The legacy

Wanda de Paz-Ibanez & son, Diego Ibanez


Wanda de Paz-Ibanez and her son, Diego Ibanez, at their family restauraunt, Emiliano’s Cafe.

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 2:49 p.m.

For more than a quarter century, Wanda de Paz-Ibanez has chased a dream.

Facts

Downtown affiliation: Co-owners of Emiliano’s Café, 7 SE First Ave.
Their contributions to downtown: Since opening in 1984, Emiliano’s has become a signature stop for downtown diners.
What they expect to see next: Retail businesses to serve a growing market of young professionals who live and work in the downtown area.

After completing graduate studies in California in the early 1980s, de Paz-Ibanez and husband, Jorge Ibanez, decided to leave the academic life behind. They moved from Santa Barbara to Gainesville and opened a bakery. Their families were aghast.

For two years, they operated a small bakery on West University Avenue across from Central Florida Office Plus. But it couldn’t contain their dream.

“We wanted to be downtown. We wanted to be someplace that had character,” de Paz-Ibanez recalls. “And of course we had no idea what we were doing.”

When they relocated to Southeast First Avenue in 1984, downtown was a ghost town, de Paz-Ibanez says.

“This building had been empty for 15 years. On this street were Lafitte’s, Joanne Ling’s art gallery and Cox Furniture. Around the corner were Lillian’s and Mike’s Book Store,” she says.

Emiliano’s opened to initial success, offering baked goods and sandwiches. Jorge Ibanez did the baking.

Later, they grew into the space next door and expanded their menu, as well. de Paz-Ibanez’ mother, Aracelis de Paz, and sister, Alida de Paz, created a menu that revolved around family favorites from Puerto Rico. That menu has evolved into a signature cuisine de Paz-Ibanez calls “Pan-Latin,” with dishes from the Caribbean, Spain and Mexico.

“Our dream was that at some point we would walk out the front door and look down the street at a row of sidewalk cafes, with many different restaurants happily living next to each other. And that’s what we have today. It paid to be so stubborn in our commitment to a place with character,” de Paz-Ibanez says.

Diego Ibanez, the couple’s first child, is now a co-owner of Emiliano’s.

Mother and son have slightly different views of why they’ve survived for 28 years.

Diego Ibanez believes it’s because Emiliano’s has constantly been able to reinvent itself. Having worked so hard to create a brand and family name, the de Paz-Ibanez family could not let it all go, even in times when downtown’s boom was more of a bust.

Often, he says, he’s seen his parents “eat rice and beans, so that in the good times, we could eat steak.”

“After 20 years, you have succeeded,” he told them. “It’s a time when some businesses shut their doors because the owners have other things they want to do.”

Instead, Emiliano’s Cafe has continued to evolve.

Diego Ibanez has stepped in and given Emiliano’s a new start. His father Jorge has left baking behind for a position at Santa Fe College. He also happily devotes himself to art. Many of the paintings lining the café’s brick walls are his.

“We’ve already won the race, now we’ll see how far we can run,” says his son. “We will be in downtown for a very long time.”

Diego Ibanez, who heads the Gainesville Downtown Owners and Tenants group, or GDOT, has his own vision for the future of downtown. Its cornerstone is the development of Innovation Square on the former site of Alachua General Hospital. As companies fill the space at Innovation Square, he expects the influx of employees to fuel new downtown growth.

Through his work with GDOT, Diego Ibanez says he recognizes that businesses are willing to invest more than just a storefront downtown.

“There is now a united front when approaching the city for events and investment in downtown, rather than one person speaking to benefit their own interest,” he says.

He’s seen a change in city government’s attitude to growth, as well. What’s needed, he says, are more retail businesses that will establish a downtown shopping district. And with a customer base of young professionals with disposable income who want to live and work downtown, he predicts “someone is going to see that the market is there.”

In Diego Ibanez’s view, people haven’t been leaving Gainesville right after college, as in years past. They’re staying on to work. And companies are coming here to take advantage of that talent pool.

He foresees a renaissance similar to that in Winter Park, with high-end retail (a Gap or Banana Republic, he suggests) bolstered by boutiques that capture the more bohemian flavor of downtown.

“I like the lifestyle that you can have in Gainesville, with its balance of sharp academic minds and the relaxed pace of life that is endemic of the South,” Diego Ibanez says.

And he expects Emiliano’s to continue in its role as one of the little gems that helps downtown Gainesville renew and transform itself.

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