Making a Living Off Coffee / 14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez

Café Soler’s customers in Pinar del Rio. (14ymedio)
Café Soler’s customers in Pinar del Rio. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Ricardo Fernandez, Pinar del Rio, 16 July 2016 — In the early morning hours insomniacs, travelers and night watchmen are surprised to find an ode to excellence in a cup of coffee.

At 3:00 in the morning the rush to prepare the nectar begins at the clinic on 27th of November Street between Maceo and Marti in Pinar del Rio, where Luis Armando Cabrera Soler lives. His wife, the doctor Madalina, helps him to organize the thermoses, bags and harnesses he uses in providing the service. Meanwhile, the guard working on the corner is seduced by the spreading aroma.

“I have a light on my cap so the customers don’t have to walk to the spotlight when they want to buy, but then I realized it worked as a kind of promotion,” said Luis, who started selling a thermos of coffee in June of 2013 and now has increased production fivefold. “I got the idea of varying the menu preparing cortadito from a taxi driver they call loco, because I saw it in Havana. Since then I added chocolate, cappuccino and café bombón. The chocolate intensifies the flavor of the coffee and the cappuccino follows the traditional standards, the bombóm (a mix of condensed milk, chocolate and coffee) leaves a pleasant taste in the mouth.

Without his having to hawk his products, the customers come to him. “The best advertising is the quality,” he says. “When it’s a large bill and I don’t have change I just give them a free coffee. I don’t lose money because I end up winning customers,” he says.

Luis does not mince words when he talks about the origin of the coffee he serves. “I sell 100% Café Soler,” he says, while showing us the logo he designed himself, “harvested by my family, roasted and steeped by me. I don’t have that many plants so I’m not forced to deliver the coffee [to the state]; but it’s enough for me for the year,” he says, referring to the parcel he owns in Sumidero in the municipality of Minas de Matahambre.

The state monopolies are the only legal buyers of the beans and to enforce that control there is a framework of laws that equate trafficking in coffee with crimes such as theft or illegal departures from the country.

The only legal way to market coffee is to buy it in the state’s Hard Currency Collection Stores and the high prices mean the business is not viable, so the self-employed generally turn to the informal market.

“The hardest thing to get is disposable cups. There is no place to buy them, I have to rely on the good will of neighbors and friends who bring them to me from abroad,” he comments, while serving coffee.

Cabrera worked as a buyer for the Pinar del Rio Fuel Company which belongs to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, work that, out of fear, he made compatible with selling coffee. “Many are afraid to trade a job for a business. I decided to take this step as long as the earnings are stable and the work shifts didn’t interfere with sales.”

With characteristic island humor and the amiability of someone who even lights the cigarettes of those who like to smoke while they drink their coffee, Cabrera knows how to relax the disaffected and cheer up the reticent. “What series bills do you want?” he jokes with someone who rejects coins in change. “My goal is to make the customer happy even with the change,” he says.

Generally sales end at 9:00 in the morning and then the preparations begin for the next day: roasting the coffee, grinding it, cleaning the thermoses with chlorine and washing the many towels used to wipe up the drips, removing the stains from the white coat he wears while selling and, finally, doing the accounts. This ends Luis Armando Cabrera’s day, and he does not repent becoming a small businessman.