Downtown Durham Cuban restaurant COPA is filing for bankruptcy

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Chef Roberto Copa Matos of COPA calls on his Spanish heritage for his distinctive presentation of the Cuban classic arroz con pollo. Following the example of paella, he first browns bone-in chicken legs and thighs skin side down in a paella pan, then turns them so that the skin remains visible above the level of the rice and chicken stock he adds to the pan.

July Leonard

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COPA, the Durham restaurant that raised more than $25,000 through crowdfunding, has filed for bankruptcy.

The restaurant owned by husband and wife team Roberto Copa Matos and Elizabeth Turnbull filed for bankruptcy on May 28 in the bankruptcy court of the Middle District of North Carolina. The owners said COPA will remain open while the restaurant goes through bankruptcy proceedings.

“This was the legal advice from our lawyers; it will avoid bankruptcy and allow us to run the business normally until we find a fair solution to the problems with the bank and other creditors. In the short term, we will keep our doors open, continue to buy supplies and make our food. .”

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In April, a GoFundMe campaign was started by friends of Matos and Turnbull, initially asking for $16,000 and eventually raising $27,000. At the time, Turnbull said the funds would prevent foreclosure and go towards legal fees for bankruptcy restructuring, rather than trying to solve the financial problems on their own.

“I wish it could be solved in a one-off moment,” Turnbull said in April. “It’s still messy and complicated, but the purpose of this was to buy us some time.”

COPA opened as one of Durham’s most distinctive restaurants, serving a pre-Revolution Cuban menu, heavily influenced by Spanish cuisine. Many of the dishes were served tapas style and the cocktail menu featured Caribbean rum.

This was the second restaurant for Matos and Turnbull, who previously owned and operated the Old Havana Sandwich Shop.

COPA was one of the best new restaurants when it opened in 2018, earning a four-star review from former News & Observer restaurant critic Greg Cox. In Durham Magazine’s most recent ‘Best of Durham’ roundup, COPA was named as one of the best restaurants overall and Matos as one of the best chefs.

Before closing Old Havana, Matos said the couple spent two years looking for a new restaurant space to purchase, ultimately purchasing the COPA space at 107 W. Main Street in Durham.

By purchasing their restaurant space, COPA’s bankruptcy scenario is somewhat different than many similar proceedings.

Matos said the bankruptcy was largely caused by a spike in interest rates on the Small Business Administration’s COPA loan, as well as a 40% drop in visitor traffic.

COPA’s debts total just over $2 million, including $1.4 million from the building’s mortgage, a $200,000 SBA loan and $116,000 in credit card debt to Chase.

The restaurant’s assets total $3 million, which is the appraised market value for COPA’s downtown Durham real estate, plus cash and $50,000 in restaurant equipment and furnishings.

Matos expects that during the course of the bankruptcy he will have to sell the restaurant building to pay off debts.

“It’s a blessing now that we have an asset that we can use,” Matos said. “We will probably have to sell the property so that we can pay our creditors.”

After that, Matos plans to continue COPA as a restaurant, either in its current space with a new landlord or relocate elsewhere in Durham or the Triangle.

“We want to serve our community and provide our team members with a safe and dignified place to work,” Matos said. “We will do our best to make that happen.”

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.