On a recent January evening, tourists and a few Habaneros sat under a palm frond canopy sipping rum cocktails, listening to a live band playing Cuban folk songs — and eating notoriously difficult-to-procure lobster, a special of the day.
California Cafe, a paladar, or newly legal, privately owned restaurant in a country where the state has controlled almost all businesses for the past half century, is owned by a couple who met in San Francisco. Paver Core Broche is Cuban, Shona Baum is American, and they decided to return to Havana to open a restaurant in February 2015, not long after the regulations for private businesses started loosening.
“In some ways it was really easy,” Baum says about the process of opening a paladar in Havana. “You can’t even open a coffee cart in San Francisco without a million permits and tons of money, and here… we bought the space, and applied for a license, and it didn’t take that long.”
But in Cuba, most businesses can’t simply call up a bulk vendor or wholesaler purveyor to place a produce order, since most means of production are controlled by the government. The country uses two currencies, Cuban convertible pesos (CUCs) and Cuban pesos (CUPs), the former tied to the U.S. dollar and known as the “tourist currency,” the latter, valued at 1/25th of the CUC, used by the government to pay its oversized labor force. (Paladares and private businesses might charge in either.) Running a restaurant can be complicated in the best of situations, but it’s especially challenging in a country most aspects of daily life are tightly regulated — and where much of the economy operates a la izquierda, or “on the left.”
As California Cafe grew, both Baum (who works the front of the house) and Broche (who cooks) had to learn to navigate the labyrinth of sourcing food and supplies in a place where the state-run corner bodega might have 100 imported fruit cakes on the shelf but no toilet paper. Baum says the reality in Cuba is that product availability is sporadic. “When they have mayonnaise, they have three million [jars of] mayonnaise, and then it’s gone and they have three million of something else,” she says.
To find many necessary items — from condiments to serving plates — one has to travel around the city visiting various markets. That process can quickly become time-consuming, and Broche and Baum hired a full-time person to help with sourcing. They also rent a storeroom to stockpile enough nonperishables to last a few weeks of service, and they plan their menu around ingredients that are usually available. The result is a style they call “Californian-Cuban fusion,” with vegetable-heavy dishes like pork and vegetable “California” skewers.
But the inconsistent availability of products is only one aspect of sourcing that makes operating a paladar a complicated endeavor in Havana. The other is the persistence of a la izquierda — the Cuban black market. There are many ingredients and products needed by restaurants that are either illegal to buy or else often expensive or scarce, such as lobster or non-processed cheese. And staples like toilet paper, vinegar, and beer can also suddenly become hard to find, or “esta perdido,” (literally “it’s lost”), Baum says. Numerous restaurant owners note that if they want to stay in business, they have to buy certain things a la izquierda.
The Cuban black market works in many ways to circumvent the government’s control of goods. One is the common — and complicated — practice of state-owned-store employees holding back certain goods to sell a la izquierda, while accepting pay-offs for other goods — procured illegally by individuals — to be sold in their shop instead. The government has strict regulations on the sale of almost every food sourced, from seafood to coffee to tomatoes, setting the harvest goals and prices for each farmer or fisherman and prohibiting the sale of excess through private channels. To make extra money, almost any person within the supply chain might reserve products to be sold at a price he or she dictates.
Buying products a la izquierda is so integrated into daily Cuban life that it often does not look much different than most other transactions to the average non-Cuban — these sales aren’t all happening in dark alleys with secret handshakes. Rather, there is a complex system of bribery and separate record-keeping that many employees of both state- and private-run businesses take part in.
Both Alexi and a former military cook, Marcus, who lives in Santiago de Cuba, attribute this in part to the government prioritizing state-run restaurants and hotels when they distribute the best-quality food. “If I have a good paladar, then that means people are going to eat at my paladar and they are not going to be a good customer for the government,” Marcus says. “That’s [the government’s] loss, and they don’t want that.” Marcus is currently attending a military cooking school, but hopes to soon work in a tourist hotel and eventually own his own restaurant, a dream that wouldn’t have been possible just a few years ago.
