This ice cream shop is a gem in Little Havana
I was born in 1968 in Coral Gables. I have a twin brother and we were the biggest twins born in Doctor’s Hospital ever. We moved to Kendall and I still live in the 10-block radius where I grew up.
I had been a banker for 20 years but in 2008 the industry plummeted, so I had to decide what else to do. My kids were pulling for an ice cream shop, and I wanted something that would help pay for college, so for me it was about having a job and putting my kids through school.
We’re a big ice cream family; my grandma made ice cream in Cuba and parts of Central and Latin America while she traveled with my grandfather, who was a sugar mill engineer. She picked the fruits from all of these different countries to make ice cream. She didn’t make it when she came to Miami, but we had it all of the time. For us, it was about being together as a family. Ice cream makes everyone smile; it’s a fun business, so I decided to open Azucar.
Penn State has an ice cream school, so I went there, and then to the Frozen Dessert Institute in St. Louis. I came back and I decided that Little Havana would be the only place to have a Cuban ice cream store.
The day I opened there was a Viernes Culturales event, which is a festival on Calle Ocho on the last Friday of every month. The entire street closes down and all of the art galleries open and lots of food vendors come out. It’s like a street party.
I almost ran out of ice cream that day. I had to come back at 5:00 the next morning to make more ice cream, and it’s been like that ever since.
For me, I had to make it as Cuban as possible, and the tiles are the biggest labor of love I ever did. We have replicas of tiles like you would have seen in Cuba 50 years ago. They’re also a little broken, which is how you would see them in Cuba today. I stole guayaberas from my family members’ closets to decorate the walls and I added plastic to the furniture because everyone had plastic back then on the furniture.
The Celia Cruz painting, which is the most photographed thing in the store, came by accident. This was from George Viera — I was next door building my shop when I met his brother. He mentioned this painting that George did, and he showed it to me and I bought it right there.
Most of the store is filled with local art, which I’ve commissioned. We have a 29-foot ice cream cone on the outside of the building, which is a work of art until a hurricane comes. Then we have to touch it up a lot. Birds live up there too, an entire family.
In the morning I get tourists, and at night it’s all locals. It’s a lot of fun, and I like it better at night, to tell the truth.
We are the No. 1 place named by New Times to take out-of-towners. We educate them on exactly what Cuban ice cream is and our experience. A lot of people come here on their way to Cuba, and some people come back after Cuba, and we like to hear what they have to say.
There are some people who live around the pier. There’s one gentleman who comes and eats chocolate every day. He just sits, happy to watch what’s going on in the street, and he’ll stay for two hours. We also have lots of dog owners who come in and share a cone with their dog.
Our clients from the area, from Domino Park, are an older audience and many are diabetic, and they would come in and ask for sugar-free. I used to tell them that we are called “Azucar” (sugar), not “sin azucar” (without sugar). But I had to make it, because the demand got so high. Now, we make all of the flavors for them, too.
I’d like to grow the business little by little and be all over the nation, like the Cuban Haagen-Dazs. But I’m just one person and I don’t want a huge team yet that I don’t know personally. Our next spot may be next to Florida International University, and then I want to go to Plano, Texas, because my mom, my brother and my little sister live there.
I started out doing it for economic reasons. I was going to have this little store, and my kids would work there and we would make ends meet, but it’s become way bigger than anything I would have ever dreamed of. We were picked by Goldman-Sachs, Miami Dade College and Babson College as one of the 10,000 small businesses in the United States to move forward. So they’ve given me education, and I now have an entrepreneurial degree from Babson College.
Now, it’s about what’s happening in the area, whom can we help out, and what we can do to get better every day. I became a board member with Viernes Culturales; a member of Miami Dade College’s advisory board; and of the Merchants Alliance. My day isn’t just standing at an ice cream machine anymore — it’s going to meetings with the commissioner, the mayor and trying to get these streets cleaned up.
I’ve never lived outside of Miami. I have five siblings, and they all left except me. Miami is home, it’s where I grew up, and it’s everything that I know. I have traveled extensively, but this is home. This is where there’s ocean, where I can breathe, and this is where I feel the best.
I think of all the cultures that are here — even at Azucar. We’re a mix of peoples and cultures but we all still get ice cream.
This story was transcribed from an interview between Suzy Batlle, founder of Azucar Ice Cream Co. at 1503 SW Eighth St., and the HistoryMiami South Florida Folklife Center as part of a research project exploring the question “What Makes Miami Miami?” The Florida Folklife Program, a component of the Florida Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources, directed the project.
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