Article and Photos by Pedro Sosa Tabio (El Toque)
HAVANA TIMES – In a somewhat narrow kitchen, Yanitza del Toro grinds oats to make it into flour. “A lot of people are gluten intolerant, so I make my own flour,” she says before preparing the biscuit dough and putting the cut circles into the oven. In a corner, there are different samples of a new flavor of compote she’s trying out, that she’s still not convinced of. She has other flavors, combinations of different fruits, which she and her clients have liked.
“I have a little girl and always made everything she eats,” Yanitza says. With this whole lockdown, we spent more time at home and I began to make bigger batches, especially compotes for her. Some friends who came to visit tried them out as I was making them and commented. “This is really tasty; you should sell it because sometimes you can’t find baby food anywhere or they taste funny.”
While she has never studied anything nutrition-related, she says that she has always been interested in healthy eating, and began to research ingredients in industrial baby food. That’s when she discovered the excessive use of thickeners, colorings, flavor enhancers and other artificial ingredients that are frequently found in these products.
“A lot of the time, labels have names that you can’t understand, and sometimes they mean the things that you think aren’t in them,” Yanitza says. “They also sell you products that say “with added iron”, “with added vitamins” on the packaging. However they never put on the outside what’s inside that they don’t want you to see. Plus, if a person eats a balanced diet then they don’t need any added vitamins or iron. Only someone who doesn’t eat properly or someone with special needs because of a specific disease. Otherwise, it’s unnecessary.”
This is how she came to create her own business Maxibebe with two fundamental objectives: first, to sell baby food; and secondly, to raise awareness among the population about the value of eating natural homemade products instead of industrial ones.
“I’m waging a war against the food industry,” she jokes.
Growing in spite of raw material shortages
Yanitza lives in Havana, although she was born in Pinar del Rio where her family continues to live. To make her daughter’s food, before, she would make the most of these journeys to buy fruit from a farm that is on the way. There, she would buy papayas, bananas, guavas, whatever they had. The farmers knew her and sold everything to her fresh.
She got her supplies for her first commercial products there, still without a name for the business and without a lot of advertising. But then the pandemic came and interprovincial transport was suspended.
In July 2020, when the business kicked off as MaxiBebe – inspired by her daughter’s name Maxima – she relied on local markets in the capital’s Plaza municipality, that weren’t always well stocked and much less than the demand. “Even though you’re making a compote and the customer will never see the fruit, the product needs to look good, have a good color and smell… It’s important for me that they smell like they’ve ripened naturally.”
MaxiBebe offers products made with natural ingredients – oats, fruit, peanuts, vegetables – and low in sugar. “There’s only one tablespoon of brown sugar in every 20 cookies, for example,” Yanitza explains. Her products also have an adult audience, although her main objective and one of the most important pillars of her business is to make baby-friendly food.
Baby food was the first thing she made, but then she added more products to her list of what she sells. These include vegetable-based milk, the cookies she bakes now or peanut butter that she makes. “It isn’t hard to make, but there isn’t a blender that can keep up,” she explains while pouring peanuts into the blender.
“I’ve burned this one out three times, and I’ve had to take it to the house of a man here nearby who fixes everything, three times. I’ve had to pay to get it fixed until he put in a motor from another machine and it’s kept going ever since then, although it always heats up quite a lot.”
She was also selling lentils with vegetables, but she had to stop making it because finding this grain at stores was impossible.
Her fruit supplies are also very irregular. She might find one thing one day at the market, and then the next day they won’t have what they were selling the day before, but there’s another one. Sometimes there’s just no fruit at all. For example, in January, this problem was made worse by the winter season. As a result, there were vegetables, but no fruit. So, she sought out alternatives, like making a compote out of carrots and beets.
Oats, a key ingredient in some of her cookies and even a milk recipe, can only be bought in dollar stores. Add to this the general increase in prices after the beginning of the currency reform in January this year. “The last lot of peanuts I bought in December, cost me 40 pesos (US 1.67) per pound,” Yanitza says. “The same goes for everything. That’s why I sold very little in January, one or two batches of products and that was it,” she notes.
Maxibebe doesn’t have a physical retail space. Yanitza makes everything in her kitchen and advertises it on social media. Her customers contact her there too. Then they come to pick up products from her house or hire bicycle delivery services that she promotes on her groups online, although they don’t form part of her business.
“I would like to have a store,” the young woman explains, “because people want somewhere they can go and buy baby food, cookies or peanut butter, whenever they want. That is to say, have a space where they are always available and not having to wait for me to make them to then order them. That would make things a lot easier.” For now, I don’t see that being an option amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: “we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
What customers have to say
Yaima Riambau has a two-year-old daughter and she used to make her own food, but her work stops her from doing that now. “I’m a massage therapist and my life is quite hectic; so, Maxibebe is a perfect solution for me. There are very few options like this here in Cuba.”
Liliana Castillo, another Maxibebe customer, says, “I was very afraid in the beginning of buying something that wasn’t industrial for a baby, but I discovered a great product, made with fresh fruit and in impeccably clean packaging. I began buying baby food and the whole family ended up eating her products.”
The lack of glass jars and not being able to buy them at local stores or import them is another weak point in Yanitza’s business. She has made do with recycled jars up until now, and with the ones people give her or she buys from other people for 2 pesos each. Other times, she has jars, but no lids, because they either get lost or rusty and are no good.
When she finishes talking about the challenges she faces, she reminds us that her social media groups have grown a lot in recent months. “The family has grown,” she says, and she talks again about her dream of having a physical store and even of future branches in different provinces. Between smiles and hopes, she says yet again: “we’ll see what happens.”