Old San Juan’s La Bombonera: 1902-2012?

With all the major developments and conflicts happening in the world, I feel terribly self-indulgent to feel that I am in mourning for a place; but I join many others that are saddened and shocked to have a vital landmark disappear and yet others who see in it the destruction of a highly-charged signifier, a symbol of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, representing myriad concepts—a sense of place, of family, of friendship, of intellectual life, of the beauty of the historically-evocative (for better or worse) urban landscape, and perhaps even a symbol of Puerto Rican identity. La Bombonera, the emblematic San Juan coffee shop/bakery/restaurant, well known for the striking stained glass and colorful Spanish tiles adorning its storefront, its fragrant coffee and famous hot buttered mallorcas (Spanish sweet buns), is about to close its doors.

Yesterday, Facebook and Twitter were all abuzz with exclamations of dismay (“Noooooo!”). Today the news is that the Puerto Rican government may intervene to save this beloved landmark. As I post the news below, I invite people to comment on what La Bombonera means to them.

After 110 years of tradition, the signature Old San Juan restaurant La Bombonera closes its doors because the building where it is housed will be sold. The restaurant, founded in 1902 and famous for its delicious coffee and mallorcas, occupies two buildings. In one, owned by La Bombonera, is the dining room and the bread/baked goods counter. In the other, which is rented, is the kitchen, bathrooms, and office. The owner of the building has expressed that he no longer wants to continue leasing because he wants to renovate and sell it. [. . .] Closure of operations would leave about 40 people without jobs. These union members, some who have worked there for 65 years, will receive only one month’s salary.

La Bombonera, located at [259 and 261] San Francisco Street, is considered the third oldest restaurant in the colonial peninsula; the oldest were the former Café Turull, founded in 1816, and La Mallorquina, in 1848, which closed earlier this year. This would be the fourth restaurant in Old San Juan to end operations this year with the closure of the La Mallorquina, at San Justo Street, Maria’s on Del Cristo Street, and Barú at San Sebastian Street.

The iconic place—a meeting place for sanjuaneros, intellectuals, artists, and the general public— suffered the brunt of the economic downturn, but is recovering thanks to the support of the community. Last Friday, with the aggravation of a power outage, the guests lined up to savor Creole and Spanish food. Its most popular item has always been the mallorcas or buns typical of the island of Mallorca, from which it still maintains the original recipe, brought to the island in the early 20th century.

It only took a couple of hours to spread the news about the closure of La Bombonera and about the same amount of time for people to begin negotiating a solution to forestall the closure. José López, manager and shareholder of the business, said “I will not close. It is not in my mind or my heart. My heart is La Bombonera and I want to continue with it. ”

Isajo Corporation, headed by José Bote, resident of Spain, owns the entire building (number 261), of which only the first floor is intended for commercial use of La Bombonera. In November, this corporation, which also owns 50% of building number 259, sued the Puig & Abraham company (which runs the restaurant) for debts in lease payments. In January, the Court of San Juan ordered eviction of the building where the kitchen and bathrooms are located, and in early April, it determined that Puig & Abraham must pay $ 54,000 by way of rent.

[Yesterday] there was a meeting with [Puerto Rico] Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock; executive director of the Company for Tourism, Luis Rivera Marín; president of the Economic Development Bank (BDE in Spanish), Ivonne Otero; and president of the Restaurant Association (ASORE) Humberto Rovira; among other representatives of public and private sectors. At the end of the meeting [held in La Bombonera], McClintock said they had agreed to schedule an additional meeting this week at the headquarters of the State Department to outline the restructuring plan to be followed for the company to continue operating during the transition, and to help it develop financial stability. He added that “The idea is to have a project manager who can see the whole situation through and help La Bombonera survive this difficult period.”

For full articles (in Spanish), see http://www.vocero.com/cierra-la-bombonera/ and http://www.elnuevodia.com/ayudaparalabombonera-1242909.html

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