Florida Keys

Key West cafe battle brews. A court decision says it's too close to call

The scene at the original Sandy's location at 1026 White St. on June 7, 2018.
The scene at the original Sandy's location at 1026 White St. on June 7, 2018. FLKEYSNEWS.COM

Would the real Sandy's Café stand up and pass the café con leche?

Key West is now home to two Sandy's Cafés, within a block of one another on White Street, and the legal battle over who owns the rights to the name continues to simmer in federal court.

But the two warring parties this week got a little taste of the court's reaction to their claims, with a magistrate judge saying neither has made a strong enough case so far to stop the other one from operating under the Sandy's name.

Meanwhile, Key West residents and tourists continue to eat Cubano sandwiches, roast pork and signature Cuban coffee drinks at both dining spots. Some prefer the original coffee stand, which opened in 1984, that is now run by new management hired by the building's owners and Sandy's namesake, the Santiago family. Others are loyal to the Caceres family, which ran that stand for decades and now has its own new place a few doors down.

Talk about the two Sandy's Cafés can get confusing: Which one is truly the original — the one at the original location, 1026 White St., run by new operators, or the one at a new location, 1110 White St., run by the family that used to operate the stand at 1026?

"It's the one I know," said Stuart Yates, 53, who grew up in Key West but now lives in San Francisco, while seated at the original location the other day. "It's a hole-in-the-wall. Obviously, the food is good if people come back."

Yates didn't know about the Sandy's name lawsuit.

"I don't know the history," said David Tobar, 40, of Key West, while he finished up lunch at the new location a few doors down. "I prefer to sit down." (The old location has only a few seats outside.)

A federal magistrate on June 5 sent both Sandy's restaurants back to their corners, recommending that neither get the cease-operations order each asked for.

"As the testimony from the witnesses and documentary evidence demonstrate, many disputed issues of fact remain, which raise questions whether either party is likely to succeed at trial," U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Andrea M. Simonton wrote in a report to the court.

U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore will have the final say on the dueling emergency motions for preliminary injunction — efforts to stop one of the cafés from using the name until either a trial or settlement resolves the dispute. But the 52-page magistrate's report reflects the lengthy evidentiary hearing held March 7 in Miami that brought out conflicting testimony and spotty documentation of a bill of sale.

Fernando Caceres, the plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in January, says Sandy Santiago Sr., who died last December, sold him the Sandy's name and restaurant in a handshake deal in 1994. The Santiago family, including his widow Ramona and son Sandy Jr., say they never heard of any such deal and that the name belongs to them.

Caceres ran Sandy's at its original location, a building that is mainly a laundromat, since 1994, paying rent to the Santiago family but no royalties. In December, Caceres says he was forced out by Sandy Jr.

Sandy Santiago Jr. says the Caceres family left because of a lease dispute.

Caceres responded by opening up his own Sandy's down the block at 1110 White St., a sit-down joint with air-conditioning versus the original stand with only a few seats outside.

Both serve Cuban-style coffee drinks, along with ropa vieja and sweet plantains. But Caceres' place offers more Mexican food, as his family hails from that country.

Lawyers for Caceres say the dispute will likely require a trial.

“There’s a relatively high standard the parties need to meet here,” attorney Adam Goldman, who represents Caceres, said of the magistrate's report. “Here the parties’ claims were basically competing for the same issue.”

The Santiagos' lawyers did not reply to a request for comment.