Richard Ampudia, 32, was talking about costs. "It happens at least three times a week. The city wants you to use these toilets that use less water, which is fantastic from an environmental perspective, but the flushing power is not the same. I put up so many signs in so many different languages telling people not to throw the towels in the toilet. I don't know what to do anymore. Then every time there's a flood, I have to pick up the check for everybody."

Small-restaurant owners have to be careful about every penny. "Especially since we don't serve hard liquor. With a bottle of tequila you can make your money back in one drink." So Ampudia spends a lot of time in the basement office working on his Quick Book computer accounting program and wondering about things like why did they spend $300 on paper napkins in one week in June. Then he had a revelation—corn is messy and they served more corn in June.

Ampudia and two partners opened Café Habana on Prince and Elizabeth in 1998. The restaurant is named after the Mexico City diner where Cuban musicians drank café con leche after playing in the nightclubs. Ampudia grew up in Mexico City, where his mother—"s from the Bronx, she's Jewish"—went in the '50s to take a course in Spanish and met his father, "an administrator at the university, and fell in love and didn't come back."

Ampudia decided to move to New York after he got out of the shower one day in 1986. "There was an earthquake—my mom was standing in the door frame moving side to side. She was okay but the buildings collapsed, people died. I realized you can make all the plans you want. In 40 seconds your life can change dramatically. So I decided I'd pursue my life dream—NYU film school!" But four years later he dropped out. Who could afford such a dream? "I owed them $30,000. I was putting it on credit cards."

During that time, his life as a restaurateur began. "I started at Continental Divide, where they served Chinese, Mexican, Thai, ricotta dim sum with chili con carne. I didn't know what I was doing, but I don't think they cared because it was on St. Marks Place." Next he bartended at Benny's Burritos, then managed Lucky Strike until he saved enough to open Vera Cruz in Williamsburg. "Four years ago, Williamsburg wasn't as gentrified. I wanted to make nice Mexican food, but people wanted burritos. We don't have burritos in Mexico. Artists would eat chips for two hours and spend five dollars. Then I thought, I'll go back to Mexico City, open a big space. When the whole process started, I realized the bribes, the slow pace, and just living in a city of 23 million people has problems. I didn't feel at home anymore. Today the difference of income is incredible. All the money goes to pay for the national debt, no money for social programs. Mexico City is like a hyperrealist Blade Runner— polluted, dirty, a major city grown out of control."

Just in time, he got the call. "It was like magic. Sammy, my former boss at Lucky Strike, said Bella's Luncheonette was for sale. Five years ago I used to have breakfast there. So beautiful, on the corner. I came back. It took us six months to build Café Habana."

Today, Ampudia fills his restaurant in New York with Latin music like the kind in the '40s and '50s movies that he watched on TV growing up, the cabareteras with the singer in the polka-dot rhumba dress and a rich man pouring champagne. "It was when people had a lot of dreams of what Mexico was going to become, the Ricky Ricardo times when Latin was exotic and attractive. There was hope and there was money."

 
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