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El Salvadorian restaurant in Havana struggles as electric bill causes setback, owner hopes to continue serving traditional El Salvadorian food

“When we decided to open a restaurant, I told my mom, ‘let’s find something we can cook and cook right,'” said Stephanie Portillo, owner of Havana’s El Cordero – an El Salvadorian restaurant located downtown. “For us, that was pupusas.”

Best described as a thick cake of flatbread, pupusas are a traditional El Salvadorian food and national dish that are stuffed with meat and vegetables.

The food is also sentimental to Portillo and her family.

“I come from a low income family. I know how it can be. It wasn’t easy growing up,” said Portillo.

But when her parents made pupusas, the meal always drew neighborhood kids to the porch and the Portillo family always shared.

“I’ve always been able to get to know the community through food,” said Portillo.

Her father had a passion for cooking, but Portillo’s desire to open a restaurant wouldn’t come until later in her own life.

El Cordero’s crew includes owner Stephanie Portillo (center), her mother Blanca Portillo (right), and Eli Martin (left). The three women make traditional El Salvadorian food out of their little Havana restaurant.

In fact, owning any sort of business wasn’t on Portillo’s ‘to-do’ list of her life.

She’d instead gone to school and obtained a degree in the medical field.

But then her mother started looking for work.

“My mother wanted to work,” explained Portillo, adding that her mother’s language barrier and previous work experience meant there were limited options for employment.

The opportunities open to her mother were either working in local agricultural fields or in local plant nurseries.

“I didn’t want my mother working in those environments,” said Portillo. “So I thought, why not open a restaurant?”

While Portillo’s father would pass away before the dream came true, Portillo said she was able to tell him of her plans.

“Before my dad passed, food always brought us together. My dad always loved cooking,” Portillo said.

Next door to El Cordero’s current location on Main Street is Greatphone Repair – a business owned by Stephanie’s boyfriend.

“He helped me talk to the landlord and get this place so that I could open my business in Havana. I wanted a business in this area.”

Portillo has lived in Gadsden County all her life, and felt that opening a business in her home-community was important.

After getting the building, Portillo and her family set to work getting the little restaurant ready for business.

“I am a huge believer in God. The name – El Cordero – means ‘lamb’ and it has a huge meaning behind it,” said Portillo. “I dedicated this business to God. I asked Him to not even make this possible if this business was not meant to be.”

Portillo said everything has gone, pretty much, smoothly since dedicating her business.

“I’ve seen God’s hand in everything.”

But then, a few months after opening, El Cordero’s AC unit started to malfunction and then stopped worked.

“It was burning up in the kitchen,” Portillo said. “We wanted to fix it. We tried the longest to fix the AC, and the town came out to see if our meter needed to be fixed…I have no idea what was wrong.”

The extremely high bill for El Cordero’s electricity eventually caught Havana Town Manager Kendrah Wilkerson’s attention, and she personally went down to El Cordero to make sure everything was alright.

Portillo says that Wilkerson herself paid to have a man check El Cordero’s AC unit.

“The first bill came up to $600,” said Portillo. “We knew that was high…but what are you going to do?”

The next month’s bill was even higher, this time over $1,000.

“That was last month. I knew something was wrong.”

The most recent electric bill for El Cordero was roughly $3,000.

“It’s too much. It’s too much for the business – we can’t handle that. We are just getting our start..and while we are getting new customers, we don’t yet have enough where I can pay that sort of bill off without a problem,” Portillo explains.

While most businesses have a pool of funds to pull from in case of emergencies, Portillo said she invested much of her own money in getting El Cordero on its feet.

“This has us stuck,” she adds. “I am now worried over wondering whether I should continue my business, or do I just end it all, cut off my business?”

Portillo has turned off the AC now, hoping that will prevent another big bill.

“At this point, it is supposed to be fixed. But I’m scared. I can’t afford another big bill…so I’ve just turned the AC off.”

She is also having the Town of Havana come out throughout the week and check her meter to make sure no other big bill catches her by surprise.

“This really has me worried,” said Portillo. “This isn’t just a restaurant for me…I want this place to grow, for the community to grow and know that they have someone they can count on here.”

When she first opened El Cordero, Portillo said she dreamed of using it as an outreach into the community.

She knows what it is like to struggle financially, and she wanted her business to be an opportunity of helping others through difficult times.

Growing up, Portillo says her family struggled, but always found ways to help their community and to send aid to families who still lived in El Salvador.

“It wasn’t easy, but we always found a way,” said Portillo. “God always provided.”

Additionally, Portilla truly believes El Cordero offers a culinary opportunity that can’t be found throughout much of North Florida.

“There aren’t many places to get authentic El Salvadorian food,” said Portilla.

While the people of Havana have been supportive, Portilla says she is facing a potential shuttering of her business.

“It’s sad that I may have to close. I want to stay. I want this to work out. But I’m sad because I know how supportive Havana has always been for us,” said Portillo. “The people in this community, the people of Havana, they are so supportive.”

Portillo says some customers come several times a week, and she has endless appreciation for those who love her family’s food.

“I know the community wants us here.”

A GofundMe fundraiser to help El Cordero cover the cost of its electricity bill is available HERE.

Anyone who wants to make a cash donation or purchase some freshly-made, family-recipe pupusas, is welcome to stop by El Cordero, located at 407 North Main Street, in Havana.

Ashley Hunter –