On Oct. 5, 2008, Debbie Benedit watched as 32 years of her family's backbreaking work was reduced to nothing but a soggy mess of char and ash. "Half of me died when my husband passed away," says Benedit. "The other half died the night Havana caught on fire."
Debbie and her family weren't the only ones who were affected. Loyal customers were beside themselves. Many showed up in the following days to help Debbie, her son, Eddie Jr., and "her girls" wade through the muck and salvage whatever they could. At the time, Debbie told the Cherokee Tribune she had no plans to reopen Havana on Buford Highway, and was going to instead focus on the second location she'd opened near her home in Canton. "We've lived up here 20 years," said Debbie. "We decided to stop feeding strangers in Atlanta and start feeding our neighbors." That statement would come back to haunt her.
Havana Sandwich Shop started as a bona fide American dream and became a livelihood for the entire Benedit clan and the restaurant's extended family of employees. The first of the Benedits, brothers Eddie and Guido Jr., immigrated to America in 1962. In 1964, their parents, Felisa and Guido (or "Mami and Papi"), followed with the third brother, Willie.
One of Guido's dreams was to bring the food of Cuba and his family's arsenal of time-tested recipes to America. Shortly after the Christmas of 1975, Guido found a space to make his restaurant a reality. The building was old and the family had little money or restaurant experience, but they opened Havana Sandwich Shop on Feb. 9, 1976.
Buford Highway wasn't the mainstream culinary destination it is today, but people came to eat and became instant regulars. The restaurant earned around $200 on its first day, which was a fortune considering that a sandwich only cost a dollar and a Coke was 25 cents.
All of the Benedits worked in the family business in some capacity over the years. Felisa oversaw all the cooking and taught people how to make her recipes. Eddie and Guido were always there fine-tuning and making sure the restaurant was everything they'd hoped it could be. Debbie, Eddie's wife, came to work at the restaurant shortly after it opened. She even turned the office into a nursery after her fourth child was born. Willie left the business in 1986 to focus on his auto repair company, but was always on call since he was the restaurant's go-to Mr. Fix It.
The family lived modestly so the restaurant would provide for everyone – especially Mami and Papi. Debbie recalls going weeks without a paycheck so she could ensure her "family" of employees had something to take home because "the business was not just about us. It was about them and other families. Havana Sandwich Shop did a lot for a lot of people," she says.
When Guido and Felisa retired in 1996, they left Eddie and Debbie in charge of the restaurant. In 1998, Havana had been organized as Havana Sandwich Shop LLC. Guido Sr., Felisa, Debbie, Eddie, and their son, Eddie Jr., were listed as managers of the establishment. None of the other Benedits were mentioned in the documentation. Two years later, Eddie was diagnosed with liver cancer. This is when Debbie says she started to feel the tension and an increasing distance from the family.
Eddie Benedit died on Feb. 7, 2001.
In April 2001, Guido Jr. filed a lawsuit against Debbie and alleged that the LLC was formed without all parties' consent. The legal woes dragged on until May 2004. Debbie claims that eventually, the other Benedits did not have enough of a case to make it to court and they withdrew.
On Oct. 5, 2008, Havana was engulfed in flames. The cause of the fire remains undetermined. After the fire, Debbie and Eddie Jr., tried to make a go of it at the new Canton location they'd opened near their home in September 2008. Things were not as easy as they'd been on Buford Highway, and they closed in June 2009. Debbie and Eddie Jr. set their sights on Buford Highway again and found a new location in March 2009. Around this time, Debbie's brother-in-law, Willie, also began looking for a restaurant location. Based on Debbie's comment in the Cherokee Tribune, he "assumed she did not plan to reopen on Buford Highway" and he refused to see something "his family had worked so hard on die."
In October 2009, Debbie sent the word out to the media that she had found a space and Havana would reopen in a new location just a few miles north of the original on Buford Highway. Former patrons were overjoyed. But the excitement was quickly tempered with confusion as Willie came forward with similar news: "Havana has found a new home." Willie's "Havana Restaurant" had a different phone number, address and opening date than the Havana that Debbie was promoting. Nobody could figure out which Havana was the real phoenix rising.
Behind the scenes, Debbie and Willie found themselves in a heated race to open Havana and reclaim the institution's devoted customers. They took to the comments sections of articles posted all over the Web. Willie claimed his Havana Restaurant had the "same food, same family for 32 years." He also consistently referenced Debbie's comment to the Cherokee Tribune to show, as he says, "that she abandoned Buford Highway." Debbie continued to post about her restaurant and opened in November.
Then, suddenly, Willie changed his tune and put out a revised statement. It turns out he and Debbie were embroiled in a legal dispute. Opposing cease and desist letters had been sent, fighting over the rightful owner of the restaurant's phone number and name. Regarding the name "Havana Restaurant," Willie said in his statement, "I happily concede it to them and wish them well. We are not them and they are not us." He is now calling his restaurant "Havana Grill" and hopes to open the restaurant by the end of January.
As strained as the relationship may be between Debbie and her late husband's family –especially Willie – both parties repeatedly wished the best for each other during interviews. Debbie says she "has no hate in her heart" and "just wants the restaurant to keep growing because Havana is my life and I've got sandwiches to sell." Willie, while recalling his close relationship with his late brother, Eddie, hopes his new restaurant will become a place where his extended family – Debbie and Eddie Jr. included – can celebrate life with great Cuban food, just like they did at the original Havana, when his brother and father were still alive.
I could seriously live on their deviled eggs fried green tomatoes.
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