La Cocina Cubana with it's owner Iliana Tamayo and manager Ilianis Hernandez. Photos by Katelyn Kivel
La Cocina Cubana with it's owner Iliana Tamayo and manager Ilianis Hernandez.

A lot went wrong for Lansing’s locally-owned Cuban joint La Cocina Cubana. But owner Iliana Tamayo shares one saving grace that kept her kitchen cooking. 

LANSING, Mich.—A block from the Capitol Building, on a busy street corner in downtown Lansing is a small restaurant called La Cocina Cubana. Decorated with a welcoming flair, a large Cuban flag hangs above the register, and a traditionally Japanese “lucky cat” statue sits on the counter. Brick walls add to the atmosphere and large windows look out on Allagen Street. 

But each day takes more work than ever to operate. Had it not been for federal COVID-19 relief over the past year, La Cocina Cubana wouldn’t be open today. 

Restaurant owner Ilianis Tamayo and manager Iliana Hernandez told The ‘Gander that President Joe Biden’s federal relief was essential. It didn’t fix every pandemic issue, but still, direct help from his American Rescue Plan and the Paycheck Protection Program helped Tamayo pay her employees, keep the lights on, and pay La Cocina Cubana’s rent. 

Tamayo speaks little English, so Hernandez translated for her, as she described her journey as a small restaurant owner in what used to be a bustling area. 

“Without that help that she received, she wouldn’t have been able to keep her doors open,” Hernandez relayed to The ‘Gander. “Being that it’s in downtown Lansing, the rent is high and the bills, and so that did help.”

Like many in the industry, working through the pandemic also has taken a personal toll on Tamayo.

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“Due to the pandemic, she’s been working the six days, Monday through Saturday, twelve hours, standing all day has affected her health,” Hernandez translated for Tamayo, “We had to start taking off Mondays so she’d be able to rest a little more.”

Still, Tamayo comes in five days a week, despite her worries and aches and exhaustion, because she deeply loves the work. 

She got up from her interview with The ‘Gander to talk with customers, laugh with them, chit-chat a little about their days. She connected to her afternoon diners with a bright vivaciousness that seemed to melt away her worries, if only for a few moments, before going back to work in the kitchen.

“She has to make sure every person comes in happy and leaves happy,” explained Hernandez. 

Photo by Katelyn Kivel
The lovingly decorated counter at La Cocina Cubana in downtown Lansing.

Keeping the Doors Open

COVID-19 relief keeps Tamayo above water. But La Cocina Cubana has suffered 80% losses over the pandemic, and the slow but steady economic increase still pains them. The biggest problem they face, explained Tamayo, is losing company orders. 

She said that offices which normally placed large orders from the restaurant during the day still haven’t returned. 

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“It’s been taking forever in downtown Lansing for all the businesses to come back,” Tamayo explained through Hernandez, “She has clients that she has had since the day that she opened, and she’s asked, and they said as of right now they don’t know about anything being reopened.”

Some regular customers told La Cocina Cubana that they didn’t expect to return to their normal locations until October. That’s got the restaurant concerned more now than ever. 

The impact the pandemic has had on the restaurant industry was unfathomable two years ago. As the state of pandemic spread changed, so too did what was safe for restaurants to do, often with little advance warning and dire consequences. 

Just under four miles away from La Cocina Cubana is another restaurant, Harper’s Restaurant and Brewpub. In mid-June of 2020, when the spread of the virus was maintained well enough that it appeared safe to open restaurants’ indoor dining. But hundreds of people crowded to return to Harper’s, which led to a major superspreader event that reached as far as metro Detroit. Harper’s spent the summer of 2020 as a cautionary tale of what restaurants could do to worsen the pandemic. 

That pressure and uncertainty, that struggle to adapt, was met with a public increasingly skeptical about eating at a restaurant at all. That added the 80% losses that La Cocina Cubana suffered to the tumultuous situation restaurants faced. 

What helped La Cocina Cubana, and other restaurants, survive was funding from the federal government. Most recently, that came in the form of grants specifically for restaurants. As part of the American Rescue Plan passed in March, President Joe Biden championed a Restaurant Revitalization Fund which offered over $26 billion to small food and beverage businesses like restaurants or bars. 

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These programs, particularly the Paycheck Protection Program from the 2020 CARES Act, did leave a lot of Michiganders out, but for restauranteurs like Tamayo that were able to get funding, they were essential lifelines. But making it through the last year and making it through the next year might be similar hardships for Tamayo.

There are things that Lansing itself could do, though. Tamayo and Hernandez explained that free parking downtown on Saturdays has made that their most profitable day, and urged Lansing to consider lifting parking fees until foot traffic picks back up downtown. 

Ultimately, though, Tamayo is looking at closing the downtown Lansing location and reopening somewhere else, where rent is cheaper, because the outlook without offices downtown is worrying her.