September 18, 2011

Los Pinarenos Fruteria In Little Havana

In my travels, I didn't find anyone who enjoyed what he was doing more than Pedro "Pete" Hernandez. Along with his parents, Angel and Guillermina, and his brother, Angel Jr., Pete owns and operates Los Pinarenos Fruteria, an open air fruit and flower stand on Calle Ocho (Eight street) in Little Havana, in Miami, Florida.

When I drove up to the shop, I could hear through the speakers a recording of Benny More, the Afro-Cuban performer, singing the Afro mambo tune "Dolor Carabali." Pete offered me a plate of the family specialty  - arroz con pollo a la chorea - chicken and wet rice with a huge slice of avocado, which was just what I needed after my drive from fort Lauderdale. Sitting inside his shop, among open boxes of bananas, papaya, oranges, guavas, and coconuts, curly-haired Pete, wearing a large T-shirt with the word LOVE in large block letters, is a bundle of affable energy - loquacious, articulate and passionate.

With the open garagelike doors (just like Spector's Meat Market), the store spills out onto the the sidewalk and helps define the neighborhood. From a tiles counter open to the street, while the blender steadily whirrs in the background, customers can select from an assortment of natural fruit drinks that are listed on a white board. The house specialties include remolacha (beet), coco frio (cold coconut milk), naranja (orange), zapote (sweet tropical fruit), mango and melon. The shop's guarapo (sugar cane juice) is considered by many to be the best on the street. The coffee is the real deal - strong, robust, eye-opening. If you are not in a hurry, the counter at los Pinarenos Fruteria is a great place to watch the passing parade on Calle Ocho.

Pete's parents, Angel and Guillermina Hernandez, were both born in 1941 and raised in nearby towns in Cuba, in an are called Pina del Rio, Cuba - Pines of the River (the source of the name of their shop) - that is best known as the source of some of the choicest tobacco for Cuban cigars. Both of their families were farmers.

"My mom was in a university movement, one of the many movements for democracy in Cuba," said Pete. "They were both anti-Batista (the dictator Fulgencio Batista) and anti-Fidel Castro. The wanted a third way. The way it was going with Batista was not good. But they definitely knew what was coming (Castro) was going to be no good. They came to the US around 1958. Fidel took power in 1959. My father came with friends. My mother came with her grandfather. They were not from wealthy families. They were noneducated farmers. My father washed dishes, and later opened a cafeteria on West Flagler street in Miami. My grandfather and my mother were renting an apartment on top of the cafeteria. That's how they met."

Angle and Guillermina and Guillermina's brother bought the store for eightly-five thousand dollars in 1968 - with a two thousand dollar down payment and a handshake - from the heirs of Indian River Fruit, then the biggest citrus producer in north Florida. Pepe and Angle Jr. both started working as small children. "As soon as we could walk and pick fruit, we were picking. When I was five of six, I was picking avocados off the ground and putting them in a bushel. We've always picked a lot of our own fruit; mango, avocado, yucca, or malanga - all the tropicals ... lychee nuts. there used to be mango growers around here. Now there are five-million dollar homes. Today, we get the fruit from people's backyards small farms, and wholesalers. A few come from abriad - pears, apples, whatever can't grow here in Southeast Florida, which is the only subtropical climate in North America."

When it comes to knowledge of the products his family sells, Pete proudly said "My brother and I have one hundred and fifty years of purchasing experience, through the eyes of all of our ancestors - from my  grandfather, my six uncles and aunts, and my parents who all worked here. Our clients are the owners. We are here to serve the owners. If it wasn't for them walking through the door, we're gone; we're history. If there's something wrong with the fruit, bring it back. Guaranteed. No problem. Do you get that at supermarket chains? That's our pride and our reputation. That's why we are still standing."

It hasn't been easy. In 1995, after Pete bought out his uncle's interest in the business, the wooden fruit stand caught fire, and was totally destroyed. With no insurance, it took the family three years to rebuild the store.

How did they survive? Like all successful owners of small businesses, they did what they had to do.

"We fenced up the burned property and worked in the back 9of the property) by selling flowers on the corner and picking fruit for our wholesale business. We'd buy and pick, buy and pick, rebox and sell, and move around - and survive. We reopened in Mark 1999 with the same aesthetics, but the building is made of concrete, not Florida pine. Everybody thought we were foolish for not putting glass windown in, and sealing it up. Look around you. There are no doors here. It's like your house. You can come in and out at your will. We've held on to the roots of this part of the community, to the humble way of life.

When I asked Pete hernandez what he liked best about working at Los Pinarenos Fruteria, he replied with a smile, "I don't have to wear a a shirt and a tie. I wear flip-flops and shorts. People ask me why I don't go into a business where I wear a shirt and a tie. I worked at a law firm for seventeen years, starting as the mail carrier, and ending up assistant senior administrator and business manager of the Miami office, " while still putting in hours at the fruit stand. "I'm here with my parents and my brother. The people who ask me why I am here are the people who wish they were in this position. We are humble. We have our feet on the ground. We are living closer to the earth, and that piece of land is your neighborhood. So, stick to it, " he said with emphatic finality. Then he turned to a customer, and began to extol the taste of a luscious ripe mango, with the passion of a man who loves his customers.

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