Puerto Rican celebrity chef Wilo Benet got his start in famous kitchens like New York City’s Le Bernardin, was the chef at the governor’s mansion in San Juan, and opened his famous restaurant, Pikayo, in San Juan in the early 90’s.
Hurricane Maria put Wilo out of business and, as luck would have it, ironically it also kept him afloat with an opportunity to survive the pandemic.
After 28 years of successful operations, Hurricane Maria forced him to to close Pikayo’s doors for good. What the French-trained chef didn’t know at the time was that while Hurricane Maria was putting him out of business, it would also help keep him in business in the future: to weather the upcoming Coronavirus storm that nobody foresaw.
Because when Pikayo was forced to close, Wilo started his next restaurant venture: a casual restaurant concept called Wilo Eatery & Bar. It’s this concept’s grab-and-go food that was just what the local community needed when the Coronavirus pandemic struck, keeping him open when almost every other restaurant in San Juan closed. Located in Guaynabo, a municipality about 10 miles west of San Juan, he’s been serving everything to go throughout the entire pandemic — from coffee to croquetas and foie gras to paella, non-stop.
Wilo told me that except for two or three other restaurants in Guaynabo, most are closed. Some restaurateurs in the San Juan metro area, like many in the U.S. mainland, tried to shift to a grab-and-go or delivery model but the economics didn’t always make sense for them — their business model just didn’t accommodate the format. The small volume couldn’t sustain restaurants that weren’t already designed, before the pandemic, as grab-and-go or delivery. Wilo humbly acknowledges that it’s the concept of Wilo Eatery & Bar that luckily has kept his business open.
“We went through the part of the pandemia that is health-related. Now we’re going to go through the part that is financially related.”Wilo Benet
Wilo’s passion and work ethic comes through when he speaks about his business. His big personality and beautiful bald head (Note from El Equipo: the author of this story hasn’t had hair since he was 24, so for that reason feels a need to call attention to bald heads…) make him larger than life. Yet, he remains grateful and doesn’t take anything for granted: “I haven’t closed a single day. It just kinda accelerated. Warp speed acceleration. This is what I had planned for a couple years into it.”
Now, as the world figures out its way forward, so too must Puerto Rico. Which restaurants on the island survive and which restaurants don’t, remains to be seen. “We went through the part of the pandemia that is health-related. Now we’re going to go through the part that is financially related,” Wilo says.
Restaurateurs in particular are in a tough spot because they not only have to deal with protecting the health of their guests and employees, but they also need financial stability to pay their suppliers, even to get the ingredients to make their food. You can imagine that this type of pre-pandemic-level cash flow is hard to come by these days. However, many suppliers have receivables outstanding. So that they don’t get burned, they want to be paid cash for ingredients before they’ll deliver to a restaurant. This makes it challenging for smaller mom-and-pop restaurants without large stashes of cash or credit lines available to them. It’s scary times for the restaurant industry both in Puerto Rico and on the mainland.
Whatever the path forward is for Wilo and other restaurateurs in Puerto Rico, one thing is for sure. Their resiliency and community bond will keep them moving in a way that only Puerto Ricans can. Between hurricanes, earthquakes, and now a pandemic, Puerto Rico will go in the only direction that it knows…
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