Cuban Kitchen’s Best Cubano S’wich has pulled pork, honey ham, Swiss cheese, yellow mustard, pickles and homemade pickled onion mojo. Photo courtesy Cuban Kitchen.
Lynna Martinez grew up hearing from her parents who'd immigrated from Cuba and Mexico that acceptable career paths included becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Not on that list? Becoming a cook, which was what she really wanted to do.
Still, "I (had) this dream of being the first fast-casual Cuban restaurant in the nation," Martinez says. She studied for a degree in economics while daydreaming about going to culinary school in France and reading about Ray Kroc, who globally expanded McDonald's.
After a career in banking and working as a self-proclaimed soccer mom for years, Martinez decided to pursue that dream she'd held since high school. Now, Martinez and her daughter Lilah Arrazcaeta run Cuban Kitchen with their small team in San Mateo, drawing customers from across the country. The journey has been filled with twists and turns — which they share with hilarity and heart in their new mother-daughter podcast "A Meal and Two Mics."
"It's never too late, but it's easier to start when you're young," Martinez says with a laugh. "I'm pushing 60, and it would be a lot easier if I were pushing 30."
"Everything works out. We all end up where we're meant to be. This whole journey we've been doing together now, the biggest lesson I've taken away (from it) is your perspective can make or break you," Arrazcaeta says. What is their perspective? "Really, really optimistic, and looking for the humor in everything."
Recently, Martinez and Arrazcaeta caught up with the Peninsula Foodist and shared a healthy helping of wisdom and humor. Get a taste of that here, and be sure to check out "A Meal and Two Mics" on the Cuban Kitchen website to follow along with their story, delightfully accompanied by "Cafe con Leche" from John Santos and the Machete Ensemble.
A food truck gets rolling
While in New Jersey in 2009, Martinez pulled out savings, borrowed money and launched a colorful food truck — which was actually a converted delivery truck.
At the time, Martinez and Arrazcaeta took their chances with parking tickets amid 20-minute parking limits. Simultaneously running a coffee maker, rice cooker and other appliances would blow out the electricity.
The goal was to secure a brick-and-mortar space, but that didn't pan out in the beginning. One space fell through, another closed after a short stint. Martinez says it closed because it was the wrong place for the kind of business model they wanted; Arrazcaeta says it was because she was headed to college.
In any case, it was time for both Martinez and Arrazcaeta to pursue their individual dreams elsewhere.
Lynna Martinez (left) and her daughter Lilah Arrazcaeta opened Cuban Kitchen in San Mateo in 2015. Photo courtesy Cuban Kitchen.
Arrazcaeta decided to study visual media arts and philosophy, animation and motion media, so she set her sights on the West Coast: "I am a Disney princess," Arrazcaeta says. "My dream was to come out to California and work at Pixar."
Martinez thought that sounded good too, so in 2013 they made their move to the Peninsula.
"The reason I moved to San Mateo was the weather. It's that simple," Martinez says. "I was really not having the Northeast. We did that because the money was good coming out of business school."
Getting back into the workforce after her time as a soccer mom was tough, Martinez recalls.
"It became a very different scenario for me, not having been in the workforce for 10 years. I was older," Martinez says. "I was happy to get whatever job I could get."
With a contact in San Carlos, Martinez found work. For some time, she worked as a finance manager at a dealership in Half Moon Bay, and then sold high-end electronics in Sunnyvale.
On the job there, someone asked what she would do if she could. The answer was clear to Martinez: "I'd open my own Cuban restaurant."
From electronics to Chipotle
That experience inspired Martinez to once again look for a space for her own restaurant. She contacted a landlord, who'd had an empty storefront in San Mateo for three years.
Martinez didn't have the money upfront to start, but she stayed in touch after she started working at Chipotle to get a view of how their fast-casual concept worked. She left her six-figure sales salary and became a crew member at a Chipotle store in 2014.
Soon after, Chipotle started to recruit Martinez for a restaurateurship program. "That kind of appealed to me because it made good coin," Martinez says. Not to mention the stock. It was a good opportunity — but it wasn't her own restaurant.
As luck would have it, the San Mateo landlord reached out to Martinez again, explaining that someone had helped him when he was younger, and he wanted to pay it forward. He offered to help with her restaurant's equipment plans, layout, electrical, plumbing, signage and more.
Martinez borrowed enough money from her relatives and the landlord to pay down the first couple of weeks. Then, in 2015, Cuban Kitchen opened in its own brick-and-mortar location.
"Within three months I was able to pay the first month of rent," Martinez says.
Cuban Kitchen’s ropa vieja, shredded flank steak in a smoky paprika tomato stew served with aromatic white rice, Cuban black beans and sweet plantain. Photo courtesy Cuban Kitchen.
Cuban Kitchen takes off
In those early days, Martinez pawned off the Cartier and Tiffany jewelry she owned from when she was a banker. One of the first customers, who remains one of the restaurant's biggest clients, was a woman that they had babysat for before. They got the support of an angel investor.
Now, customers are drawn to Cuban Kitchen's fast-casual concept and dishes influenced by the Martinez family's Cuban recipes.
"I always had the good fortune of living with home chefs who were not only passionate about cooking and entertaining, but really good home chefs, starting with my dad, my mom. When I went away to college, I lived with my dad's sister in Chicago who was the best cook," Martinez says. "I was already around people who loved to cook — and cook really well."
The menu touts the Best Cubano S'wich with ham, pork, mojo, cheese, mustard, pickle (with a choice of sauces such as guava-habanero barbecue and mint-mojito dressing); plates of chicken schnitzel-milanesa, pulled pork and vaca frita (fried, crispy shredded flank steak); and limited-time specials like arroz con pollo and oxtail stew.
Uplifting other entrepreneurs
Starting a restaurant was Martinez's idea; making a podcast was Arrazcaeta's. They do both together.
"The podcast was a way for us to share our story," Arrazcaeta says. "It was very sweet to do that with my mom."
Their small business continues to face challenges daily. As it does, Martinez and Arrazcaeta want to use their platform to uplift other female entrepreneurs in the hospitality industry and other industries similar to theirs.
"There are hundreds of thousands of restaurants that didn't survive the last two years. We're fortunate to still be around," Martinez says.
"We're looking to give back to our community because in the last two years we survived because of this local community," Arrazcaeta says.
Sometimes they give back in the form of what they call "compassion projects," using a portion of what they make to support local schools or fundraisers and efforts to stop anti-Asian hate. Lately, giving back has also taken the shape of having conversations with other entrepreneurs and candidly discussing permits and licenses, the pandemic and costs and more.
Navigating all this, Cuban Kitchen keeps cooking, and Martinez and Arrazcaeta keep their sights set on that first dream of sharing their fast-casual Cuban concept.
"She's probably the most ambitious person that I know. She's a great example of how you can never be too old to pursue your passion," Arrazcaeta says of her mom. "She's always doing what she loves, and always doing it with love. It's really inspiring. That's what I love to see her do in the restaurant with me. That's what inspires me to go to work every day. It's her."
Cuban Kitchen, 3799 S. El Camino Real, San Mateo; 650-627-4636. Instagram: @cubankitchen.