Ivan Nieves and David Flores had every reason to leave Puerto Rico and never look back.
Hurricane Maria blew out their waterfront condo’s floor-to-ceiling windows, and every room of their home had “a dead fish smell,” Flores remembers. Their combination restaurant-boutique-hair salon La Social — a gathering place for locals amid the touristy Condado section in San Juan — was going to be without power for months.
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And when the oncologist who was treating Nieves’ grandfather for prostate cancer handed the family his medical file and evacuated, Nieves couldn’t wait any longer.
“What am I going to do now?” Nieves worried.
“We felt like we could better help our family from Miami,” Flores said. “It was our only option.”
They left last October and settled in Midtown. Nieves’ grandfather got the medical attention he needed. And the married couple, both 30, opened a new version of their restaurant La Social in May, bringing new life to a neglected corner of Biscayne Boulevard.
And yet, their island home called to them.
Their first customers in Miami were Puerto Ricans who had relocated to Miami after the two hurricanes last summer. Former customers in Puerto Rico called friends in Miami and told them to visit the couple’s new spot. One who was traveling from Puerto Rico to visit family in Miami even ordered a cake while on the island and picked it up here for a party.
“The business is full every day, and it’s thanks to that community,” Nieves said.
Those ties bound their connection home. Rather than close their Puerto Rico store, they managed to keep both businesses open with the help of family and friends on both sides of the Caribbean.
“It was like our original commitment was reborn all over again,” Flores said.
It wasn’t until the hurricanes hit last year that Nieves and Flores realized how much their restaurant had tied them to their neighbors.
Nieves and Flores knew even before graduating college they weren’t meant to work for someone else. And when they opened the first La Social in Puerto Rico, both were taking a chance.
Nieves, who left for New York to work in hotels after graduating from the University of Puerto Rico with a finance degree, ended up selling vintage furniture for wealthy friends in the Hamptons. And Flores, who was born in Puerto Rico to Venezuelan parents, graduated from Furman University in South Carolina with a business degree. But he gave up a job with Nielsen research, where his father was a software developer, to design visuals for Coach in Puerto Rico.
When they met in Puerto Rico, their mutual backgrounds in business but a love for design led them to open a boutique. There, they put on events for local designers and Nieves cooked the meals for the parties at home — which got so popular they decided to combine the ideas into one space: La Social.
They took over a former surf shop and transformed the black and chartreuse space into a sort of gathering place. Customers floated from the bistro — where Nieves whipped up coffee drinks, pastries he learned to bake, sandwiches, salads and fritatas — to the boutique, where they carried local fashion designers and high-end brands. They even added a beauty salon, women could peruse the boutique while they got their hair done.
Things were going so well they even picked out a second spot for an expansion.
“Then the hurricane hit,” Flores said.
Hurricane Maria destroyed their home, a 12th-floor apartment in a building one block from the ocean. Nieves’ mother’s house was flooded. They moved anything they could salvage to Nieves’ grandparents’ house. They crashed with friends and took turns cooking on outdoor gas grills.
“It was like that TV show ‘Survivor,’” Nieves said.
Days after Maria, La Social, which is on the ground floor of a residential building, got power through a generator. The couple opened the doors and started brewing coffee with Nieves’ 12-cup Italian coffee maker — “He has, like, every size at home,” Flores joked — and making ham-and-cheese sandwiches with ingredients they’d bought from Costco after standing in line overnight.
“Just trying to give people something to eat,” Ivan said.
But the generator failed after several days of running non-stop and no replacement parts could be found. They shuttered La Social — and that’s the way it remained for months.
“We knew it would be a long time before the island came back,” Ivan said.
Nieves brought his mother and grandparents to live with a cousin in Miami Shores. Days became months and reports were that swaths of the island were still without power.
They decided their future was in Miami. They looked at more than 50 locations for a new La Social before they found a vacant spot on the corner of Northeast 76th Street and Biscayne.
“It forced us to think about the next step,” Flores said. “We realized either we make it now or never. It was the perfect opportunity to try it.”
Nieves flew home to Puerto Rico to close the original La Social for good. He planned to settle their debts and be home by Christmas.
Then he turned on the lights.
Neighbors in the building and from around the block saw the Edison lights warm the street through the floor-to-ceiling windows and came to the door. Soon, the store was full.
“When we turned on the lights, we lit up the block and people came out of their homes to tell us, ‘You can’t close. We need you here,’” Nieves said. “People were looking for something familiar.”
Just after New Year, Nieves returned and turned the lights on again, this time for good. They figured they’d keep the store open until their new La Social in Miami opened. Instead, Ivan’s mother, Myrna Torres, stepped in to run it.
Ivan travels to the island once a week to coordinate with Torres and meet with customers.
“Not everyone is brave enough, is dedicated enough, to do what Ivan and David did,” Torres said by phone from the Puerto Rico store. “They’re young, but they have a vision…. Even through all this disaster, they’ve built something positive. What they’ve achieved is amazing.”
And they’re not done. They want to replicate their all-in-one La Social at their new spot. Nieves has already started negotiating with the landlords on either side of him to take over two spaces next door and a house behind the building, where they are already hosting Sunday night movies under a large banyan.
“You have to have a little bit of curiosity and ambition to make it happen,” Nieves said.
Their neighbors are ready, too. On a recent Thursday, Nieves was busy manning the stove in what looks like a functional Martha Stewart television kitchen: bright, surrounded by marble-look counters, opening to mid-century modern tables with salmon-colored chairs that pop with style (It’s a good thing).
Flores warmed Nieves’ rich s’mores muffins and aromatic mango pound cake (made with fruit a neighbor brings them) as they managed the busy lunchtime crowd.
“We feel like we’re going back to the old times,” Nieves said later. “It’s more than a business. We feel like we’re part of the community.”