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Profile: “El Pionono” (FD)
October 6, 2011, 4:44 am
Filed under: Papers | Tags: ,

The food industry – which includes the ever expanding market of cafeterias – is one of the largest economic sectors in Puerto Rico. In Ponce alone, there are at least fifty to sixty cafeterias and they all serve different menus for different taste buds. Nonetheless, the existence of cafeterias is sometimes threatened by a big competitor, fast-food restaurants. On estimate, 77% of Puerto Ricans visit fast-foods regularly (once a week minimum) and only 6% visit cafeterias often. This is very bad news for cafeterias; however, there’s still hope while people like Jacqueline Vásquez, the manager of “El Pionono”, a small, family-owned, cafeteria in the heart of Ponce; have the passion and dedication to work hard every day in order to maintain a loyal customer base like the one she has gathered in the past months.

“El Pionono” Cafeteria, before known as “El Nuevo Tun-Tun” and “El Pionono de Moisés” – alluding to Moisés, the landlord and previous manager –, reopened its doors a few months ago to delight hundreds of “ponceños” who were looking for an affordable – and healthier – alternative to fast foods. The new manager, Jacqueline Vásquez, runs the cafeteria, along with her daughter, Mariela; her son, Rafael; and her close friend, Hilda. The cafeteria is conveniently located in the Roosevelt Avenue, a busy street in Ponce.

“El Pionono”, from the outside, looks modest: not too shabby, not to fancy. She welcomed me inside her cafeteria with most courteousness. We began talking about her life, to which she added that she was born in “La Romana”. With an “I wasn’t a very happy Architect”, she gave insights on her motives for leaving the Dominican Republic and starting her own business here in Puerto Rico. She also though that it was “a blessing from God” because now she was able to do what she really enjoyed doing. “I like to cook. I like to make people feel good.” She added that she loved “the smell of a well cooked meal” and that her passion was to “blend spices together in ways that made the client feel at home”.

Inside the cafeteria, she gave me a cup of coffee and went into the kitchen. The set up was very simple. There were four sets of wooden tables, each with two benches, decorated with patterned tablecloths. The counter was very simple as well. There was an espresso coffee maker – presumably where she had made the coffee I was drinking – and, awkwardly, there was no cash register. The kitchen, which stood just a couple steps away from the dining area, was very organized. The pantry was the object that stood out the most. It had three long shelves and was about four feet tall. She placed cans in the middle shelve and stacked them by brand. Rice packets were placed vertically, one alongside the other, on the top shelve. Oil bottles were also arranged in the middle shelve – along with the cans – and wert sorted by the type of vegetable they came from: canola oil bottles at the back, corn oil bottles in the middle and olive oil bottles in the front, being the smallest ones. Foam diner plates and carryout serving dishes were positioned in the bottom shelve of the long horizontal wood cabinet. On the other side of the kitchen, a small woman was chopping vegetables. “This is Hilda, my friend and helper here at the cafeteria. She is making ‘arroz mampostiao’ and ‘carne mechá’.” Hilda said “hello” and kept working on the menu for the day.

Back in the dining area, two guests had arrived. Jacqueline, instinctively, greeted them with a “Hello, friends. What can I get you?” The short, light skinned guy asked for the “mampostiao” special; the other, a tall, slightly tanned and balder fella asked for a vegetable soup with bread. Mariela, Jacqueline’s daughter, charged both men five dollars apiece and placed the money in a blue box. “I prefer the traditional way. Cash registers are tricky and expensive. I rather buy good ingredients for my meals.” She went back into the kitchen while both men kept eating quietly. A couple minutes later she came back with another plate, full of good looking food, and a bottle of water. The food was delicious! The rice was soft and very tasty; the beans, perfectly seasoned and beautiful looking; the chicken, a piece of heaven here on Earth.

Even though cafeterias represent a large sector of the food industry in Puerto Rico, because they are so easy to set up and finance, if necessary, and because fast-foods are still the dominant force in the sector; they have to compete energetically to survive. However, good businesses always stand out, and this is the case of “El Pionono”, a simple concept with a great deal of effort, dedication, passion and Dominican flavor put behind every single plate, which serves the respectable purpose of delivering great home-style food at reasonable prices. Every dish is served with the warmest of smiles and a “Buen Provecho” that can’t be beaten by fast-foods. For that reason, “El Pionono” cafeteria and its manager, Jacqueline, will definitely have a bright future in the highly competitive market of making food affordable again.

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