Interview with a Cuban Coffee Vendor

Jose Armando Cabrera Soler, 51 years old, sells coffee at a bus terminal in Pinar del Rio

Osmel Almaguer

HAVANA TIMES — Soler’s business shouldn’t be something “out of this world”, but, in a society like ours, it is. Where a good service and quality products are few and far between and individual initiatives are often frustrated by an economic and legal apparatus that, despite all its talk, takes one step forward and two steps back, businesses like Soler’s are not only “out of this world” but also worthy of recognition.

Why? Because his menu includes five varieties of coffee, all of top quality and at prices that are affordable for most, between one and three Cuban pesos each (5 to 15 cents USD). His operation is hygienic and comfortable, even though it is a travelling stand, and Soler treats his customers with kindness, convinced of the importance of his services.

We approached him keen on finding out more about the peculiarities of his business, ensuring our questions did not interfere with his work. Several customers approached the stand in the course of the interview.

HT: How long has your business been in operation for?

Jose Armando Cabrera Soler: We started about a year and four months ago – it’s me and my wife, who’s a doctor but helps me a lot with this. It was difficult at first. People weren’t buying the other kinds of coffee, just the straight espresso. I even gave away free samples so that customers could taste them. Little by little, I managed to establish myself this way.

HT: Most other establishments have a fairly slim menu. Where did the idea of offering so many varieties of coffee come from, and why did you not settle for selling your products at your house?

JACS: I got the idea from an episode of the Spanish TV series Viajeros Callejeros (“Street Travellers”). Then, someone gave me a book with over 50 recipes as a gift. I decided which were the most suited to my business on the go. We felt it was better to have a travelling stand, because we could reach more customers this way. Going up to customers is one of the things I enjoy most about this work – it is a kind of occupational perk for me.

HT: Was getting your license easy?

JACS: I had to offer proof that I was going to meet sanitary requirements. Look, in this suitcase I have water mixed with chlorine and soap. Here, in this bag, you can throw away the cup you used. I have two of each product. As you can see, I don’t produce any solid waste that can damage the environment.

HT: It’s curious you don’t shout out your offer. How do you draw customers?

JACS: The best form of advertising is to have a corporate image [Soler proudly points to his uniform, and the Café Soler brand emblazoned on his stand and utensils]. Beyond that, the quality of the product is what guarantees steady customers. So, as you see, one needn’t go around shouting anything.

HT: Who are your customers?

JACS: Mostly bus passengers and drivers. Also people who drive collective taxis to Havana and other places in Pinar del Rio province, as well as truck drivers (who carry more passengers for a lower price). These usually have the more expensive varieties: the cappuccinos, mochas and caramel coffees, while young people and the public in general, who have less money, tend to prefer the simple espressos.

HT: What is their opinion about your services?

JACS: It’s curious: some have developed a taste for coffee over time. They talk about the digestive benefits of coffee and say it helps them heighten their sense of taste without affecting their stomach. As you know, our coffee (the one typically consumed in Cuba, which is mixed with high proportions of ground chick peas) is strong. What’s more, my customers are like my bosses. Sometimes, they complain when I don’t come or arrive late.

HT: How much coffee do you sell on a daily basis?

JACS: Between 110 and 120 cups. I get up at four in the morning and start at six. I’m done at around ten in the morning. Coffee drinkers usually have their coffee in the morning.

HT: Do you have any plans of expanding your business, growing, selling coffee in the afternoon, for instance?

JACS: The most important thing is to be able to guarantee quality. This is all I can do with the resources I have at the moment. This is merely something I do for a living, it’s my livelihood. It allows me to satisfy my material needs. Not everything is about money. One has to satisfy one’s own needs in addition to those of the customer.

HT: Have you had any problems with your travelling stand?

JACS: I had a few at first. The bus terminal management considered me something of an oddball when I started. Then, they adapted and confirmed the quality of my product themselves. Now, everyone respects me and many have become customers. It’s a question of adding, not subtracting.

HT: What would you improve in your business if you had the chance?

JACS: I feel fine this way. What I want is to have the time to continue working.

5 thoughts on “Interview with a Cuban Coffee Vendor

  • Great story and kudo’s to JAC’S for not only remaining in Cuba to change the insane economic culture but to show what hard work and sacrifice can achieve. It’s so easy for those who left Cuba to criticize every aspect of change but to JAC
    my respect and thanks. To all tourists who visit, a cup of coffee from this man
    would probably be most appreciated.

  • I heard, that he is making espressos with Expobar Lever.

  • Love, love, love this story. This success story could be set in any part of the world. And many of us that have started our own business because we thought we had a good idea, with little, or no formal training, and walked through the fears to make it succeed, can relate. Note how Jose has crafted his specialized tools for selling his product, the very neat and trim portable cafe cart and tools…it is simply genius! And to brand himself with his professional attire is brilliant, especially when most street vendors don’t set themselves apart in this area. Jose identified a market for his product and focused on it like a laser beam, and he’s personable…wow, I’m so impressed. And in closing, senor Osmel Almaguer, if you’re able to connect with Jose, please tell him he is admired by a brother to his north. Blessings, Charles

  • Jose has the right idea and the driving spirit to be a success. This interview is uplifting as his fresh coffee. Very nice!

    And best of luck to this Cuban entrepreneur!

  • What a nice story. It is this simple entrepreneurial spirit that is most critical to rescuing the Cuban economy. Unfortunately, the Castro regime has spent 55 years oppressing this spirit, and replacing it with a centralized and planned economy that has proven time and again to be a failure.

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