The shopping center space Kool Korner Sandwiches occupies on Highway 31 housed several businesses before the restaurant’s arrival—businesses that couldn’t seem to keep a steady audience. But Kool Korner has no such trouble.
What’s the key to their steady stream of diners? The classic Cuban sandwich made with roasted pork, ham, pickles, Swiss cheese, mayo and mustard. What’s their secret? Owner Ildefonso Ramirez will never give specifics, but it has something to do with the flavors of his childhood and early adulthood in Cuba. “It’s not just a piece of pork I put in the oven,” he says. “I inject the Cuban flavor into the pork. That way when you eat the sandwich the pork is full of flavor. [It’s] not just [the] ham and cheese, the pork gives it a different flavor unlike any other sandwich.”
Ildefonso believes one of the main reasons customers continue to come to Kool Korner is the consistency in the sandwich’s flavor and texture. He uses bread from the same bakery in Atlanta that supplied a restaurant he owned there, and his recipes never change. But perhaps the biggest key to the consistency in food is the consistency of Ildefonso himself.
“I’m here every day,” he says. Customers shake his hand as he walks through the restaurant, and he greets all customers with a smile. It’s a priority to ensure every customer is satisfied. “I tell you something, I don’t put anything wrong in the sandwiches,” he says. “I don’t use anything old. It’s always fresh. I check everything in order to have no complaints or make anyone sick.”
In fact, everything on the Kool Korner menu is the product of his lifelong passion for cooking: “[They are] my recipes. No copy exists. I like to cook. [When] I was a boy I had two hobbies: baseball and to cook. I would invent dishes and [cook] things.”
While Kool Korner has been in its Vestavia Hills location for a little over a year, its story starts 40 years ago in Cuba. Ildefonso was originally a chemist for a rayon company before relocating his family to Spain to avoid living under Fidel Castro’s rule in Cuba. After Spain he moved to Miami. Work in the chemistry field was hard to come by there, so he started working in a small grocery store. “Nobody wants a chemist over 50 years old,” he says with a laugh. “Everybody wants someone young to teach them.”
In Miami he suggested the grocery start selling Cuban sandwiches to bring in more patrons since he’d seen what a large Latin American population was around them. Word of mouth spread, and soon customers fell in love with the his specially crafted pork, ham and cheese sandwiches.
In 1985, Ildefonso and his wife, Lucia, moved to Atlanta after their son received a grant to attend Georgia Tech, where they opened Kool Korner Grocery to continue to sell Ildefonso’s famous sandwiches. “I [made] probably 400 sandwiches every day,” Ildefonso estimates. Kool Korner Grocery operated for 21 years until Ildefonso closed the doors in 2006, three years after his wife passed away from a heart attack.
After moving to Birmingham to be closer to his son, Ildefonso began working on opening the next Kool Korner location. In 2009, Kool Korner Sandwiches opened in the Vestavia Hills City Center. It remained in that location for six years, slowly garnering a strong fan base from the locals. They added variations of the Cuban style sandwich and non-sandwich fare such as soups and empanadas to the menu too—which you can still find at their newest location on 31.
Whatever the secrets to his Cuban may be, it is clear that Ildefonso and his sandwiches have won over the community. The walls of the restaurant are adorned with accolades and letters from thankful patrons, including some who followed him from Atlanta. Ildefonso is thankful for every praise and happy customer, and while the restaurant is doing well, he says more business is always welcome.
“I hope everyone likes what I’m making,” he says. All signs point to him having nothing to worry about.