Two Pastry Shops in Old Havana

Interview with the owner Katia Bianchini

By Irina Pino

The La Bianchini shop on Sol Street in Old Havana.
The La Bianchini pastry shop on Sol Street in Old Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — A cozy ambiance, soothing background music, a place where friends can meet and talk, people can read and imagine they’re somewhere in Paris or a city in Italy. A place where the aroma of sweets, tea and coffee surround us in a beguiling cloud.

Katia Bianchini is half-Italian, half-Swiss. She has been living in Cuba for 10 years and has since opened two pastry shops that carry her surname. One is located on Sol street, between Avenida del Puerto and Oficios. The other stands on Callejon del Chorro, on Old Havana’s Cathedral plaza.

No private pastry shop where one could enjoy some desserts and good old teas and coffees had existed in Old Havana since the 1990s. Some Cubans still remember the notorious Tea Houses that existed then. There were two in Old Havana and one on 23 and G, in Havana’s neighborhood of Vedado. Long lines of people would wait outside those establishments, where people went to have tea and sweets and chat with friends.

HT: How did your family come to live in Cuba?

KB: My father is a scientist who was working at the Center for Nuclear Engineering in Geneva in the 1960s. His name is Enrique Nuñez Jimenez. He was invited to attend a gathering of artists and intellectuals held in Cuba. After visiting the country several times, he decided to move there with his whole family. He started working at the Cuban Academy of Sciences as an advisor, and my mother got a job at Prensa Latina newspaper, as a translator.

The Bianchini pastry shop.

HT: That means you studied in Cuba?

KB: I studied junior high school [at the rural boarding school] Ceiba del Agua. Then I enrolled at a pedagogic institute and stayed as a teacher. I have a university degree in Physics. I followed in my father’s footsteps, though I was a teacher for a brief period of time.

HT: Did your first jobs have anything to do with cooking?

KB: No. I started working at the first Italian firms that set up camp in Cuba in the 80s. I was a secretary and translator, as I was fluent in Italian and French.

HT: How did the idea of opening up a pastry shop come about?

KB: My mother taught me to make pastries when I was small. She had worked in a pastry shop as a teenager. At home, we had a tradition of baking bread, whole-wheat cookies, croissants…My parents taught me to follow a natural diet. At first, I only cooked for my kids. Later, as the wife of a concert musician, I was frequently attending social gatherings and ended up being the person that took dessert to those soirees.

HT: Do you buy the ingredients here or are they sent to you from abroad?

KB: Friends bring me the tea from France. They’re organic teas. I get my coffee at Old Havana’s Escorial coffee shop. I don’t need that much flour, because we make small pastries to go with tea or coffee. Independent manufacturers supply with me with butter and eggs.

HT: How did you choose what pastries to make?

Pastries at the Bianchini shop.
Pastries at the Bianchini shop.

KB: The pastries are from Central European, Swiss, French and Austrian cultures. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t see a croissant in Spain or Italy. Today, they’re everywhere.

HT: How have you adjusted the prices to Cuba?

KB: At the beginning, we had a menu with twice as many items as we do today (we only have 15 today). The selection process was natural. We began by decanting those products which meant losses. I have some business sense, I managed a project for many years.

HT: Are your establishments aimed at a certain income group? I see diligent personnel here…where are your employees from?

KB: I compared myself to the State pastry shops (Silvain, San Jose and others). I am in fact more affordable than they are. I have a team, a whole group of people devoted to doing something different. They are young people who work in their spare time. Nearly all of them are university graduates. I control quality. If someone lets me down in the kitchen or makes a mistake, I make decisions. However, almost everyone who’s started here are still with me. We’re very excited.

HT: The logo is a cat. I’ve been seeing cats everywhere here.

KB: We were raised with pets. I came up with a brand, mapped out the colors for the shop, the decoration, the furniture. My son, who’s a designer and photographer, did the logo. I told him: “I need the image of a cat holding an ear of wheat. It had to be a gluttonous and hospitable cat.

HT: Have you not considered making pastries for vegetarians?

KB: My aspiration is to make pastries for all lifestyles. There are whole diets without proteins or eggs. The problem is that we can’t get our hands on whole wheat. I have to wait for products to stabilize. Some of our sweets have no egg in them, like the ginger cookies and the croissants.

