A Retired Restaurant Inspector Laments the Decline of Matanzas’ State-Owned Restaurants

Arístides admits that he can no longer afford to eat at these establishments since prices skyrocketed / 14ymedio

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Julio César Contreras, Matanzas, June 1, 2024 — Since retiring, Arístides has gotten into the habit of going once or twice a month to have “a drink” or the occasional lunch at one of the local restaurants in Matanzas. However, it has been months since he has been to any of the state-owned businesses that he used to frequent. His return on Thursday to Casa del Chef left him perplexed. “Poor service, limited selection and a tasteless environment” is how he summarized his visit.

“I like going to that restaurant because the decor is nice and it feels cozy. But as soon as I got there, I saw four employees just sitting around a table, talking. Even though they were close, I had to try several times to get someone to wait to me. Since there was no one behind the counter and no headwaiter, the cook finally came over,” says Arístides, who worked as a restaurant inspector in the city for twenty-five years.

Arístides admits that he can no longer afford to eat at these establishments since prices have skyrocketed. Nevertheless, personal experience tells him that an increase in restaurant supply costs is not the only issue. “There is no point in restoring a place if customers are put off by supply shortages and indifferent staff,” he explains.

The cafe La Pelota offers two or three types of sandwiches and juice. / 14ymedio

Employee salaries, he argues, are a key factor that negatively impact workers’ performance and ultimately customer experience. “The current monthly salary tops out at 3,000 pesos. For workers it’s very discouraging to see that the price of a few dishes – between 80 and 160 pesos for sides and between 400 and 1,000 for a main course – is equivalent to their monthly salary.” He is referring to Casa del Chef, which has seen its staff turn over numerous times because employees left for jobs “at the privates.”

Put off by the poor service, Arístides heads for a nearby cafe. It is now 5:00 in the afternoon but the place is closed. “It would be preferable to rent out these establishments to individuals rather than go out of business because they’re empty or closed all the time,” he complains.

Arístides continues his journey until he arrives at Freedom Park, where he finds two places side-by-side: a cafe called La Pelota and a pizzeria. The first offers two or three types of sandwiches and juice. Though there are tables at which customers can sit, he is turned off by the bar’s greasy wooden countertop and a menu that offers more items than are actually available.

State-owned restaurants cannot compete with offerings at their private-sector counterparts. / 14ymedio

The pizzeria, with its door closed tight, is waiting on an “investment” it needs to reopen its doors.

“A few years ago, things weren’t too bad,” says Arístides. “But now you go to Coppelia and, instead of selling ice cream, they’re ’diversifying production.’ Bread and croquettes, or ten types of pizzas when they really only have two, and for a different price than what is shown on the board.”

When asked about the offerings at private restaurants, he says the “price barrier” has forced him to choose between the meager selections but lower prices at state-run places versus the better quality but higher prices at privately owned restaurants. In terms of what they can provide, state-owned restaurants cannot compete with their private-sector counterparts. That is why they will often illegally sell off their supplies to private business owners, balance their books and pocket the rest. “If that’s how they were going to run these businesses, better to have left them in the hands of their original owners,” he says.

Once-great old state-owned restaurants such as La Vigía, El Polinesio y El Bahía are, like their clientele, difficult to revive. It is not about inflation, the lack of equipment or the poor training provided by business and food service schools, claims Arístides. For him it all boils down to a truth so basic that every fast-food street vendor knows it: “There has to be a direct relationship between the price of what you’re selling and the quality, especially when you’re charging 1,200 pesos for a steak.”


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