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A chat with Jo Hastings, owner of Habana Cafe in Gulfport

Jo Hastings, the owner of Habana Cafe in Gulfport, came to the United States from Cuba at age 4.
Published Jun. 16, 2017

On the 20th anniversary of the opening of Gulfport's Habana Cafe, owner Jo Hastings, one of the few female restaurateurs in this market, chatted with us about the evolution of the local food scene.

How have things changed over the 20 years you've operated in Gulfport?

It's been a long transition. The first year I tried introducing things like tostones and ropa vieja and it just wasn't working. I'd put tostones in to-go orders and I'd get calls: "What is this little flying saucer?" In Tampa and Miami it was a totally different story, but 20 years ago in Gulfport, people just knew what a Cuban sandwich was. It has taken 20 years, but I don't have to explain it all anymore. Now we have people asking for tostones by name.

And how has the city of Gulfport changed?

We have a lot of the old-timers like myself, Backfin Blue and O'Maddy's. But now Gulfport has become almost a culinary destination. We've got Pia's and a lot of other new restaurants. We've come a long way.

Why did you get into the restaurant business?

When we came over from Cuba I was 4 and my parents were your typical immigrants. My mother became a schoolteacher; my father worked construction. But my mother and her sisters had this passion for cooking, and in the back of my mother's mind she wanted to do a little Cuban restaurant. My dad said we didn't come to this country to do crazy, risky stuff. Her wish stuck with me and 20 years ago I took the plunge. I did what my mom always wanted to do. She passed away two years ago.

You published a Cuban cookbook in 2003. Because at the time the cuisine was unfamiliar to so many, was that a hard sell?

I don't have to tell you the rejection rate on cookbooks. When I was working on the cookbook, (former Tampa Bay Times staffer) Tom French was a customer here and he said he'd like to see the manuscript. I gave him a longhand copy. I forgot about it and three months later he comes back and says: "You know what, you really need to pursue this, you can tell it's been written from the heart." So I sent it to University Press of Florida, hoping to get constructive criticism. I got a call and they said, "Let's do this." It won the Gourmand World Cookbook award for best Latino cookbook in 2004 and I went to Sweden for the awards ceremony.

And one of the recipes in it, the cream cheese flan, won you another award?

Southern Living has always been one of my favorite magazines. In 2003 I was working on the cookbook and saw this ad for the Southern Living Cookoff. There were five different categories and one was desserts, and I wondered if they'd gotten a recipe for a cream cheese flan. So I sent it off and got a call at my home and it was Southern Living magazine. They said you're one of the three finalists of the 40,000 recipes that had been submitted. We go and compete and I win. When you do things from the heart, things work out.

Contact Laura Reiley at lreiley@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

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