When Sandy Sanchez decided to move back to her hometown city in Florida after spending over a decade in Los Angeles studying fine dining, she knew she wanted to open her own restaurant. After just a single phone call, Sanchez and her boyfriend were restaurant owners, purchasing a beat-up cafetería in Hialeah, a city in Miami-Dade County with a dense Cuban restaurant scene. The plan? Sell croque-madame—a classic French bistro sandwich typically layered with ham and cheese.
“Who doesn’t like ham and cheese?” Sanchez laughed, as she recalled the story of how she and her French boyfriend moved across the country and turned a cockroach-infested, hole-in-the-wall space into a gourmet French masterpiece.
In 2015, La Fresa Francesa opened as Hialeah’s first-ever authentic French restaurant. Adding a French touch to the largely Cuban culinary scene, La Fresa has made an important impact on Hialeah’s charming community and restaurant scene. In celebration of the upcoming Latinx Heritage Month, we revisited our conversation with Sanchez to share the remarkable story of Hialeah and one of its most beloved restaurants.
Key business takeaways
- Just because something doesn’t exist (yet) doesn’t mean there isn’t a demand for it
- Don’t try to be everything to everyone: Stick to your purpose and stay on brand
- Be available and excited to educate your customers
What inspired you to open a French restaurant in Hialeah?
I’m born and raised in Hialeah—the real Miami of Miami. I moved to California in rebellion against that and lived there for 12 years. I met my boyfriend in Los Angeles. We were working in the fine dining world of food. As my parents approached their golden years, I moved back—which I swore I never would. I used to say, “I’ll never move back to Miami, and I’ll certainly never move back to Hialeah. Duh.” So what do I do? I open up a French restaurant in Hialeah. Ta-da! Because that’s what grown-ass women do.
Growing up in Hialeah, I had the experience that this is all you get: You get Cuban food. You get Cuban sandwiches. You get pastelillos and nothing else. I didn’t try Thai food until I was 28. We had a Chinese/Cuban place that served Chinese food and Cuban food and that was as multicultural as it got here for me growing up.
How were you able to successfully introduce this kind of novelty?
I thought, there’s got to be people in this town that don’t only want to eat Cuban food, right? When people would ask us what we were doing, I’d tell them we were going to open a French restaurant. They’d be like, “Really? Really? Okay” and would try to talk us into selling more Cuban food.
I always said we need to keep this really authentic. If we were going to do French food but also rice and beans—just in case people don’t like it—it’s going to unravel. We were kind of militant about it. We are doing French, and that’s what we’re doing.
What response have you seen from your community?
The word continues to be on the street. When we’re open for dine in, we’re the little portal that transports you to some place in France. I think that word is still true, and people still talk about the restaurant like that. People come in and say things like, “I’ve been hearing about you guys for years.” We have a huge customer base that are loyal Fresa fans. They continue to come and support us. They love us. We’ve had weddings here—people have gotten married in Hialeah in this restaurant. It’s a little darling of the community, and when people discover it, it’s like their secret little spot. It’s just a little portal of love and deliciousness.
What else makes La Fresa Francesa unique?
Eating inside of this restaurant, within these walls and this environment, is such an integral part of what we do. Our food is outstanding. People are eating it in 100-degree weather outside with flies and rain. So people come for the food, but there’s also something very magical about this space. It’s really freaking cool. At the end of the day, when we provide the community with cool places to come, it’s an outstanding little city.
We created a couple of dishes that sort of give a nod to Miami. We do foie gras seared with locally made guava jam. However, it’s still very authentically French—and it took off. We had lines down the street when we first opened. It was just so overwhelming to see that, yes, people don’t only want to eat Cuban food in Hialeah.
It’s wonderful because people come here from all over the city to eat here now. I’m so blessed and grateful for that. We still have the older community that really doesn’t branch out to other parts of Miami, so they come here, and this is their little gateway to something different. I’m so proud of that. I look at my private audience of my own little girl growing up, and I’m like, “This is for you, kid. You could have had a croque-madame when you were 12 years old.”
How do you familiarize new customers with French cuisine?
We enjoy the experience of having a conversation with people here. We’ve been open a long time now. We have a regular customer base, but in the beginning, it was a lot of explaining. Particularly super duper locals that don’t even speak English. And it’s not even English—it’s freaking French. Like what’s Coq au Vin? Or what’s foie gras? People legitimately may have not experienced that in their life. So we like to have conversations with people. I love talking to people about our food and our wine.
People come here to learn. Guests come here to learn. They love that we know that stuff. They love that we can tell them what they’re drinking, what they’re eating, and how they should eat it. For example, how do you eat escargot? It’s all good. Eat it with your hands if you want, we don’t care. No one’s going to judge you—we all have those Pretty Woman moments where the escargot goes flying across the room because of the little utensils. It’s great.
Do you speak French in the restaurant?
Most of our staff is born and raised in Miami. A lot of our staff weren’t even English speaking when they started and have simultaneously learned English and French. Our first server started off as a busboy and had never even waited tables before. He’d just recently come here from Cuba and didn’t speak a word of English. This person can now not only sell you the Frenchiest thing in the world, but has learned about wine and can explain to you the story of some of the most profound, beautiful wines that we have on our list. That is so badass.
What impact has La Fresa had on the Hialeah community at large?
In terms of pushing the envelope and offering a really authentic experience, I think we certainly sort of pioneered that. We’re starting to see people push the envelope a little more. Now I see younger people opening restaurants here. Are they doing cuisine that’s not Cuban? Not necessarily, but they are doing things differently. They’re changing up the game. They’re not doing your traditional mom-and-pop Cuban restaurant. They’re giving it their own twist, their own spin. People are getting a little bit more confident and knowing that you don’t only need to do Cuban food in Hialeah. I’m so proud of how the city’s grown in even five years.
La Fresa Francesa was just one of the perspectives we soaked in to celebrate Latinx businesses. Check out these restauranteurs as they share their passion for Miami’s rich Latin community and all the deliciousness that comes with it.
Photos of La Fresa Francesa on Yelp; interview by Emily Washcovick
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