When the I-85 bridge collapsed, Debbie Benedit feared her renowned Havana Sandwich Shop on Buford Highway would suffer. Many of her customers came from Midtown and Buckhead for Cuban sandwiches or picadillo and cheese empanadas and she worried they wouldn’t want to brave a traffic nightmare for a meal.

“But actually our business increased,” she said, while seated in the rustic building which is readily seen from the busy road, thanks to its bright yellow paint with palm trees.

Debbie Benedit inside her restaurant, Havana. (Dyana Bagby)

“Everyone on this end [of Buford Highway] was staying over here,” she said.

Now that the bridge has reopened, her Midtown, Cheshire Bridge Road, Lenox Road and Virginia-Highland customers are returning as well.

“My sales are exceeding expectations,” she said.

The road to her success was also filled with major obstacles, however.

Debbie owns the sandwich shop at 2905 Buford Highway with her son, Eddie Benedit Jr. The building is the site of the original Havana restaurant opened in 1976 by Guido Benedit, her late father-in-law.

Using Guido’s recipes from his homeland, the restaurant quickly became a destination for those searching for authentic Cuban cuisine. The entire Benedit family worked at the restaurant before some went their separate ways.

In 1996, Guido retired and left the business to Debbie and her late husband, Eddie Sr. He died in 2001, but Debbie kept the restaurant open. Also in 2001, her husband’s brother, Guido Jr., sued her after learning he wasn’t listed as a manager in the business. Tensions flared.

In 2008, the building at 2905 Buford Highway was damaged by fire. In 2009, Eddie Sr.’s other brother, Willie, wanted to open a new Havana restaurant, built on the reputation of the old. Debbie operated a restaurant for a short time in Canton, where she lives, but closed it in 2009.

She missed the allure of Buford Highway and planned to reopen Havana that same year in a new location on Clairmont Road, just a stone’s throw from the original.

But confusion arose over which Havana restaurant was the real one and Willie and Debbie ended up in a legal battle over who was the true owner of the restaurant’s name. Eventually she won the right to the Havana Restaurant name and for the past eight years has operated her business, welcoming hungry customers on Clairmont Road from throughout metro Atlanta.

The exterior of Havana on Buford Highway. (Dyana Bagby)

But court battles with family took a toll and the pain remains. Debbie acknowledged she hasn’t seen Willie or Guido for years.

“The family was torn apart by different ideas,” she said. “I wish them the best. I did the time, put in the blood, sweat and tears. … It didn’t have to be that way.”

She took her energy and focused it on food. The Havana at the Clairmont location used the same Benedit family recipes and became as popular as the original.

Then, in 2015, Debbie was driving on Buford Highway when she saw a familiar sight. The dilapidated building where Havana first opened its doors in 1976 was available. She jumped at the chance to open a second Havana at what some may consider a historical location.

“This building is the same as it was 50 years ago. We just put a new coat of paint on it and cleaned it up some,” she said.

In April, she and her son decided to close the Clairmont location.

“I’ve been doing this 41 years and I’m slowing it down,” she said. “Eddie will continue on. I feel like I’ve come full circle. I’m just glad to be back here. … This truly was a family business, and it still is.”

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.

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