The Cafeteria at 23rd and F in Havana

Osmel Almaguer

The Doña Laura cafeteria in Vedado, Havana.
The Doña Laura cafeteria in Vedado, Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — “Doña Laura” is a privately-owned cafe that’s very successful right now. It’s located on F Street, between 21st and 23rd streets, in Havana’s downtown Vedado district.

I remember when it opened several years ago. Back then they only sold sandwiches and soft drinks. Now it’s probably one of the best places to eat in a several mile radius, better than other private operations or state-run restaurants, regardless of the type of food they serve.

Its dishes consist of acceptable quantities of reasonably priced and well-seasoned Creole food. It’s only troublesome features — details that confine it to the status of “cafeteria” — is that it doesn’t have waiters and the food has to be eaten standing up.

You have to go up to the counter to place your order and then pick up your food there, which you have to eat and/or drink at other bars set up for those purposes. The owners are there on site, controlling the work of the employees, who handle the food carefully and agilely.

The service is fast, no matter how complicated the order. This is why every time I’m in the area with an appetite and enough money, I stop by “Doña Laura’s” – where I always leave satisfied.

For years living on a rice and beans diet, Doña Laura’s menu is very special.

Most food-service operations in Havana can’t measure up to its variety of dishes. Even when its competitors provide good service, either their prices are too high or the hygiene and the quality of their meals are poor. But none of that happens at “Doña Laura.”

Not far from there, simple milkshakes are sold for 25 pesos (about 1$ USD), sandwiches for 35 pesos and a light meal for 60.

With that same amount of money, at the “Doña Laura” cafeteria one can order a plate of “congri” rice and beans with shredded beef, a moderately-sized mixed salad, root vegetables, a tamale, two fried eggs, a plate of yuca (cassava) and chicharrones (pork skins), and two glasses of guava juice.

I’m not particularly interested in praising the work of any specific individual(s), but I do like to note it when things that are done in a quality manner, because despite all the changes being made in the regard, most are still poor.

At “Doña Laura,” lots of students take care of their lunch problem without having to spend 60 pesos. With only 18, one can order a tamale (in leaves or a casserole), along with a fried egg and a glass of guava juice. Undoubtedly, that’s a better lunch than the classic little plate of rice and beans.

“Doña Laura” sells large quantities of food every day. It charges the prices I mentioned, but I’m sure it turns a healthy profit.

My question is: If they are in fact making such profits, why can’t a government owned café offer a similar menu with good quality and even better prices?

 

osmel

Osmel Almaguer:Until recently I would to identify myself as a poet, a cultural promoter and a university student. Now that my notions on poetry have changed slightly, that I got a new job, and that I have finished my studies, I’m forced to ask myself: Am I a different person? In our introductions, we usually mention our social status instead of looking within ourselves for those characteristics that define us as unique and special. The fact that I’m scared of spiders, that I’ve never learned to dance, that I get upset over the simplest things, that culminating moments excite me, that I’m a perfectionist, composed but impulsive, childish but antiquated: these are clues that lead to who I truly am.

11 thoughts on “The Cafeteria at 23rd and F in Havana

  • February 26, 2013 at 4:18 pm
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    Wait a minute. Wasn’t this the same author that said Back women police women in Havana were prostitutes?

    Now we have another of his old Reagan lines about how “Government IS the problem!”

    Instead of the FALSE DILEMMA between inefficient state-run small businesses and inequitable capitalist operations (the slippery slope), what about cooperatives as an efficient/equitable alternative.

    [And please, NO tired responses from the full-time USAID bloggers that have flooded this site]

    Reply
    • February 26, 2013 at 7:25 pm
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      False dilemma? Did you miss the part where he described a real privately run restaurant and compared it to any number of real state run cafeterias in Havana? That’s not false, that’s reality. As for a co-operatively run cafeteria, well, they might provide a good quality meal too. Are there any you actually know about in Cuba?

      Reply
    • February 26, 2013 at 10:03 pm
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      What is it about socialists and socialism that always seeks to stifle free speech? What is really ‘tired’ is the insistence by some socialists to continue to promote a system that has never worked on a national level and is riddled with a history full of dictatorships, totalitarians and human rights abuses.

