Reinvention or Death: Private Businesses Try to Overcome the Crisis in Cuba

A line of people in front of a cafe in Havana’s Vedado district, which is looking for new ways to increase its clientele (14ymedio).

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, March 31, 2021 — If the ball is yellow, the customer gets a discount. If it comes out green, he will also get a free sausage sample. The friendly roulette wheel is operated by an employee of a private cafe in Havana that offers takeout items. Faced with the restrictions of the pandemic, businesses must reinvent themselves or perish.

The young man who fills sandwich orders at El Torpedo, a place located on Calle J Street in Vedado, is halfway between a cashier and an entertainer. “Come on, try your luck and get a head start. The worst that can happen is that you don’t win anything but your options are many,” he enthusiastically explains to customers in line.

Although several yards away there are several other private businesses on the same street, the one with the roulette wheel has the longest line. “I know that anything they might give away is probably already included in the purchase price but I enjoy trying my luck,” says a young man waiting his turn. “And it shows they’re making an effort.”

The employee spins the wheel and a white ball pops out. “This means that you have the right to try your luck again,” he explains. On the second try, the customer gets 5% off her final bill. Laughter rings out and shortly thereafter a lady wins a free juice. The next buyer hits the jackpot: a package of chorizo pieces to “make some beans.”

Games of chance were outlawed on the island decades ago, so any element of coincidence in the buying process provokes smiles, knowing glances and a certain queasiness in customers who feel like they are “in a casino,” as the experience is described by a woman who is here on Tuesday to buy a Cuban sandwich. “It’s like the bolita [lottery] but legal,” she explains.

A few yards further down, towards the sea, a privately owned ice cream parlor advertises “a free scoop for the price of two.” The upper floor of a big house near the water advertises “a shave and scalp massage with relaxing music.” More emphatic posters with exclamation points appear on doors of several of these businesses, which are now operating at only half capacity because of the coronavirus.

“All our takeout bags are recyclable,” announces one restaurant that makes home deliveries. “We don’t generate any plastic waste so every dish that you buy from us helps save the environment,” reads an ad published on several classified ad sites.

“Back when we were waiting on tables, we knew how to get people to stay longer, order more dishes and have a good time at the restaurant. Now everything is done through a window,” says a worker at El Toke, a place located on Infanta Street in central Havana. “We have less opportunities and have to take advantage of the few seconds we spend with a customer.”

Threatened by a steep decline in tourism, a rise in the cost of raw materials and the economic crisis, Cuban entrepreneurs are getting creative. They are relying on theatrics, informational videos and an endless search for anything that will give them a leg up on the competition. Having an electric scooter helps but knowing something about social networks is even better.

“I never thought I would be able to sell plants without people coming here to see them,” says Roxana, a 41-year-old businesswoman who manages a small garden where she sells succulents. “Buying a plant to keep for your house is something very personal. People come here and spend a lot of time thinking about an orchid or deciding if they should get a ficus.”

After pandemic restrictions were imposed, Roxana and her husband had to restructure their business. “We put together a catalog which you can browse on WhatsApp. If a customer chooses a plant, we send him a short video showing the specimen from several angles. We also provide care instructions. After the sale is made, we deliver it to his living room.”

One carpenter is selling furniture that promises to make people “confortable during the pandemic.” Using a mobile app, customers can choose items “à la carte.” Choices might include a sofa, a bed and mattress, or some wooden armchairs for the patio. “We deliver to people’s homes and anyone who buys a dining table and at least six chairs gets a set of dominoes for free,” he announces.

“We help keep people entertained while they are cooped up at home,” adds the friendly carpenter. If you buy a big bed from me, we’ll give you the sheets. And if you decide on some patio furniture, it will come with some ferns planted in a beautiful pot decorated with colored tiles.” The combinations are endless, seemingly as infinite as the creativity of the self-employed and the long days of the pandemic.


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