Cuba's digital destination
With the recent expansion of self-employment in Cuba and the relaxation of rules for private enterprises, Cuban streets have become pretty busy thanks to the opening of cafeterias, food stands, restaurants, hairdressing salons, barber shops and outlets where many different products are sold: clothes, handicrafts, household tools, kitchen utensils, including pirate CDs and DVDs, which perhaps should be called “corsair” as their sellers have been licensed by a State agency…
After many long years of almost exclusive predominance of state property—March 1968 saw the last of small privately-owned businesses—many Cubans have decided to take the plunge and open their own businesses. How many will flourish and how many will fail? We’ll just have to wait and see what tomorrow will bring.
Boris Reyes is betting on the future. With a degree in Political Sciences and having retired after many years of holding important political and administrative positions, he just wasn’t ready to resign himself to living with the financial difficulties that a pensioner has to face. So he gave much thought to which were his strengths in order to embark on a new venture that many men of his age and condition would consider plain foolishness.
He had a beautiful and spacious house on 41st and 45th Streets in Kholy, an upscale neighbourhood in Havana, and was relying on his family who were willing to pull together with him, and above all on his own unfaltering optimism and rare ability to adapt to changes.
Among the many alternatives of self-employment, he weighed up the possibility of renting two bedrooms in his home but chose not to. He tried to rent the terrace and gardens for somebody else’s business but, quite surprisingly, nobody was interested despite the house’s privileged location. He then resolved to take advantage of the family’s experience in the food business and with the financial contribution—which he considers a loan—from a sister who lives abroad, he decided to open a snack bar and named it D’Reyes Café.
He first studied which market segment was more attractive and came to the conclusion that the best thing would be to cater for the mid-price sector whose income did not force them to go to the cheaper outlets that fill porches, garages, windows and even sidewalks with sandwiches, easy-to-make desserts and synthetic refreshments, but could not go to the high-priced “paladares” or restaurants. The question then was creating an original and novel offer.
“I drew from family tradition. My father became involved in fast foods with a modest street stall that sold “fritas,” a patty made of beef seasoned with garlic and paprika plus other ingredients in certain proportions that Reyes considers a “strategic secret.” Eventually, he began to supply different kinds of sandwiches to the Cerro baseball stadium, today Estadio Latinoamericano; the dance hall at the Jardines de la Tropical; and the Rancho Boyeros Agricultural Fair. My father also became the owner of La Mía Bar in Central Havana, which became so famous for its sandwiches that many people from the upper classes would go there in their fabulous Cadillacs after an evening at the theatre, casino or cabaret. In 1959, my father handed over his business to the government and enthusiastically took part in the revolutionary process. However, he never stopped making his fritas and sandwiches for family and friends. So now I said to myself that the specialty of the house would have to be those same fritas and sandwiches, whose taste was imbedded in the memory of the older generations but was completely unknown to the younger people. And their success has confirmed that I was not wrong. One day, after having served a customer and giving him the bill, he said quite moved, ‘I’m paying not only for the frita but for the nostalgia as well.’”
Loquacious and smiling, Reyes continues: “My mother used to make delicious chicken croquettes, the recipe of which she passed down to my wife, Elena Salgado. Now we serve them with bread slices that are spread with a mixture of garlic and olive oil. My aunt still prepares wonderful glaces of tropical fruits—pineapple, orange, soursop, pineapple-orange, mamey—and my daughter learned how to make meat pastries from an old recipe book that has been in my family for several generations: “Delicias de la mesa. Manual de cocina y repostería,” [Meal Delights. A Cookery and Baking Manual] written by Antonieta Reyes Gavilán y Mestre, 1938, 7th ed., published in Havana by Molina y Compañía. This is the book we always refer to when we need to find “new” 73 year-old ideas. By popular request, we have added pizzas to the menu, but we prepare them Italian style—thin dough, crisp and good cheese.”
