Two generations of Cuban cuisine hidden in Times Square

April 18th, 2018  |  Published in Today's Special, Uncategorized

Margon opens at 7 a.m., minutes before the morning food rush. Photo: Amanda Williams.

Margon is a Cuban restaurant in the Times Square area, owned by a small family with a large dream, its story told with numbers. Thirty-two years since its opening, almost 20 since the owner’s son became co-owner, 13 hours a day of running the business, two generations of running the restaurant and for all that effort, one long line leading out the front door and wrapped around the storefront.

Getty Rivas, 44, has managed Margon for almost 20 years, since a few years after his father, Rafael Rivas, bought it in 1986 from the three Cuban immigrants who were the original owners. Rafael, who immigrated from Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, settled in New York in 1970. He currently shares ownership with Getty and comes to the restaurant two or three times a week to assist his son and check on the restaurant’s finances, but Getty is in charge.

“[When] my father started working here, [he] started washing dishes and making deliveries here,” said Rivas. “And he’s still working here.”

The Cuban sandwich is one one of Margon’s most popular dishes. Hundreds are sold at the restaurant daily. Photo: Amanda Williams.

Getty’s workday starts at five in the morning, when he and his younger brother, Steven, take in the freshly baked bread delivery and begin to prepare ingredients for the morning rush. The restaurant is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday to Saturday. However, the two begin food preparation by 5 a.m.

“It was hard at first – waking up at three-something in the morning,” said Steven, 33, who started working after high school. “I could beat the alarm now.”

Standing at five-foot-one, wearing aviator sunglasses and a well-groomed silver mustache, a smiling Rafael marches inside the restaurant before the lunch rush, greeting and joking with the customers near the front door, a light trail of cologne lingering in the path. He then approached Getty and embraced him with a hug; a warm gesture often seen at the restaurant.

“He loves interacting with customers,” said Getty. “He been here so many years that he knows most of them.”

Though customers are a diverse group, Margon relies on two large immigrant populations – 70,000 Cubans and 674,000 Dominicans in New York City, according to the U.S. Census Bureau as of 2010.

During the normal lunch rush, Steven, Getty and the other employees scramble behind the counter, squeezing past one another in the narrow food preparation space, while dozens of people stand in a line wrapping around twice and leading outside the store. Customers at Margon range from teachers and students from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School next door to employees from FOX News, two blocks away.

For the last 30 years, since he left Cuba and began working construction in the city, Jose Ruiz has been coming from Richfield Park, New Jersey to Margon every morning for breakfast, lunch and sometimes dinner. Besides raving about the Cuban sandwiches that were being sliced on the counter beside him, he considered Margon his home.

“If my wife don’t cook, [Getty] gives me food from here,” said Ruiz. “I knew them for so many years. It’s a family tradition.”

Steven Rivas calls the shots when it comes to adding a new flare to the restaurant menu. Photo: Amanda Williams.

Food doesn’t end when the restaurant gates close. The Rivas brothers grew up to their mother’s cooking and still finds comfort in the meals she puts together.

“Oh, yeah. She can cook,” said Steven. “She’s like a professional, but only at home.”

Steven, who is the father of two children, would like to pass it down his skills to his nine-year-old daughter, who shadows him at the stove as he cooks at home. But Getty doesn’t expect his children to follow him into the restaurant business.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen. My kids are not interested in that,” he said, even as he considered future possibilities, such as opening a Margon branch to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “I might even take it down south.”

The youngest of six siblings, Steven is in charge of any changes to recipes. He chose to add Dominican salami to the popular Cuban sandwich, and tweaked one of the most ordered items on the menu, the octopus salad.

“Everything is home-cooked like your mother or your grandmother just made it,” said Rivas. It’s comfort food.”

That is what makes it different from the larger Havana Central Cuban chain restaurant across the street.

“They’re more of a social thing, but their drinks are good,” he said. “Here, it’s like a hole-in-the-wall – a mom-and-pop shop. So, you got great service, good food and great company. You can’t beat that.”

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