Jorge Milanes Despaigne
HAVANA TIMES — “Buddy, you’ve seen how much effort I’ve put into running a tasteful and proper business,” says Hector, a neighbor of mine who recently became self-employed, opening a cafeteria at the intersection of I and 27 street in Cojimar, a place he still hasn’t named.
“Opening a place like this and keeping it going is a risk because of the shortage of products on the market to buy. That makes it impossible to offer a quality service for more than a month.”
“I’ve seen the work you’ve gone through,” I said to him while looking at all of the effort that is condensed in the locale. “If you need help, you can count on me….for ideas, surveys or customer research. Oh, I’m also a good taster,” I added.
“This is different,” he replied. “The problem is keeping a stable menu, which I believe is important for a business like this one. It’s hard to get one’s hands on eggs, sugar, flour, the right type of bread. Sometimes, you can’t even get it “under the table.” When you’ve got cheese you’re short on flour, when you’ve got flour there’s no cheese. That’s why many people say we small business owners don’t offer a regular service. But I’m not going to give up. I’ve already got the name, El Farito (“The Lighthouse”), because of the Cojimar lighthouse,” he sentenced.
Most people who operate cafeterias, food stands or restaurants (paladares, as they are known in Cuba) rely in part on offers at the peso (CUP) or Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) retail market, as no wholesale stores yet exist. Because of this, these locales have to hunt down rice, sugar, beans, eggs, soft drinks and other products and deal with the irregularities of these markets, at least in Havana.
Some restaurants have agreements with produce and livestock cooperatives that supply part of their products, but it isn’t enough and it isn’t suited to all businesses. In addition, fish or beef shortages at State markets limits these restaurants’ menu and makes the quality of their services fluctuate.
If the owner acquires some of these products on the “black market,” either because they’re nowhere to be found or can be bought cheaper there, they place themselves at risk and under a great deal of stress, as, if any irregularities are detected by a State inspector, they will be required to pay a steep fine which will either go to the State or the inspector’s pockets (a matter that merits another post).
I’ve realized why people find it hard to make progress in Cuba. Many people open these businesses and then close them up for some time, even though the State wants to keep them open in order to tax them.