After this tempting explanation, it was only natural that we take a break and taste some of these delights. Reyes’s and Elena’s young daughter, Eliany, promptly took my order, and while I waited to be served, I studied the motley clientele that also waited to be served on the shaded, plant-filled terrace. The younger crowd, who preferred pizzas, hot dogs and sandwiches accompanied by huge glasses of fruit shakes, were curious about a kerosene burner on a table. The owner explained to them that it came from the first stand in which his father prepared the first fritas, and was a kind of tribute to the pioneers of the culinary tradition in his family. The not-so-young crowd ordered pastries and fritas, shakes and fruit juice. The inevitable ice-cream was eaten between sighs and speechless rapture.
I chose a meat pastry, orange juice and an orange-pineapple glace. And I don’t regret it. The delicious pastry, which was filled with mince meat, raisins and olives, practically melted in my mouth. My glace was served as it should be, in an orange fruit shell with bits of pineapple in it, and—lo and behold—not excessively sweet that you can’t appreciate the true flavour of the fruit. My friends ordered pizza, which they praised highly, and coconut and pineapple glaces, which I couldn’t resist and tasted and gave my wholehearted approval. To our greater enjoyment, one of the Café’s regular customers, a young man who is on very friendly terms with the owners, gave us a mini violin recital of Cuban and international music—a tuneful oasis in the midst of the loud-sounding rhythms heard in most establishments of this kind.
As if foreseeing my potential eating excesses, the owners joined me once more to continue chatting as I wanted to know what a typical day in the Reyes-Salgado household was like.
“I get up every morning at 7,” says Boris, “because there are lots of things to do before we open: buy different kinds of bread, flour, fruits, meat, sausages, potatoes, napkins, detergent and you don’t always find them around the corner. When we open, I have to be ready to receive the customers, many of whom I know by their first names. Do you see that young girl over there? She comes here every day in the morning for a glass of fruit juice and many evenings she’s back for some takeout. And the guy with the violin? Well, he’s practically family already.”
When I was beginning to think that this was a “patriarchal” business that confined the women to the hot quarters of the kitchen, Elena, a brunette who still shows the beauty of her youth, came in and joined us in the conversation.
“If my granddaughter allows it, I sleep until 9 or 9:30 in the morning. That’s when my day as chef begins. The béchamel sauce has to be done slowly and with great care, as well as the pastry fillings. My daughter is in charge of the dough. I’m very fussy about doing things right, and if something has to be done in a rush, or if there’s some ingredient missing, I prefer to take the dish off from the menu. I also help serving customers because both my daughters have regular jobs, Monday through Friday, and can only lend us a hand in the cafeteria in the evenings. I go to bed at 2 am because after closing at midnight I do the accounts.”
This being a family business, the wife of a nephew of Boris’s asks him to help her wash plates, glasses, knives, forks, spoons, and cooking utensils. Having finished this chore, he joins us for the last time, as, although it was quite late, customers kept pouring in. Keeping an eye on the business while we chatted, he revealed his dreams to us, just two months after the cafeteria first opened in August.
“I would like to add a mural painting, an antique lamp and a bell for the customers to ring announcing their arrival. If the business continues to flourish, sometime in the near future I could change the category of my cafeteria and turn it into a restaurant with tables in several rooms of the house and dishes that have always had the approval of family and friends. The menu would include, for instance, imperial rice, which is Elena’s specialty, and escabeche or pickled fish, which has disappeared into oblivion, perhaps because it requires lots of olive oil and firm-fleshed fish. As to snacks, we have several ideas in the making, such as cheese cake, which so many people ask us for; sundaes with all the toppings—crushed fruit, syrup, nuts, marshmallow; and a sandwich with a filling of thin slices of ham, cream cheese and strawberry jam. Under the category of restaurant, the taxes would be much higher but I could also sell alcoholic beverages with the meals. We’ll have to do some calculations first and see how we can expand the business in terms of food, space and equipment without increasing prices, which are moderate considering the quality of the offer, and of course, without affecting our profits. For now, the restaurant is just a dream, and I don’t like to dream just for the sake of it. I have always been confident that I can make my dreams come true.”
It’s no coincidence then that this consummate optimist has added to the name of his café a slogan that depicts him through-and-through: Tout va bien!—All’s well!