More than 40 years ago, Cuban Americans Apolonia Bermudez and her then-husband Reinaldo Bermudez invested in a small fruit store named Palacio de los Jugos in Little Havana.
Today, Apolonia Bermudez, 75, is ready to open her sixth restaurant, at 1265 W. 49th St. in Hialeah, in January. Also in the works are new locations on Southwest 27th Avenue just north of Coral Way in Miami and at Miami International Airport. Bermudez hopes to open the latter stores around the middle of 2013.
Palacio de los Jugos — the Juice Palace — is named for its long list of fruit drinks such as mamey and coconut. But the chain also serves typical Cuban food like arroz congri, a dish including rice and black beans, chicharrónes, a dish made of fried pork rinds, which are one of the most popular in town. It also serves sandwiches, seafood, baked goods and has fresh fruits.
Apolonia Bernudez now runs the business with her son, also named Reinaldo Bermudez. Her business was recently in the national political spotlight when Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney held a campaign event this year at El Palacio de los Jugos #2, at 7085 SW 24th St.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Apolonia Bermudez said. “A person like me with other places that are well-known and to choose my business, I felt like I was the queen of the world because choosing me felt beautiful. There are so many important businesses here.”
But, just as it has caught the attention of important personalities, it has become a popular spot for years with locals. Severo Pasqual has lived in Miami for six yeas and often eats at the eatery.
“The food is delicious and it reminds me of back home,” said Pasqual, who is from Oriente, Cuba, while eating a Cuban sandwich at the shop located at 5721 W. Flalger St.
The Little Havana store lasted about four years, till it moved to the bigger Flagler store.
“We started here to work hard,” Bermudez said. “I cooked in a small kitchen — pork, arroz congri, chicharrónes and fruit salad. We would sell about $300 a day. Then it started to get bigger. We came from nothing to something. We worked hard. I am grateful to see how we excelled.”
To this day, she wakes up at 4 a.m. and sometimes leaves after 6 p.m. She works about six days a week, and even cleans bathrooms despite employing about 1,000 employees.
“My life is the same,” she said. “I love to be here. I am checking always to see how the juices and food taste.”
The inspiration of Palacios de los Jugos came from her native country. She was born in Las Villas, Cuba in the countryside of the Caribbean island.
“It was a great life with birds, fruits, plants and nature in general,” she said. ”I was born within the plants. I was a country girl.”
She arrived in the United States in 1965 with her husband. She worked at a factory and he worked at a supermarket. They saved up to open up the store. They divorced about 10 years ago.
“We decided why work for someone else if we can do it for ourselves?” she said. “Everyone has the right to go forward, and this is the country of opportunities.”
Nicaraguan Alvaro Zamuria has been working at Palacio De Los Jugos for five years. Apolonia Bermudez offered him a job when he was unemployed.
“I feel great. We all treat each other like a big family,” said Zamuria, while cutting coconuts. ”We have people from all over the world.”
Tourists stop by to sample tropical fruit drinks, and the Palacio has appeared on numerous television networks both nationally and internationally.
“The entire world knows Palacio de los Jugos,” she said.
She plans on working till she’s in her 90’s and has opened the working doors to her five grandchildren. She says the Flagler store is dear to her because she cried, suffered and sacrificed.
“I don’t want this place to be sold,” she said. “I will leave this like my child. I want it to be historic.”