Jonathan Romero, owner and founder of Punta Cana Dominican Grill.

Jonathan Romero, owner and founder of Punta Cana Dominican Grill. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Growing up in Westbury, Jonathan Romero ate very well. His mother, Lissette, and grand- mother, Hilda, cooked up a daily spread of Dominican dishes such as empanadas, pollo guisado (braised chicken) and maduros (fried plaintains). They marinated and slow-roasted pork shoulder into pernil, and mashed green plantains for mofongo, the garlic-infused comfort dish that Dominicans long ago adapted from Puerto Rico, which, in turn, adapted it from Angolan mfwenge-mfwenge and West African fufu. (The Spanish began bringing slaves from Africa to the Caribbean in the early 1500s.)

Romero, now 30, began working in the New Cassel bodega owned by his father, Louis, at 16, and two years later, as a freshman in college at LIU-Post, fused his experiences in retail and the family kitchen into his first business, a Dominican spot in Levittown called Punta Cana, named for the Dominican Republic’s iconic resort town, poised between the Caribbean and Atlantic.

It lasted a year. Romero spent the next five polishing his menu and overall concept, opening a better-realized Punta Cana Dominican Grill on Post Avenue in Westbury in 2015. The winning formula: updated Dominican food served Chipotle style (think customizable Cana Bowls) in a modern takeout setting.

Since then, Romero has opened two more Punta Canas, one in Huntington in 2019 and another in Rockville Centre in 2020, right before coronavirus battered the food industry. He also partnered with his dad on a New Cassel restaurant, Pollo Romero. Along the way, Romero harnessed Instagram to build business, amassing 47,000 followers with glamour shots of empanadas, mofongo and Cana Bowls. “I adapted with the times, got on social media and educated people on the culture and the foods,” Romero said.

Among his 30-plus employees are his wife, Jenna, who manages the Westbury location; his younger brother, Christopher, who works there part time; and another brother, Steven, who manages the Huntington Punta Cana.

With bachata music thumping through the door of the Westbury spot one spring afternoon, a masked Romero reflected on his past, present and future, which involves expansion and launching a line of vegan empanadas and bowls. What follows is the oral history of a Long Island restaurateur, full of candid appraisals, savvy marketing and life lessons. It has been edited for clarity.

My dad is where I got my hustle from. He always had multiple businesses and was always finding ways to make extra money for the family. I opened the first Punta Cana when I was 18. I was very inexperienced—it was a live-and-learn type of situation and built me into the man I am today.

It was definitely a lot, going to school and trying to run a restaurant. I thought it was going to be easy, but it didn’t go that way at all. When I first started, I didn’t know what food costs were. I didn’t know what labor costs were. You would just hope that at the end of the week it would leave you a little something to put in your pocket.

As a business owner, you cannot work that way, of course. You’ll never make it. That was one of the hardest and most important things I did, to learn about costs and how to price things out, how to keep waste at a minimum, how to keep labor efficient. I worked at Chipotle on purpose for a few months to learn their systems of how to run a restaurant more efficiently.

Everything is based off of cooking I grew up with, my mother’s and grandmother’s recipes, with touches and changes I’ve made throughout the years. The pernil, for example—the base seasoning is the same my mother used, but I changed it up a little bit. I might use a little bit less Dominican oregano, maybe they would put in more. Maybe I put in a little more garlic than they’re used to. For yellow rice, I took their authentic recipes and I changed them more for my American palate. Dominican food is not typically spicy.

Usually your mom and your grandmother do not cook with recipes. Everything is ‘a pinch of that, taste as you go.’ At an early age, I understood that restaurants don’t work that way. You need to keep more consistency. I got upset with Dominican restaurants for not being consistent. One day you love the food, and two days later it’s a different cook. I was adamant about keeping consistency here.  

Punta Cana Dominican Grill's mofongo, empanadas and fried pork belly...

Punta Cana Dominican Grill's mofongo, empanadas and fried pork belly bowl. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

When I opened up Westbury, I built out all of the recipes and Americanized the menu. We started playing around with the empanada flavors, started doing pepperoni pizza, mac- and-cheese. My point of opening Dominican restaurants was to introduce our culture to other cultures locally. Our typical customers are not Dominican; they’re from all over. A challenge has been educating people on the culture in locations that are not Dominican. Even though Westbury is a Latin town, it’s Central American. I really focused on my ads and my Instagram, where I have a large following. And it’s worked out.

My grandmother always made empanadas for snacks. The majority of my mother’s side lived in the Bronx, and we’d go there every weekend. There were little old ladies selling empanadas on the street for one dollar apiece. That was one of the highlights of going there.

In Huntington, we’d sell more empanadas than we did in Westbury, in the beginning. RVC as well. Mofongo is more popular in RVC—it’s surprising that it sells the most. The employees actually hate it, because peeling the plantains is di cult. We hand-mash every mofongo. They say they get muscles from it.

In April, we were supposed to launch a new menu, but then everything happened. I panicked a bit. I was worried about my employees, because I thought we were going to be forced to shut down. Without them, what am I?

My mother was worried. She was like, “Listen, things are bad in Huntington.” She was watching the news and said, “Listen, why don’t you take a break over there until we know what’s happening, for your brother’s sake.” I agreed with her, because I didn’t want her worried. I was able to keep all of my staff, other than Huntington, which has since reopened. I helped them as much as I could.

Sales went down, and we had a drop in business, but the week after, everything started blowing up online. Sales have increased every week from there. It’s been a little hectic. Sometimes I don’t get my empanada ingredients, sometimes I don’t get cilantro. As of right now, our beef prices have doubled or tripled, so we’re taking our beef stew and peppered steak and onions off the menu. I don’t want to raise my prices too much. Everything is changing week by week.

When we first launched Huntington, people would come in and ask, “Anything vegan?” And we thought, well, maybe we’re in the wrong place. Because our food is not vegan—our foods are focused on proteins like meat. I was like, I have to adapt. You don’t go to a typical Dominican restaurant in Freeport or Hempstead and find vegan items, per se. There’s always stuff without meat, but nothing like a vegan menu, so I think I’m going to be on the first on Long Island to do that.

We’re going to use Impossible Foods meats for the beef empanadas, we’re going to a vegan beef bowl. Instead of using white cheeses, we’ll use cashew cheeses. I think I could become vegan and be OK. I’ve started to eat less meat be- cause of the prices, so you never know.

It’s definitely a business that I’ll stick with. If you can make it through a pandemic, why wouldn’t you focus on a business like that? Everyone says, “Why don’t you open a sit-down Punta Cana? You’ll do great.” I don’t want the headache. I like it simple and straightforward.

PUNTA CANA DOMINICAN GRILL

162 Post Ave., Westbury (516-280-1445)

376 New York Ave., Huntington (631-546-1445)

1 N. Park Ave., Rockville Centre (516-260-6335)

eatpuntacana.com

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