From refugee to restaurateur: The story behind Fort Wayne’s Caliente Cuban Cafe

If you walk into Caliente Cuban Café on Wayne Street in downtown Fort Wayne, you might assume it was planned.

You might assume Yalili Mesa, known as “Yaly,” to friends, was a lifelong Cuban chef, who always wanted to open the city’s first and only Cuban restaurant with her husband Gustavo “Gus” Rodriguez.

She waves cheerfully at customers and talks excitedly about sneaking out to the patio to hear their first bites into the crispy bread of their sandwiches. Half of a Po'Boy sandwich at Caliente.

“When I hear the crunch, I feel good,” she says. “I like it when they say, ‘Mmmm.’” She laughs.

Today, it’s hard to believe there was a time when Yaly turned off the ringer on her phone at the old shop on East State Boulevard because she didn’t speak English, and she was afraid to answer it.

It’s hard to believe there was a time when she never dreamed of opening a sandwich shop or a business at all.

“I never cook in my life,” she says. “But when you have to do something, you have to do it.”

While some might call it the entrepreneurial spirit, for her it was a matter of necessity.

Time and time again, her life has been shaped by necessity—from the time she and her husband came to the United States to flee the Cuban government in 2000, to the time they moved from Florida to Fort Wayne to save money on rent, to the time she needed to find a job here and didn’t know what to do.

Gus got a job at the Community Harvest Food Bank, but finding work was more difficult for Yaly because she didn’t speak English.

She had $7,000 in the bank in 2009, and when she found out a little shop on East State Boulevard was for sale, she decided to go for it.

“My husband ask me, ‘What are you going to do?’ I say, ‘I don’t know,’” she says. “We signed the contract already for the business, and we have no idea what we’re going to do.”

So, she improvised.

“I said, ‘Sandwiches?’ He said, ‘Sandwiches? What do you mean sandwiches?’” she says.

But Yaly was determined to learn, and so she did. Before long, she had a menu of four sandwiches: a Cuban, a pan con lechon, a ham and cheese, and a grilled cheese.

Caliente's original restaurant on East State Boulevard is now closed.

She and Gus spread the word that their little shop was opening, and on opening day, they realized the power of the Fort Wayne community’s support.

“The day we first opened, we invite people,” she says. “We would invite anyone we know in the whole town, and everyone go. Every one. No one fail. Every one go, and support us.”

On her first day of business, she made $600 selling sandwiches for $5.75 each, and she invested the money back into her business the next day, going back to the store to restock the bread and meat.

“You have to buy everything,” she says. “I remember that day getting home exhausted. Exhausted. Like I was farming. I don’t know. It was a lot of stress. A lot of stress.”

But after a month on the job, another kind stranger stepped in to help.

A customer saw her cutting meat behind the counter by hand, and he asked her what she was doing.

“I say, ‘I’m cutting the meat for the sandwich. I don’t have money for the slicer. I have to get money first.”

But the man came back to the shop later and gave her the restaurant’s first slicer for free.

“He just give it to me,” she says. “I never saw him before. But he says it’s my present for my community. It’s my present for my favorite restaurant in Fort Wayne.”

Thanks to loyal customers, hard work, and the generous support of a few strangers, Caliente has grown in success, and its menu and location have grown with it.

Today, almost 10 years later, it is a highly coveted space in the heart of the city with a menu that spans 15 types of sandwiches and four kid’s meals, along with a house-made salsa.

Yaly proudly wears her Purdue University t-shirt at the shop because her eldest son is a Purdue graduate who will someday take over the restaurant, which is why it is growing downtown now, she says.

They had to close the old East State Shop in July because it was outdated, she explains. It needed a new cooler and a few other updates that weren’t worth what they were putting into it.

“The air conditioning wasn’t working, cooler was out, and I was too tired,” Yaly says. “But it was good.”

And as she talks, she starts to cry.

It was more than a space. It was the place where she learned English and built a future for her family after coming to the States with nothing in her hands.

To other immigrants who are making the same transition, she encourages them to go after what they want.

“People say, ‘I don’t have money to open restaurant. But we don’t have money either,’” she says. “If you want to do something, you do it. Do it without thinking. Because if you start thinking, you won’t open. You’ll never do it.”

And above all, she says, keep learning and cultivate happiness.

“We cultivate a lot of happiness,” she says. “And you have to learn. I wasn’t a people person before. Really, I was more shy. My mother tell me, ‘How you talk to people now?’ You have to learn communication. When you come from another country, people are asking about your culture, your background. People like to hear how it’s like in Cuba. It’s like the two cultures come together and meshing, and how we mesh is how we learn together.

“I learn from America, and America learns from me,” she says.

Eating at Caliente?

Caliente Cuban Café offers dining, catering, and delivery at 120 W. Wayne Street in downtown Fort Wayne. It is open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, and closed on Sundays.

Yaly recommends the classic Cubano sandwich on your first visit. “Cubano is still the favorite sandwich,” she says. “That one, and the beef (Ropa Vieja) is really good.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.