If it weren’t for the smell of slow-cooked pork, you might walk past it.
It’s the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, baked breads and pressed sandwiches that draws passers-by inside. For most, Flaco’s Cuban Bakery and Coffee Spot offers a great place to chow down. For others, Flaco’s offers the taste of home.
Sara Puyana, 30, is a co-owner of Flaco’s at 200 W. University Ave. Her husband, Tim Darnell, is the other co-owner. It opened in 2006.
The location used to be a rim shop. No one thought it would become a restaurant, Puyana said.
Flaco, in Spanish, means “skinny” or “thin.” The restaurant is named after Darnell because he is a skinny man, Puyana explained.
Puyana was born in Colombia, but grew up in Hialeah. She moved to Gainesville in 2000 to study education at UF. She graduated in 2006.
“I was going to be a teacher — still hasn’t happened,” she joked.
In Colombia, her father owned a jewelry store. It was burglarized three times before he decided to move with Puyana and the rest of their family.
He was tired of starting from scratch repeatedly, but he had to do it again when they moved to Miami. He went from being a business owner to driving limos.
“That’s just kind of how Miami is, people moving from other countries and starting from nothing,” she said.
She has been around the kitchen her entire life. Her mother, Marty Avila de Puyana, has always been a good cook and taught her daughter the tricks of the trade. She also influenced Puyana’s outlook on food. At every family gathering, Avila de Puyana is the one who does all the cooking.
“Food brings people together, keeps those relationships strong and creates happiness,” Puyana translated for her mother.
Puyana learned to cook Cuban cuisine from growing up in Miami.
“I was raised around Cuban food and Cuban people,” she said. “My godparents are Cuban.”
At the time Flaco’s opened, there were not many Cuban places in town, she said.
“There wasn’t anything causal and fast that students went to.”
In Miami, she remembers going to Chico’s, a 24-hour Cuban restaurant where people would go after they were done partying. One time as a child, she went there with her parents for breakfast and some restaurant patrons still had their makeup and outfits on from the night before. They were still dancing, partying and drunk, she recalled.
“My mom was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Puyana said. “That stuff is all over Miami, and there wasn’t really a place like that here.”
Puyana also originally started Flaco’s to give her mother a job so she could provide for her father. In 2004, he had a heart attack. In 2005, he got into a car accident. Although it wasn’t a bad accident, she said, he could not drive or work anymore.
“It was a choice the family had to make,” she said. “I couldn’t do it on a teacher’s salary.”
The menu was created by the collective effort of Puyana, her husband, her mom, employees and customers.
She created the Sunshine, a pressed sandwich with tempeh, veggies, Swiss, pickles, mayo, mustard and onions, for people requesting a vegetarian option. She named it after her newborn nephew, whom she called Sunshine.
Her friend went to Miami and returned raving about a turkey, strawberry preserve and cream cheese sandwich she enjoyed.
“It’s called an Elena Ruz, I know that, but Jill was the one that told me that I should put it on the menu, so it’s called the Jill’s here,” she said.
All the pork is cooked fresh daily. It takes four hours in the oven, she said. The bread is also baked daily, as are the pastries.
Last week, Flaco’s sold 1,500 sandwiches, which is average for the busy restaurant.
Puyana’s mom does most of the cooking at Flaco’s. However, halfway through the first year she got burned by a pan of pork.
She could not walk for a month and a half because the burns were all over her feet and legs, so Puyana began cooking, too.
“My favorite thing about being in the kitchen with [Mom] is her work ethic and how she pushes you,” she said. “She’s a great example.”
Flaco’s has expanded to a second location at the UF Plaza on University Avenue. It should open late next week, she said.
“I was just thinking that we were going to be a little hole in a wall that wouldn’t really have a line out the door at 2 in the morning,” she said.
The family of Flaco’s made cooking good food a family tradition from Miami to Gainesville.