Paladares were technically legalized in the 1990s, partially in reaction to a mass poisoning in an illegal restaurant, when a cook accidentally added rat poison to the food. However, they were highly regulated, and it was difficult to obtain their required permits until the 2011 economic reforms under Raúl Castro’s leadership. These reforms made opening paladares much easier — and in 2016, the government announced plans to ease other private ownership laws as well, paving the way for individuals to open a variety of private businesses.
These changes, along with the revised laws allowing United States citizens to more easily travel and send money to the island, have helped the number of paladares swell. After President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in mid-2015, U.S. tourism to the countryhit an all-time high, with 615,000 travelers visiting Cuba from the U.S. in 2016.
However, the support for this quickly growing class of business has not been enough to sustain them, particularly as competition increases. There have been reports of food shortages for locals in part due to the demand of private restaurants (although some Cubans are equally quick to blame farmer strikes and government disorganization over the emerging private sector). Leo, one of the owners of the popular Havana paladar Havana Blue, has noted the number of paladares that have already come and gone in his quickly changing city. “There are some that open and then close,” he says. “Not because of lack of demand. It’s also bad management. Many people don’t have the foggiest idea because they have never run a restaurant before.”
The government, for its part, has made some effort to support paladares, at least in gesture. It opened a version of a wholesale market, but multiple paladar owners question its usefulness. The prices aren’t any cheaper than a retail market, and availability is still often unpredictable. “People pull up and the beer is gone in two minutes,” Baum says.
Baum also says that the national bank reached out to small business owners in the last two years to offer loans. While commonplace in the United States, this kind of credit is mostly unheard of in Cuba. Yet when Baum asked about interest rates, the bank associate was vague. “‘Don’t worry, we’ll give you a good rate!’” was the answer.
Ministry of Agriculture journalist Jose Ignacio Fleitas Adan says the government is working to do better. “There’s an intention, and also projects and plans, to increase food production and availability,” he says, echoing the official government response. “Es complicado,” he adds with a laugh.
And that seems to be the one truism about food sourcing in Cuba, particularly when one is running a business. Baum mentions two restaurants nearby that were shut down recently. “They just disappeared,” she says. “Basically, they were doing illegal things. So there’s a lot of fear around what’s going to happen next.” She questions whether more crackdowns are coming for those who buy goods a la izquierda.
What were those shuttered restaurant doing that was more illegal than what anyone else is doing? Baum pursed her lips. This answer, too, was complicado. “I spoke with someone who ate there, and they had dried cranberries on their salad. Which is great, but clearly dried cranberries aren’t available here.” She pauses. “What you realize over time is that there are people who are really well connected, so it’s hard for the regular people like us, and all the other people in our boat.”
Still, the opportunities for business owners are lucrative. A Cuban working in the growing service industry — as a taxi driver or a restaurant host — can earn exponentially more than the average state wage of around 20 to 40 CUCs per month. Many educated young Cubans are thus leaving professions like teaching or medicine to work in the emerging private sector. When I walked into a new Mediterranean-themed paladar with Habanero food writer Sisi Colomina, the first question she asked the host was, “What did you do before?” The answer: psychology.
This wage disparity also makes it easy to understand why so many people risk buying and selling a la izquierda, or starting their own businesses in an uncertain market, to supplement their meager income. What successful paladares demonstrate is that capitalism can work in a country where almost all aspects of (legal) businesses have being tightly controlled by the state for more than 50 years.
Yet while many come to the restaurant business for monetary reasons, for others, opening a paladar is a chance to follow their passion. “It was always my dream — illegal or legal,” Alexi says. “Cooking is an art.” He also called paladars the most popular private businesses in the country by almost any metric: They’re “the most important window for showing the possibilities to other Cubans.”
And while the challenges of food sourcing can make running a private business in a communist state complicated, Baum does appear to love her work. We finished our cocktail as she sang along to the band and then did a sweep of the patio to help her servers deliver food and greet customers she had met earlier in the week. When she sat back down, she admitted that the business had a rocky start. But now, she says, she is “slowly falling in love with Cuba.”