How a Leap of Faith Led Mea Leech to Puerto Rico
“Be tropical and drink responsibly,” the JungleBird cocktail menu requests of its guests. The former is much easier than the latter in the new bar from The Drawing Room alum Mea Leech and La Factoría founders Leslie Cofresí and Roberto Berdecia. Serving up not tiki drinks but a Taíno tropical style that ties itself closely to the Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean, the bar makes so much sense that it’s hard to believe it’s only been open since the end of September. Situated off the main square of La Placita de Santurce, it should be right at the top of your to-do list when visiting the island.
But how did Leech, a Michigan native who spent years in New York and Chicago, end up in the tropics? While putting her accounting degree to use in New York, she went into bartending out of a love for hospitality, eventually moving back to Michigan to help open bars there. In 2011, an apprenticeship opportunity with Charles Joly at The Drawing Room in Chicago brought her into the world of craft cocktails, and she became a master bartender under his tutelage.
It was in 2014 that she started traveling to Puerto Rico, inspired by industry friends who told her she had to visit La Factoría in Old San Juan — then the city’s only cocktail bar — and fell in love. “I met those guys [Cofresí and Berdecia] and we just all instantly hit it off and became like a family. I was visiting every three or four months,” Leech says. She was ready to make the leap into ownership around this time, but felt that the saturated Chicago market couldn’t handle it and was considering a move back to New York. “But then Leslie and Roberto got me,” she laughs.
Leech had mentioned her idea for a tropical concept, expressing total disbelief that nothing of its kind existed on the island yet, which she describes as “a haven” for it. On one visit in late 2015, she was shown the space the bar currently occupies and knew it was perfect, but someone already had a contract for it. Once back in Chicago, though, she got a call: “The space is available. Pack your bags.”
And now the bar is already making a splash. “I really think it's going to be wildly successful,” she says. “It's been a great month already.” Cheeky yet refined drinks like the Nooner 2.0, which features Don Q Añejo, Woodford Reserve, Licor 43, strawberry-infused Campari, ginger, and hibiscus, perfectly toe the line of accessibility and nuance. She’s also focused on using as many local ingredients as possible. “We have a coconut guy that, like, climbs a tree for them,” Leech laughs, and they use every part of it: from the cream, to the water, to the meat that gets dehydrated and set on fire to create a coconut scent that permeates the air. Fresh guava and guanabana are sourced from the nearby market in La Placita.
Opening a bar on the island is not all coconuts and Campari, though. “This is by far the biggest move I’ve ever made,” she explains. “Even though it's technically a U.S. territory, you're living in a new country.” Getting ingredients she once took for granted has proven challenging, as well. “There are several key cocktail components that I can't get, like Green Chartreuse and Pimm's — really common ingredients in the States that are just not available because of distribution,” she explains, “and with the Jones Act, everything has to come off a U.S. boat, so anything that we import would have to go through the United States and then come back down. I mean, just keeping supply here is so challenging.”
She’s seeing it through, though, and is happy to be a part of a burgeoning cocktail movement. “In 2014 when I came, La Factoría was the only cocktail bar and I went there every single night,” she says. “Now in Old San Juan, there are like ten in a four-block radius.” Outside of that area, too, “there are just a million little babies popping up. It's super cool and the talent on the island is incredible. Everyone here is just so passionate.”
Even though JungleBird is brand-new, Leech has more ideas for concepts she sees doing well on the island. If this bar is any indication, start saving up for plane tickets now.