Kristy Bigelow remembers July 27, 2001 very well. Through laughter, she says it was the "worst birthday of my life." It was the day she turned 28 and also the night when she opened Cuba Cuba. "I rolled up in a ball at the end of that first night saying to myself, ‘I can’t do this!’ I didn’t know what I was doing. We had a two hour wait the first night."
Despite a slight foray into waitressing, she had never owned or opened a restaurant before. But from the next day forward she said with determination, "when we reopened the following day, I never turned back."
And today? They’re going on 16 years of business, continuing to prove being a mainstay in the Denver dining scene.
Growing Up Cuban in Miami:
Bigelow’s mother fled from Cuba in 1959 and raised her children in Miami. With Bigelow’s generation (born in the early 70’s) she shares, "we were raised so Cuban [in Miami]. It was like a bubble. We were raised in the same manner as if we were in Cuba. I didn’t know any other way. We ate Cuban food 100% of the time at home."
When asked about the food she was raised on she remembers with comfort the rice, beans, plantains, yucca, bistec empanizado (breaded steak) and lechon asado (slow roasted pork). She muses that she didn’t start eating vegetables until she was 27. She remembers watching her mother push aside her vegetables, so she always did too.
Being raised with a very traditional Cuban mother, Bigelow said she was required to live at home all the way through college. She lived under her mother’s roof until she graduated.
When Bigelow turned 21, she ventured out to Breckenridge and she worked at the (still open and successful), Eric’s, as a waitress. Shortly after, she moved down to Denver in 1994 to get her masters in social work. This is when she met her husband Brian who is from Denver. Bigleow jokes, growing up she had the nickname "Gringa" because she always liked American boys.
Homesick for her culture and the food she grew up with, she began scouring Denver for Cuban or Caribbean food. In 1994, there was really "nothing" to speak of at the time which started her search and hunger for good Cuban food.
She remembers La Azteca, a small Mexican restaurant in Aurora. The owner’s wife was from Cuba so once a week they would serve Cuban food off the menu. Bigelow would always plead with them to open a Cuban restaurant but they never ended up doing it. This is when Bigelow began toying with the "crazy" idea of opening her own restaurant.
As a family therapist, she realized she wasn’t as fulfilled as she hoped she would be. This dissatisfaction fueled her desire to start doing something she really loved and consider her Cuban restaurant idea.
When she got married in 1999 she was still talking about opening a Cuban restaurant. With her husband’s final push to take the leap she decided to go back to waiting tables while she was still a therapist to try and get back in the groove of being in a restaurant.
The Beginning Days:
Bigelow had written her business plan and purchased the house in Golden Triangle but she still had no cook lined up.
"Six months before I open, I get a call from my brother Gui, who ran into our half-brother, Enrique, that I hadn’t spoken to in years. He was 22 at the time and was a line cook in Miami. He had never run a kitchen on his own, but was a talented cook working with good restaurants in Miami. I didn’t even know he worked in restaurants since it has been so long since I’ve seen him. He came to visit and agreed to open the restaurant with me as head chef. He was the original Cuba Cuba chef and was with me for eight years. When he left, he trained our now current chef Carlos Nava, who in total, has been with us for 13 years."
Chef Nava started as their dishwasher in 2002. "My brother never hired anyone from culinary schools. He liked to see someone work their way to the top."
Bigelow enjoys looking back at her and her brother; two young 20-something siblings opening a restaurant, both for the first time. Fast forward to present day, Enrique Socarras is an iconic, well-known chef in the Denver area who was part of The Denver FIVE and has been at the helm of other local greats such as Centro Latin Kitchen in Boulder and Revelry Kitchen in Denver.
Upon opening, Cuba Cuba was the only Cuban restaurant in Denver and they were also one of the few boutique restaurants in the area.
When it came to food education it was and is a still a big emphasis for Bigelow. Internally, Bigelow also takes a lot of deep care with her staff. She lovingly calls it the "Cubanization" of her staff and it’s part of her training program. A server won’t hit the floor until they’ve had a personal session with her. She tells them the history, she goes over the menu "top to bottom" and even outlines what Cubans might actually ask for from ingredients to specific dishes.
"I like them [the staff] to be educated, so they’re as Cuban as they can be," she shares.
This personal touch goes a long way. Bigelow proudly shares that a large portion of her staff have been with her for years. Robyn who started as a bartender 14 years ago, now manages Cuba Cuba. Her bartender Andre has been with her for 12 years. Another bartender, Lauren has been with her for six years. Bigelow rattled off name after name that had been with her for years. It’s no wonder Bigelow hand picks all of her staff. As she calls it, they’re all her "familia".
"My husband wants me to create a training manual" to help with all the onboarding. Bigelow disagrees. "I don’t want to write it out on paper. There’s a naturalness about how it should be. I still struggle with cloning myself. It’s hard to not have my hands on molding every single one, at every single moment."
Bigelow describes her emphasis and personality as "culture oriented." She covers front of the house and although she doesn’t boast being a great chef, she at least does all the tasting and confirmation for authenticity.
Even 15 years in, last week she was tasting rice to confirm they had the exact right rice at one of her shops because of its importance to Cuban food.
Bigelow's desire to have her culture be truly felt is obvious. She focuses on it all the time from having the right alcohol, music, the ambiance and even the pictures on the wall. She wants people to feel transported.
Initially, she had to really push to find the right authentic ingredients. Her mom used to mail her Cuban cracker meal. She likes her Cuban bread from Miami (nothing else will cut it) so it’s sent from Miami in logs, she rises it in Denver, then cooks it.
Nowadays, getting access to the right food from Miami and Cuba is a lot easier.
Her most requested and popular dishes are the plantains, their seafood paella, and her creamy tres leches cake ("number one dessert of all time," as she says).
Bigelow’s personal favorite? The roasted pork sandwich and Cuban sandwich which can of course be found at any of her sandwicherias.
When someone is looking for a truly Cuban dish she points them to the well loved vaca frita - mojo marinated flank steak, seared crispy with sautéed onions, white rice, black beans, and maduros (sweet plantains, fried once). She also suggest their picadillo al caballo (ground beef plate) that comes with sofrito, raisins, potatoes and olives stewed in a light tomato creole sauce, white rice, fried egg and maduros.
Fast forward to 2017, Bigelow has expanded quite a bit. She has four sandwicherias around Denver: Glendale, Denver Tech Center, Highlands Ranch, and Northfield. Not to mention, the original Cuba Cuba is still going strong.
As far as the Sandwicherias success, she shares that The Denver Tech Center location does the best for lunch and catering. She sees the overall biggest number at Glendale because it has a full bar.
All this success isn’t without immense hard work. Bigelow insists on "pumping" all of her restaurants "full of love" and she admits it’s hard because she can’t be in multiple locations at once. Now after giving it her all for 15+ years, she also has a staff she can fall back on when she wants to spend time with her two daughters, son, and husband. She jokes even when she goes to Miami for a month in the Summer to be with her family, she's excited to be back and get back involved with everything.
When asked about her special moments, she loves when she has people come to her restaurant and they start crying (particularly those from Miami or Cuba) because they are truly transported and feel at home. She noted even last week she was personally working the register at her Cuba Cuba Sandwicheria in Highlands Ranch and a Cuban couldn’t thank her enough.
When asked how she juggles it all she shares, "A lot of help. I surround myself with a good team. My team and I all share the same philosophy in how we run our shops. I want it to be run where everyone feels good about where they work."
Finally? Perhaps the most important piece to their longevity?
"They all have the same kind of respect for the food that I do."