14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 15 September 2016 — At night the corner is illuminated and the new awnings surprise passersby. The Casa Potín restaurant, for decades, embodied the decline of state services, but now it is experiencing a rebirth in the hands of the cooperative. So far, as a cooperative, it has managed to increase the prior monthly salaries of 300 Cuban pesos (about $12 US) by ten times. However the managers of the establishment feel that the lack of a wholesale market and the high costs of renting the site are obstacles to the development of the business.
Located on the corner of Linea and Paseo Streets in Havana, Casa Potín has passed through several stages since its days of excellence early in the last century when it was privately run. Many years after being nationalized, and with the arrival of the so-called Special Period, the place declined due to limited menu, lack of hygiene and the poor professionalism of its employees.
Three years ago, when it was converted into a non-agricultural cooperative and received bank credits equivalent to one million CUPs, it began to climb out of that hole. Most of the money was invested in refrigeration equipment, furniture and restoring the premises. In addition, the members of the cooperative worked to form a unique opportunity to try to recover the singular menu and the lost prestige.
The centrally located establishment is one of the 189 dining cooperatives that have been approved in recent years in Cuba. At least 80 of them are already operating and the rest are in the midst of making repairs and applying for credit before opening to the public.
“This place has changed, there was a time when it was in trouble and had a very limited menu,” says Ramon, 72, a neighbor of Casa Potín. The retired engineer is a self-confessed “devoted customer” of the place, which he has seen transformed from “disaster to glory.” However, he believes that the prices “are not within the reach of many pockets and continue to be high.”
“When we took over the management of this restaurant through this new method [government permission for non-agricultural cooperatives], the place had been closed for months because the previous management had accumulated a debt of half a million [Cuban] pesos and we had to assume that,” said a member of the cooperative who requested anonymity. The woman is optimistic and added, “If everything continues as it is now, we will pay off the debt at the end of this year.”
The reason for the large amounts of imported products consumed in the restaurant is the absence of a wholesale market where the products can be bought, according to Casa Potín’s managers. “We were very excited when the Zona+ wholesale market [owned by Cimex, a government entity] opened in Miramar, but in reality there is no difference between the costs of buying there and at the other market,” said a waitress at the restaurant.
The legislation allows this state entity to raise the prices of some products sold in the dining network cooperatives, a sword of Damocles under which they must work. Similar measures applied to the agricultural markets and private transport have contributed to shortages and loss of quality in goods and services.
“We have had problems the whole summer with supplies from the Beverages and Soft Drinks Company,” says one of the cooperative’s employees, “so we can’t guarantee a stable supply of domestic beers or malts.”
Cooperatives have the prerogative to import equipment for commercial purposes through the Cimex Corporation, something that is still closed to self-employed workers.
Not only is it an uphill battle for the managers of Casa Potín to get basic supplies. Of the 18 initial workers who initially became part of the cooperative, only three remain at the forefront of the management of the restaurant-bar.
“People think that this is something where you don’t work very much and earn a lot, but that is not the case, we sweat it every day, making the numbers at the end of the month is not easy,” adds the employee, who acknowledges that when the place was managed by the state many products from the warehouse “were lost” and “there was a lot of diversion of resources.*”
The transformation into a cooperative has not changed the ownership of the property which remains with the state and each month the Havana Restaurants Company charges about 13,000 Cuban pesos (CUP) for rent. “It’s hard, very hard, but we have more autonomy and many customers are returning to Casa Potín.”
*Translator’s note: “Diversion of resources” is an all-encompassing term used in Cuba for what is generally theft by employees.