Puerto Rico's celebrity chef Wilo Benet credits luck and timing for his Grab-and-Go success during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Wilo Benet Pikayo
Chef Wilo Benet. Photo courtesy of Wilo Benet.

Puerto Rican celebrity chef Wilo Benet is a true entrepreneur and Puerto Rican success story. He started 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. Most recently he’s started his new grab-and-go concept, Wilo Eatery & Bar in Guaynabo.

What the French-trained chef didn’t know at the time was that while Hurricane Maria was closing Pikayo, the new concept… would be the best decision he ever made.

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 closing Pikayo, the new concept he was working on in the background, Wilo Eatery & Bar would be the best decision he ever made. It would keep him in business in the future: to weather the upcoming Coronavirus storm that nobody foresaw.

Wilo Bar & Eatery
Wilo Eatery & Bar’s Sandwich de Bistec. Photo Credit: Wilo Benet

That’s because when Pikayo closed, Wilo’s new casual restaurant concept with grab-and-go food, was just what the local community needed as the Coronavirus pandemic struck. A strong demand grew for takeout food and he stayed open to serve it.

It was no doubt a trying time on the island – almost every other restaurant in San Juan closed. With Wilo Eatery & Bar located in Guaynabo, a municipality about 10 miles west of San Juan with locals, therefore less dependent on tourists, he’s been cushioned a bit from the loss in visitors to the island. Wilo’s successfully kept his signature quality level up for the people who know him. From coffee to croquetas and foie gras to paella, it continues non-stop.

Pikayo
The dining room at Pikayo, before Hurricane María. Photo Credit: Wilo Benet

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.”

Related Post: Meet the Filmmakers Behind Netflix’s Walter Mercado Documentary

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.

Wilo eatery & bar
The bar at Wilo’s new concept, Wilo Eatery & Bar. Photo credit: Wilo Benet

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.

Related Post: Puerto Rico Covid Restrictions Ease Up: A Dip in the Ocean

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…

Forward.

🕗 Updated 11:30 AM ET, Tue April 20, 2021

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Ken Deckinger is the co-founder and CEO of Startup Cuba and the executive producer and host of its namesake docuseries. A native of South Florida, Ken has been an entrepreneur for his entire professional career. Previously he was co-founder and CEO of HurryDate, pioneering the global concept of speed dating to 45 cities throughout the US, UK and Canada. HurryDate eventually evolved into online dating and was acquired by Spark Networks, the parent company of ChristianMingle.com and JDate.com. Ken is a graduate of Boston College and the University of Florida, where he was honored with the University’s Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year Under 40 award and sits on the Board for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. He actively advises entrepreneurs and is a two-time protagonist of a Harvard Business School case study. Ken’s filmmaking and journalistic journey is inspired by a love of travel and authentic connections with other cultures. He believes that the more we know about each other, through stories, the closer we can become — thus the mission of Startup Cuba: to amplify the voices of the people sharing stories in the Latinx space. After living in New York City for 15 years, he encouraged his wife to move their family to Miami to get back to his South Florida roots. Needless to say, it was a short discussion and he and his family now call Boston, where his wife grew up, their home.

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