Puerto Rico’s food scene thrives after series of disasters

The Puerto Rican food scene had reached its peak. Young chefs were inventing delicious new creations, restaurants were springing up all over the island, the industry was no longer dependent on the tourist season.

The Puerto Rican food scene had reached its peak. Young chefs were inventing delicious new creations, restaurants were springing up all over the island, the industry was no longer dependent on the tourist season.

Then a series of calamities struck: a hurricane, a series of earthquakes, a pandemic.

Each time, Puerto Ricans have recovered and rebuilt – restorers with them. Now, as the pandemic begins to fade, the Puerto Rican food scene is thriving once again.

“It’s been tough, but we’re resilient,” said chef Mario Pagán, owner of five restaurants in Puerto Rico. “You can definitely see him coming back now.”

Traditional Puerto Rican cuisine is a blend of African, Spanish and Caribbean flavors, with stews, fish, arroz con pollo, mofongo, sofrito and adobo among the staples.

The scene began to grow when young chefs took to the streets what they had learned in universities and culinary schools. They put a modern twist on traditional Puerto Rican dishes, often creating fusions with other types of cuisine, such as Asian or Italian.

New restaurants sprung up on the island as locals sought more options, and vacation home rentals offered visitors more choices than San Juan hotels.

In 2017, Puerto Rico had more than 5,000 restaurants, from cafeterias and bakeries to fine dining, according to Jose Vazquez, president of the Puerto Rico Restaurant Association. The restaurant industry is the third largest on the island – behind manufacturing and tourism – accounting for around 60,000 jobs directly, another 40,000 indirectly. About 6% of gross national product is attributed to restaurant sales.

“The culinary industry is part of our culture,” Vazquez said. “People love our food. They come here and want to try our local cuisine. It’s very good cooking. »

The first big hit came with Hurricane Maria in 2017. The Category 5 storm devastated the island, flattening buildings, knocking out electricity and communications, leaving roads impassable, residents without food or water. Around 90% of all businesses and restaurants have been wiped out.

Restaurant owners sprang into action and, with the help of chef José Andrés and food supplier Frutos del Guacabo, set up makeshift kitchens that served more than 3.5 million meals as Puerto Ricans were trying to get back on their feet. Restaurants have slowly started to reopen – some scaled back, others in new locations – and by the end of 2019 there were around 4,000 operating on the island.

Then the earthquakes.

Puerto Rico was hit by a swarm of earthquakes beginning in December, with the most devastating measuring 6.4. The quakes were concentrated in southern Puerto Rico, but the effects spread across the island as businesses and schools were closed for weeks.

Restaurants in other parts of the island have managed to pull through and Fruto del Gaubacho, which supplies around 200 restaurants and hotels, has been working to get food and supplies to hard-hit areas in the south.

“Every time it’s a different test,” said Fruto del Gaubacho co-owner Efrén Robles. “You learn the test, then they change the answers… We were able to adapt in a very short time.”

The learning curve took another steep turn in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Puerto Rico rebounded from the earthquakes to have some of the best tourism numbers in its history, and restaurants were doing well, even in the offseason.

The pandemic, as it has done around the world, has resulted in shutdowns. More than 1,000 restaurants in the San Juan area were forced to close, but many were able to survive by offering takeout and delivery. Some have created packages for holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Mother’s Day.

Because Puerto Rico is a small island, COVID-19 measures were widely enforced, while standards in the rest of the United States often varied from state to state. Restaurants have followed the ebbs and flows of the pandemic, with some opening at limited capacity in May and expanding from there as restrictions began to ease.

As the pandemic began to subside, the restaurant industry soared back to pre-disaster numbers, with accommodation in 2021 reaching $1.3 billion, 37% higher than the previous record of 2019.

“It’s been tough and tough enough, but we’re getting by,” Pagán said at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic last fall. “It’s been one thing after another, but we’re very resilient.”

And they’ll be ready for whatever comes next.

John Marshall, The Associated Press

Edward K. Thompson