Christmas Eve feast is La Teresita tradition

Published Dec. 23, 2002|Updated Sept. 4, 2005

Think you've got a lot of people to cook for this Christmas?

Consider the Capdevilas, owners of La Teresita restaurant on Columbus Drive.

They feed thousands every year.

On Tuesday, La Teresita becomes take-out central for customers craving roast pork, yellow rice and black beans for holiday feasts. It's a Christmas Eve tradition as old and cherished as the family-owned restaurant.

"On Christmas you can rest assured a good portion of Tampa Bay is eating our food," said Louis Capdevila, one of four brothers who owns La Teresita.

The line forms at 7 a.m. and ends about 5 p.m. Cars snake through the parking lot, covering every inch of asphalt. Customers wish a warm Feliz Navidad, while employees load gallons of beans and aluminum trays filled with yellow rice.

"It's a show, really," he said. "It's a beautiful thing."

Many people place orders weeks in advance. The rest show up with the masses.

The kitchen staff starts preparing the food a day or two ahead of time. There's no freezing or storing. They want everything fresh.

"I love the excitement," said Max Capdevila, the youngest brother. "This is Christmas for us."

You could say the Capdevilas make enough food to feed an army and you wouldn't be exaggerating. The restaurant goes through truckloads of food:

+ 400 pernils _ 20-pound pork haunches baked 50 at a time in two huge roasters.

+ 5,000 pounds of rice.

+ 2,000 pounds of beans.

+ 400 pounds of yucca.

And loaves of Cuban bread? Too many to count, they say.

Parents Max and Coralia Capdevila began the tradition 25 years ago when they opened the restaurant near Columbus and MacDill Avenue. As the crowds grew, they set up tables in the parking lot behind the kitchen.

Immigrants from Cuba, the family sees cooking the Christmas Eve feast as their treat to the community. The next day, they host a party at the restaurant for staff and their families. About 400 people attend.

"We love our customers and we want to keep them year-round," Louis Capdevila said.

This year carries special meaning for the Capdevilas, who are celebrating 30 years in business. The family opened La Teresita Grocery across the street on Nov. 22, 1972.

Five years later came the restaurant, eventually rebuilt to include a main dining room, a 50-seat counter and an upstairs banquet area.

Today the Capdevilas own restaurants in Tampa, Town 'N Country and Pinellas Park, and are working on franchising the company nationwide. They never expected such success from plates of rice and beans.

The restaurant on Columbus served 28,000 people in October and surpassed that midway through December. People devour the huge portions and low prices, especially in uncertain economic times.

Louis Capdevila said only 20 percent of La Teresita's customers are Hispanic. The rest are americanos looking for home-cooked Cuban specialties.

Over the years, the restaurant has served everyone from politicians to police officers. Gov. Jeb Bush dropped in twice during the last gubernatorial race, and his presidential brother, George, visited once for breakfast.

The Capdevilas aren't expecting anyone from the First Family to come on Christmas Eve.

But they expect a lot of friends.