Seventeen years ago, Kenny Sanchez escaped from Cuba and embarked on a journey that led to his first restaurant opening downtown in mid July. Kenn-Tico Cuban Bar & Grill (204 E. Grace St., 225-9216) serves authentic food from the island nation, Sanchez says. "It is like going to Miami and getting Cuban cuisine."
Kenn-Tico is a familiar name to patrons of the street carts he has operated to try different flavors, get feedback and make improvements. Perfecting the cuisine has been no easy task, but then life hasn't always been easy for Sanchez, 34. As a teenager, he lived in Guantánamo City, Cuba, doing construction work. Life was hard and he believed he had no future there. "All you dream is based on whatever the Revolution can give you," Sanchez's brother, Ernesto "Tico" Sanchez, says of the Castro regime. "We said, ‘It's time for us to look for freedom.' " In 1993, Kenny Sanchez, then 17, swam to the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, hoping to avoid sharks and capture. After surviving the swim, he was informed that a Richmond family would take him in, so he traveled here and lived with Frank and Nina Leaming and their foster daughter, Dawn.
Six months later, his brother, Tico, also swam to freedom. He ended up in Miami, where immigration authorities contacted the Leamings, and he joined his brother. Language was a barrier, but Frank Leaming came up with a system to help the brothers learn English. One morning, they woke up to find yellow Post-it notes stuck to everything in the house with the name of that item in English. Kenny and Tico still keep in touch with the family and consider Frank and Nina to be their second parents.
The brothers worked in construction for about a year before they opened their first Kenn-Tico street cart in 1996. They sold hot dogs and steak-and-cheese sandwiches for about six months but were not very successful. They returned to construction to save more money. When they reopened the cart, they served Cuban-flavored wraps. It became a success, and they expanded to five carts. In 2006, the carts stopped running for three years as Kenny recovered from kidney-transplant surgery and started dialysis.
Opening Kenn-Tico has been a family affair. The brothers' parents immigrated in 2003. Their father, Louis E. Sanchez, co-owns the restaurant. Tico, who owns a construction business, worked on renovations. The menu includes Cuban tamales and palomilla steak, as well as authentic Cuban drinks. For now, just two of the street carts will remain open, at Main and Eighth streets and Marshall and 11th streets.