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Cuban eatery hopes for a little help from its friends

FORT COLLINS — Frank and Rosa Jimenez just wanted to bring something different — cuisine with a Caribbean rhythm — to Fort Collins diners when they opened Babalu’s Cuban Cafe.

But the hits just kept on coming — mechanical issues that put their food truck out of commission, delays in getting government approval, COVID-19 restrictions, disputes with a building owner, and finally the big one: stage 4 colon cancer that sidelined “Chef Rosa.”

“If you know the story, you know Rosa and her husband, Frank, have given all of their time, energy and resources to build Babalu’s Cuban Cafe, the only Caribbean cafe in Fort Collins,” their friend Sergio Torres, owner of the “Rocky Mountain Coqui” Puerto Rican food truck, wrote on the GoFundMe page he started to help the couple. “Never could they have planned for the unfortunate diagnosis and the struggle it would be to maintain this small business.”

Babalu — named for the signature song of Cuban-American bandleader Ricky Ricardo, Desi Arnaz’ character in the 1950s’ “I Love Lucy” television show — was born as a food truck nearly five years ago, Frank Jimenez said. “We got to run it for about a year and then it broke down on us. The engine went out. In the meantime we found a little cafe.”

Actually, their daughter helped them find it. A hairstylist, she was looking for a Square point-of-sale register system, and her father heard of one for sale in downtown Fort Collins’ Oak Street Mall, an enclosed space with a gift shop, shoe store, used clothing store and nail and hair salons. Suite 130, the former home of the Caribbean Food Shack, was vacant. It was the ideal spot to find a brick-and-mortar home and commissary kitchen to produce the Cuban menu items they had sold from the food truck.

“Not having money to fix the truck, we focused more on the cafe,” Jimenez said.

Navigating Larimer County’s approval process meant they had to pay rent for the space in the Oak Street Mall for nearly a year before they could start serving customers. “We sat on it for a year,” he said. “It was almost to the point where we were about to give up on it.”

They finally opened the cafe in September 2020, serving customers from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and immediately attracting a crowd that enjoyed such treats as breakfast burritos, empanadas, Cubano sandwiches and Rosa’s sweet treats that included the sweet Spanish mallorca bread and the Cuban turnovers called pastelitos, with a guava and cream cheese filling.

“It became a popular thing,” Jimenez said. “We make our own Cuban breads. Pork, pastries, everything homemade. And we want to keep it that way.”

And yet, within a month of its opening, restrictions sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic forced the tiny restaurant to resort to curbside service only.

Those restrictions were finally loosened as the pandemic eased, Jimenez said, but “after we’d been going good for two years,” the building’s owner told them they couldn’t put their five tables and 10 chairs outside their space in the building’s lobby. Customers have either had to sit on what Jimenez described as “wooden boxes” or pick up food from one of three kitchen windows and take it somewhere else.

Finally came Rosa’s cancer diagnosis.

“She’s a champ,” Torres said. “They both left full-time jobs to go into this business, and all this stuff makes running a business really challenging. They’ve been operating kind of around her medical appointments.”

Jimenez still tries to open the cafe Tuesdays through Saturdays, he said, “but every other week my wife has chemotherapy treatment. This week” — the last week of June — “we’re not opening hardly at all. We have family members trying to help us, and it’s a blessing to have them here, but we’re struggling. I can’t open and run it by myself, and I can’t afford to hire anybody.

“I try to keep a positive attitude, but in reality it’s kicking my butt,” Jimenez said. “We love what we do, we love our cafe, but we’re losing customers because I can’t always commit to days.”

And the medical bills continue to stack up, along with other expenses surrounding getting the food truck back up and running. Not only did it need a new engine, but Larimer County told him it needed a fire-suppression system that would cost “close to five grand,” Jimenez said. Fortunately, he added, “some friends who own a restaurant paid for it.”

Once the truck is operational, he said, “we like going to breweries because that’s where you make the most money.
“And yet everything depends on my wife,” he said. “She’s my priority.”

Meanwhile, Torres works to spread the word about the GoFundMe page, imploring its visitors to “please give a hand and support Rosa and the business by donating whatever you can. Funds will go directly to Rosa and Frank to use for Rosa’s medical expenses and to keep this business alive.”

“We’re resilient people,’ Jimenez said, “and we’re going to continue to fight for whatever we can.”

Source: BizWest