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How Ethnic Food Lures Crossover Restaurateurs

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The ever-increasing popularity of ethnic foods and Americans' evolving palates mean it's no longer unusual for entrepreneurs-even immigrants-to venture into cultural waters unfamiliar to them.

When Jeremy Merrin was growing up, flanken, blintzes, bagels and lox frequently graced his Jewish-American family's kosher table. Now, he's more likely to be dining on arroz con pollo, a traditional Cuban dish of chicken and rice at his , Central, in Manhattan's hip and highly trafficked Union Square neighborhood.

Mr. Merrin, a 45-year-old self-ascribed Latin--fiend, didn't let his unfamiliarity with that brand of stop him from opening a Cuban restaurant. Now, nearly half of his clientele is Latin -- a sign he's found the recipe for authenticity.

The ever-increasing popularity of ethnic foods and Americans' evolving palates mean it's no longer unusual for restaurateurs, even immigrant restaurateurs, to venture into cultural waters unfamiliar to them.

"Twenty, thirty years ago only Chinese ran Chinese restaurants and that's just not the case anymore," says Malcolm Knapp, a food-industry consultant in New York. Even Chinese restaurateurs have sought growth opportunities in other ethnic areas, taking another Asian route, such as Thai , or adding Japanese to their .

"In the beginning, only a bona fide sushi chef could do sushi," says Phyllis Ann Marshall, president of FoodPower Inc., a restaurant consultancy in Costa Mesa, Calif., but "in America, we copy, we adapt, we fuse and now everyone is doing sushi, even in the grocery stores."

Clearly, restaurant operators who choose ethnic menus outside their own traditions or experience must be up to another challenge.

"You need to be smart enough to get what you need from the culture," says Mr. Merrin. "You need to find people to advise you and work with you, but if you do your research, it's doable."

Mr. Merrin says the idea for the restaurant dawned on him at his 25-year high-school reunion where he chatted with an old Cuban friend. He then did some research, and realized there was an underserved market for Cuban home-cooking.

Mr. Merrin hired New York restaurant consultant Arlene Spiegel, and the two spent a lot of time in Miami visiting Little Havana.

They met with Cuban chefs, ate dozens of Cubano sandwiches, watched how cafe con leche was made, took note of how meals were served and what the Latin community valued in terms of family and sharing.

Today, at the 60-seat Havana Central in , their menu sticks to familiar, Cuban home-cooked dishes, taking recipes from his Cuban friends and acquaintances' moms.

Of course, "there is an authenticity issue," says Mr. Merrin. "Some customers ask me, 'Are you Cuban?' and I say, 'No, but I plan to convert soon.' "

But the most important part of creating the right experience, says Mr. Merrin, was hiring the right people. Havana Central's staff includes a Latin chef, and Mr. Merrin's second-in-command is a third-generation restaurateur and chef with a Latin background.

"He helped us top off the experience, the employees, the ambiance, the whole experience," Mr. Merrin says. "He was fundamental because he understood what a Latin restaurant needed to feel like," says Mr. Merrin.

Andrew Jerro and Ariel Aparicio, the owners of Joya, a Thai restaurant in brownstone Brooklyn, also know the importance of guidance in the intricacies of another culture's cuisine.

Mr. Jerro, 34, a Brooklyn native who always looked forward to home-cooked Syrian dishes around the holidays, and Mr. Aparicio, 35, a Cuban-American who grew up in Miami, knew little about Thai food.

But they loved the dishes a Thai friend -- a fellow waiter at a Manhattan supper club where they all worked -- would cook for them after work. When they decided to open their own restaurant, he helped advise the two on the cuisine, getting a Thai staff, and most important, he secured a chef, a cousin from Thailand, for their new restaurant.

The focus of Joya was largely to create an inexpensive menu with authentic food, though the hip nature of the neighborhood, and naturally the very affordable prices, inevitably attracted a 20- and 30-something crowd.

The Joya team plans to open another Thai restaurant in a Brooklyn neighborhood and, about 50,000 Cuban sandwiches later, Mr. Merrin is also getting ready to launch a second Cuban restaurant in Times Square that will seat about three times the number of his flagship location.

Nor does Mr. Merrin want to stop there -- he wants to take his restaurant national.

"There are a few small chains in Miami," says Mr. Merrin, "but there's no national restaurant doing Cuban food."

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