Friendly Faces of the Friendly City: Steve and Shami of CubanBurger

I chatted with Steve and Shami, owners of CubanBurger, on a sultry Monday earlier this month from the comfort of my air-conditioned dining room/office. The world looks small and cold through a laptop screen, but their love and warmth transcended the two dimensional plane, and I felt I was sitting there with them, in their living room, with brand new baby Roman making cute noises in the background. Much has been written about the caliber of food you can expect at CubanBurger, and Steve has told stories of the photos that decorate the restaurant. I hope on this day to connect some dots in my mind and piece together how Steve, Shami, and CubanBurger came to be here.

Steve ended up in Harrisonburg by way of Northern Virginia. When Steve was in middle school in 1979, his mom decided to move the family from Miami to Alexandria. He finished high school and spent a few more years there as an adult until he returned to Miami in 1993. And although he knew his passions lay in the restaurant industry, he spent twenty years working in healthcare IT. I was surprised to hear this. Twenty years is a long time. Maybe he slipped into the comfortable rut of reliable work; maybe he, like many of us, didn’t fully believe in his entrepreneurial dreams; or maybe he’s simply a late bloomer, but it wasn’t until he had moved back to Alexandria and taken another IT job in DC that he was forced to reckon with his dream of opening a restaurant. Three years after accepting this new IT job, the position was dissolved and he had a month of paid work remaining. Walking out of his office that day, he didn’t know how CubanBurger was going to come together, just that it would come together somehow, and he felt thankful for this shove toward destiny.

Steve had a friend with a courier business in DC, and he needed some kind of income, so, now in his forties, Steve became a bicycle courier for Capitol Hill Delivery Service. A previous employee had gotten his food truck off the ground through this courier service, so Steve hoped to do the same — slowly work on getting CubanBurger operational while working as a courier. And after a year or so, he finally secured an event!

Unfortunately, the event was a disaster. Thankfully, disasters are usually learning experiences, too, so Steve tucked this one away and kept his nose to the grindstone. At the same time all this was unfolding, Steve’s mom had a small home at Bryce Resort in Shenandoah County, which Steve loved to visit when he had time off from work. He quickly fell in love with the mountains, river, slower pace, climate, and natural beauty of the Shenandoah Valley. At that time, Cave Ridge Vineyard was one of the few watering holes around, so Steve found himself there frequently. And, it so happened that Steve played in a band. The owner at Cave Ridge asked Steve if his band would play sometime. And Steve asked the owner if he could sell some CubanBurger at the vineyard.

CurbanBurger El Vaq

And that’s how it happened. CubanBurger started at Cave Ridge Vineyard in 2011 and continued in that manner for many weekends. In the meantime, Steve had started exploring Harrisonburg, too, and discovered Jack Brown’s. He hadn’t really thought of Harrisonburg as a location for CubanBurger, but as this story has shown you so far, things just kept aligning in ways that moved Steve closer to his goal. One day at Jack Brown’s, Steve noticed a familiar name on the menu: Mike Sabin. He and Mike had worked together in Miami twenty years earlier! And guess what business had a tasting room downtown with an empty kitchen space? Cave Ridge! I mean, you cannot make this stuff up! So, armed with buddies in the industry who were super helpful with business advice and local knowledge, a brick-and-mortar space owned by other folks he knew, and recipes for food that Harrisonburg was hungry for, CubanBurger moved into Wine on Water. Cave Ridge eventually moved out of that space, and CubanBurger now occupies all of it, flanked by Bella Luna on one side and Beyond Restaurant Pho & Sushi on the other. While Steve originally thought of himself as a “burger guy,” he learned to listen to feedback from the community and embrace the idea of vegetarian items on the menu. Today the menu features salads, sides, and sandwiches that appeal to carnivores and herbivores alike. CubanBurger prides itself on serving authentic Cuban cuisine, from their award-winning selection of Fritas Cubana, homemade caramel flan, and handcrafted specialty cocktails, right down to ingredients like Cuban bread from the century-old La Segunda Bakery in Ybor City, Florida, and guajilla chile salsa and sauces.

And if this story doesn’t have enough bizarre coincidences and connections in it already, Shami’s arrival on the scene is pretty darn serendipitous. Any sooner wouldn’t have worked, because Steve wouldn’t have been ready for what she brought with her.

Jeremiah Young, proprietor of Court Square Coffee, was one of Steve’s first friends in Harrisonburg. Steve had coffee with him nearly every morning during the Wine on Water days. One day, Steve brought Jeremiah a sandwich. Jeremiah asked him what it was called, and since Jeremiah’s from Alaska, Steve answered, “The Alaskan.” Well, it must’ve been a good sandwich, because a couple days later, a woman came into Wine on Water and ordered an Alaskan. Steve’s eyebrows went up. “Do you know Jeremiah?” he asked her. “Yup,” Shami said. “His wife is my best friend.” <cue fireworks> Now, Steve and Shami didn’t have their first date for another year and a half (and even then, they didn’t have it because, coming out of Belk with her new date outfit, Shami’s alternator died and she couldn’t get the car started, so she had to call Steve and tell him she was having car trouble), but Steve says he “had a pretty good idea, within 60 seconds of meeting her, that she was my future wife.” And even though he was a confirmed bachelor and a novice business owner, the universe sent this late bloomer what he calls his “secret weapon.” Shami’s prior experience in the corporate restaurant world helped CubanBurger grow in new, more organized and efficient directions. What’s more, they started a family: Charles, their first child, and brand new baby Roman.