The menu.
The menu.

HT: How do you advertise yourselves?

KB: My son made me a web-page. I’m fairly cautious, my stores are small and I don’t have much elbow room to move. The La Mesa website discovered us and made us some advertising offers.

HT: The shop on Sol Street has much lower prices than the other…

KB: Some prices are lower, yes. In the more distant part of the city, prices tend to be lower.

HT: These shops could become literary centers or places people go to relax.

KB: The smallest Bianchini shop is also a speech therapy center. That brings many people to the shop. We had a foreign visitor come to the store every day for a whole month. He would write notes in a notebook and ask for the same cup of coffee and pastry. His second to last day in the city, he asked to meet me. He told me he never once noticed a change in the quality of what he had there. That’s the best compliment anyone’s made me. The man writes cook books.

HT: How many kinds of tea do you serve?

KB: We have black, green and roibo tea (the tea of lovers), a tea without teaine seasoned with cinnamon, almonds and apples. I would like to partner up with someone who has an aromatic herb garden, create a bouquet of Cuban herbs, a digestive bouquet.

HT: I see you offer a varity of pastries.

KB: Yes. We have soufflés, Nutella choux, muffins, cookies, ginger cookies, tres leches cake, Katia cake (this is a chocolate cake I’ve been making for ten years and have adapted to local tastes), croissants and others.

HT: Is your hard work paying off?

KB: I feel very encouraged by our performance. The rest of the team also feels that way. They have dreams, they want to do things. There’s a shared feeling of working together towards something.

HT: Thank you and best of luck.

11 thoughts on “Two Pastry Shops in Old Havana

  • I agree with you. My point is that every baker deserves the opportunity to become as big or as small an operation as they choose. In Cuba, that opportunity does not exist, unless your last name is Castro.

  • Agreed. But everyone deserves the opportunity to choose. The Castros have taken that level of ‘success’ away from all Cubans except themselves and a privileged few around them.

  • Moses not everyone wants to be another “Mrs. Field’s”, Some people are content to just make a living not become millionaires!

  • Not every baker wants to become a large scale cookie manufacturer. Some are happy to simply run a profitable shop on their own. If Katia is able to do so in Havana, that’s wonderful. The question arises whether the government will decide one day to shut her down or tax her to death. Let’s hope she and other small business owners in Cuba are allowed to thrive.

  • In 2008, Mrs. Field’s Cookies filed chapter 11. They survived but certainly not a stellar success story. The fact remains that Cuba is and must change and this story gives us some insight and perhaps light at the end of the tunnel.

  • What can I say, its a gift. “Mrs. Field’s” chocolate-chip cookies started in 1977 in a similar fashion in Palo Alto, California. Just someone making cookies. Now, 37 years later, it is an international business with operations in 23 countries. Katia deserves the same chance to succeed.

  • You have to admit, if Cuba was a normal country, a shop like this would not be remarkable. The most interesting thing about this shop is that it exists at all in Cuba.

  • Wow you really know how to put a negative spin on everything…… Anything to put down those Castro’s UH..

  • This sounds like a nice business idea and Katia sounds like she is willing to work hard to make her shops successful. What happens if her shops are really successful? What if lines form out the doors to buy her Katia cake? Can she be assured that she will be able to buy the eggs and flour she will need to meet the demand? What if her oven breaks down or simply she decides she needs bigger ones. Is there a wholesale restaurant supply that can meet her needs? Will she have to continue to rely on family and friends abroad to send her care packages of tea or can she buy direct for the foreign manufacturer and import her needs. The point here is that a ‘little capitalism’ simply does not work. At least not at its optimum best. In the most successful situations in Cuba, the entrepreneur is handcuffed to Socialist paranoia that private business success is a bad thing. It would appear that the Castros believe that limiting private businesses will prevent Cubans from growing economically independent. Economic independence is just one step removed from demanding political freedom and the dictatorship can not abide political freedom in any form. I am heartened that Katia seems prosperous, even if her roots are not exactly “Cuban”. Cuba, as a whole, however, can not achieve prosperity solely based on these kinds of micro-businesses. National prosperity will only come if the reins are loosened to allow good ideas to grow to national and even international levels.

  • Just looks so peaceful and relaxing.. All I want to do is sit with some coffee and enjoy… 🙂

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