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'Family is everything': Cousins Cuban Cafe celebrates Cuban roots

Ty Roush
Black Mountain News
Betty Martinez-Sperry talking with a customer at Cousins Cuban Cafe on Nov. 20, 2020.

BLACK MOUNTAIN - Betty Martinez-Sperry and her sister bought a house in Marion without knowing that their cousins had built a cabin off the same I-40 exit. To Martinez-Sperry, her family and its Cuban roots were meant to find their way to Western North Carolina.

With her new food stop Cousins Cuban Cafe, Martinez-Sperry is a head chef cooking her mother’s and grandmother’s recipes. She is joined by her sister and three cousins in building on a food tradition that was absent from the area.

Having opened Oct. 19 at 108 Broadway Ave. in Black Mountain, Martinez-Sperry says she’s lucky to not work with a dysfunctional family.

“We’re a really strong team,” Martinez-Sperry said. “It’s worked out great. Some families can’t work together. It’s not that easy, but we’re really at a point in our lives that we want to get along and we appreciate having this opportunity that we could kind of do this all together.”

Martinez-Sperry last worked with family while operating a cafe with her mother in Miami. Her mother was going to sell the cafe after Martinez-Sperry’s father died, and after moving from New York to work with her mother, Martinez-Sperry sees her “journey coming full circle.”

Her mother had opened the Miami-based cafe at 62, and Betty, who’s about to reach 60, has opened up her own cafe in Black Mountain.

She says her mother is still vital to the Black Mountain location.

“She’s still helping to tweak things,” Martinez-Sperry said. “She makes her famous orange cake. She’s still coming to the cafe and helping as much as she can with recipes or directions.”

Her mother fled with her father and other family members from Cuba in 1961. The family had upended its Cuban roots and settled in Miami for a time, assimilating into a growing Cuban community in Florida.

Born in the United States, Martinez-Sperry said her mother and Cuban relatives taught her to work hard.

“My mom is my mentor because she worked so hard,” Martinez-Sperry said. “She has such an incredible work ethic and she really taught me that, in order for a business to be successful … you have to be there all the time and you have to work alongside your employees.”

The Cousins Cuban Cafe staff consists of mostly family members. A love for traditional Cuban food makes working with each other easier, she said.

Family photos on the wall at Cousins Cuban Cafe.

One wall in the cafe is covered with black-and-white photographs of family members to recognize the family’s Cuban roots. “It’s covered in photos of inspirational relatives” as a tribute, Martinez-Sperry said.

“I think this generation coming from Cuba, and all that sacrifice and all the changes that they had to make, they had to start from scratch when they got to Miami,” Martinez-Sperry said. “They are all professionals that had their whole life settled, and everything was good. And they had gone to college and everything, and then they just had to get up and leave without anything. It’s really admirable.”

'Thankful'

Martinez-Sperry’s mother, now 88, “hasn’t been feeling great” and “she’s just not feeling that she wants to leave the house” for Thanksgiving. The family decided the week prior to not get together, as tradition, for the holiday.

The pair’s connection had led Martinez-Sperry to this point, she said.

“My mom is the definition of strength and selflessness, and that’s what she’s represented for me all my life,” she said. “She’s been the strongest woman I’ve ever met and the hardest-working woman, and she instilled that in her daughter.”

Betty Martinez-Sperry taking an order at Cousins Cuban Cafe on Nov. 20, 2020.

The family had moved her mother up to Marion from Miami after pandemic restrictions began. Before the move, Martinez-Sperry didn’t know if her mother would have the opportunity to see the cafe as “she’s the only one still alive of that generation of our parents that came over from Cuba in 1961.”

Now an integral part of the cafe’s operations, Martinez-Sperry is “thrilled” to work with her mother again. Though they sometimes clash, “we just respect each other so much.”

With the family not coming together for the holidays, Martinez-Sperry reminisces when everyone would get together for New Year’s Day.  She says she’s thankful for the opportunity to be together working in a cafe, and “at the end of the day, family comes first.”

“We’re all in this together now, and we’re really loving it,” she said. “We’re enjoying it, and I think the customers do, too, when they come in and experience it.”

Absent from the aroma of her Cuban traditions when entering the cafe are the memories that Martinez-Sperry and her family put into the food.

She says she’s thankful for everything.

“Family is everything to me,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to be brought up in a very loving family, and it’s everything to me.”