The struggle of a Puerto Rican restaurant without electricity — or refrigeration

Marlene Soto at her restaurant, Happy Burger, in San Juan’s Santurce district. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Ever since Hurricane Maria, Marlene Soto and her husband, Joel Ortiz, have been beginning their days at 3:30 a.m. to search for fresh ingredients for their restaurant, Happy Burger.

The couple’s small business, in the heart of San Juan’s Santurce district, had only been up and running for four months before the Category 5 storm swept the already struggling island. Before, they did their grocery shopping weekly. But now, without electricity for refrigeration, each morning starts with a journey from supermarket to supermarket.

“This whole situation feels like it’s out of a movie,” Soto told Yahoo News. She said that everyone has been hiking the price of meat, and bags of ice are few and far between.

The menu, handwritten by Soto in chalk each day, varies depending on what they are able to procure from the picked-over stores each morning.

“Tiene chuletas?” a man on a bicycle yelled to Soto from the sidewalk, asking if she was serving pork chops today. No, she replied in Spanish, “We have only grilled chicken with rice and beans. And burgers.”

While chain restaurants like Outback Steakhouse and Burger King can afford large generators to keep the lights on and their food refrigerated, Happy Burger has been operating in the dark — and oppressive heat.

“It’s like an oven back there,” said Soto, gesturing to the kitchen, where her husband was manning the grill without any ventilation. Outside, the temperature has been wavering around 95 degrees.

Still, they have stayed open every day, providing the neighborhood with a much needed service — until the sun starts to go down.

“Now that we don’t have light, air, it’s busier now than it was before,” Soto said. “A lot of new people.”

Soto serving a customer at Happy Burger. (Photo: Caitlin Dickson/Yahoo News)

Alanis Ponilla, who lives nearby, had eaten at Happy Burger once or twice before Hurricane Maria, but said she’s been coming here a lot more often since the storm.

“We have no lights or water,” Ponilla said while waiting for her burger Thursday afternoon. “My grandma has a gas stove, she cooks there. Or sometimes we go out and eat.”

“This one is really unique, it’s better,” she said of Happy Burger, compared to the bigger chain restaurants that line the streets of San Juan and much of the metropolitan area. Plus, she added, “It’s close to where I live.”

Ponilla was part of the steady stream of customers filing into Happy Burger on Thursday afternoon, waiting for their to go orders at the unlit countertop inside, or eating at the partially shaded table on the sidewalk. Among them was a group construction workers in reflective vests — locals who’ve been hired by Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help with repairing the damage caused by Maria, Soto said.

“I recognize that other places outside the metropolitan area are in much worse shape than we are,” she said. “I hope that since people come here during difficult times, they will continue come when things are back to normal.”

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