      Reply
    • February 27, 2013 at 11:23 am
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      This is definitely not a “false dilemma.” I spent 4 months as a student in Havana in 2010 and ate at this place every day for lunch because it was so much better than any of the other options nearby, including several state-run places. In fact, if you’ve spent any amount of time in Cuba, you know that privately owned businesses are much better in terms of quality and service than almost any state-run business (there are exceptions, of course – El Aljibe, an amazing state-run restaurant in Miramar, comes to mind).

      Reply
  • February 26, 2013 at 9:58 pm
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    Thanks for the review. I am going to spend at least a week in Havana soon and I look forward to trying this place out. Assuming the basic ingredients used to cook the food at this restaurant are the same available to other restaurants and the food advertised on the menu is also available in one place or another, then the only difference is the attitude and work ethic of the owner and staff. Few socialist-minded service-oriented businesses can hold a candle to businesses motivated by profit and free enterprise. Where government does policing and prisons at an advantage, just about everything else is better done when the owner has a personal vested interest in succeeding and varied competition to keep prices reasonable. Cooperatives can be equally successful but only when they are free to respond to market competition quickly and effectively. Until recently and maybe even now, the Castros were contemptuous of successful businesses. It was not uncommon for the few licensed paladares and casa particulares to deny or disguise their success so as to avoid scrutiny. In fact, TOO successful businesses ran the risk of being accused of “illegal enrichment” and shut down if there were too many customers all the time or too many tourists who wanted to rent rooms. Just last year, the Castros shut down a completely legal and licensed business called “Opera from the street” and it is largely believed it was because they were the most successful business in their niche. Until this anti-success mindset is eliminated, even otherwise successful businesses like the restaurant highlighted in this post will have some reason to underperform.

    Reply
  • February 27, 2013 at 11:43 am
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    Wow… they pay for travel too? I wonder what the per diem is.

    Reply
  • February 27, 2013 at 3:24 pm
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    I would like to ask the same question as well. I’m not really trying to enter an ideological debate here – there may be valid reasons to prefer private or cooperative ownership. However I really can’t see why a government owned cafe or restaurant couldn’t function equally well.

    If we take something like Starbucks for an example. Anyone working in a given branch including the manager is pretty far from any profits the company make. The manager also has very little control over the food, the decor, the uniforms etc. All he or she is paid is to run the place smoothly and if people start not going there and the money starts drying up, he or she may be replaced or the place closed. If on the other hand if things go well he or she (possibly) may get a pay rise or promotion to area manager. Couldn’t the same apply to a government run cafe/restaurant.

    Even the issue of competition isn’t precluded by being government owned. I mean you could have competition between two government owned cafe/restaurants and rewards are provided to the one that is more profitable. Could it be that they aren’t putting the correct people in charge and not rewarding / punishing in an effective enough way rather than the actual ownership?

    Reply
    • March 1, 2013 at 10:48 pm
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      You wrote that the manager of a Starbucks franchise has little control over the quality of the food served. In fact, the manager of a franchise has zero control over the quality or menu. All that is set by corporate hq.

      I much prefer an independent “mom & pop” operation over any chain. The personal, human touch makes all the difference.

      In Cuba, there are no corporate chains, but that role is filled by the state cafeterias which serve bland food badly. The paladars are the mom & pop operations and they provide better meals and great service because their restaurant is “Their baby”. Ownership matters.

      Reply
      • March 3, 2013 at 1:58 pm
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        I prefer the independent “mom & pop” restaurant over any chain as well. I’m not arguing against the benefits of the personal touch.

        I’m comparing the state owned restaurants to the corporate chains because they are similar in scale are centralized and where individual managers have zilch control. So the why can’t they operate on a par with a corporate chain such as pizza express?

        A similar thing has baffled me as well. A Vietnamese friend told me how the state farms in Vietnam used to never sack any worker however badly or lazy they were. Why?

        Reply
  • February 28, 2013 at 1:37 am
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    It is the attitude of the workers themselves – whether they desire to do a good job for the sake of it, ie take pride in their work (whatever it is, whether working in a restaurant, building a house, journalism, medicine) or whether they do the minimum required to get paid, without caring about the quality of the product they produce. It has nothing to do with governments, and everything to do with individual attitude and responsibility, and it is not confined to Cuba, or to any particular political ideology – you can find the same slack work practices in any country, as well as the same quality ones. Incentive does NOT have to be financial – that is a capitalist myth. Personal satisfaction at a job well-done can be equally gratifying, whether you are a socialist, a capitalist, or whatever.

    Reply

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