Steve, Shami, and Family

It’s no surprise that Shami, a long-time Valley resident, is organized and efficient: she’s a teacher. She had already planned, when the baby arrived, to take time off from her position as a 3rd grade teacher at William Perry Elementary school, but the pandemic changed everyone’s plans anyway. As she spoke about her students and her work, she teared up. On one hand, she is grateful she can be home with her kids during this time. On the other hand, she worries about the families who are struggling right now, families that are part of her school community. She sees how, now that the normal systems and structure provided by teachers and schools are largely gone, safety nets are unraveling quickly, more and more people live in precarity, and charities are stretched to limits they’ve never before seen. This is why she and Steve do what they can to support local youth organizations like Boys and Girls ClubBlue Ridge CASA (in particular, their Top Chef program), Second Home, and United Way (especially Stuff the Bus, which will happen this year through monetary donations only).

Local restaurants, music venues, breweries, and retail businesses have incurred significant financial losses since March. It would make any business owner wonder if it was the right choice. I asked Steve why he finds being a restaurant owner more meaningful or fulfilling than healthcare IT. His answer came in the form of an interesting analogy: “Being in business for yourself is like being on a highway in Mad Max. There are no signs, no rest stops, there’s danger, you can’t see around every curve… if you break down, there’s no one to help you. When you work for someone else, you’re on a beautifully paved road with signs telling you where to go. It’s harder to be your own boss. But, I hate other people’s rules.” I gotta say, I’ve heard this kind of answer from so many visionary people in our community. They say things like “This is what I do,” or “I don’t know what else to be,” or “I can’t picture my life any other way.” It’s what Sara Christensen said about opening The Lady Jane. It’s what Hugo Kohl said as he chased a garbage truck full of vintage jewelry-making equipment down the street. It’s what Zach Naftziger said when, like Steve, he thanked his previous employer for laying him off and setting him free to make stained glass full time. I feel like Harrisonburg has a greater concentration of daredevil out-of-the-box thinkers than other places.

Cubanburger interior
Cubanburger interior

Since March, revenues at CubanBurger have decreased by half, and this is a horrible reality shared by many service industry workers and small business owners. The pandemic has shown Steve and Shami a thing or two, good and bad. For one, it has taught them that when money’s coming in, it covers up costly mistakes. Those mistakes become painfully present during thin times, and Steve and Shami have taken a hard look at where they need to be more intentional and frugal. And after making some adjustments, they feel the business will be healthier going forward, even if it’s not as profitable. They’ve also learned that their space has two dynamics at work, that of the bar and that of the restaurant. Lots of their regular restaurant customers have shown up at their curbside window for takeout and they look forward to the day the dining room can be full and lively once again. The bar, though. The bar remains empty, day in and day out, and Steve really misses his bar patrons, their stories and laughter, the simple sharing of ideas, joys, sorrows, and just life in general. However, the restaurant remains committed to whichever protocols best protect the health and safety of the staff, the customers, and the community. Steve talked about how, even though all these social restrictions are in place right now, he’s never loved Harrisonburg more: “Seeing how the community rises up to support everyone… I have no plans of leaving Harrisonburg. We could pursue CubanBurger in other places, but right now, I just hate the thought of leaving even for a short period of time. I like being here. I like going to Mr J’s in the morning. I like coffee from Chestnut Ridge. I don’t know what I’d do without Lola’s pastrami.” I feel it, too. When I feel like I can safely venture out, I don’t want to go anywhere else. I want to drink a beer on the patio at Brothers’ and order a Danny from Beyond. Or that beef rendang from Boboko. Honestly, all I need is right here.

Cubanburger interior

Steve and Shami have also appreciated the solidarity shown by downtown businesses these last few months. Business owners have been using common sense and following safety guidelines, even holding back a little longer if opening feels too risky. Businesses are innovating new ways to serve the public and even recommending each other instead of being opportunistic. It’s truly a spirit of collaboration rather than competition. When I asked Steve and Shami what downtown was missing, they struggled to come up with anything — really, just more restaurants in general is what excites them. More restaurants bring more diversity and creativity, more collaborations result in new knowledge and growth, all of which is good for business.

Located at 70 West Water Street, CubanBurger is open Tuesday – Sunday for takeout and curbside pickup or delivery through GiddyUp Courier.

Reprinted by permission from Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance
Originally published August 19, 2020
Written by Katie Mitchell / Photos courtesy of Shami Pizarro