On the corner of Infanta and San Lázaro streets, Havana, in a building which was in a state of disrepair for nearly two decades, there now stands a small business. Divided into a bar, a bakery/patisserie and a restaurant, the former pizzeria of the eighties has grown over the past seven months to include a staff of 120 workers. It could be said that it serves as an example of Cuban cooperativism gaining ground.
Within the experiment underway on the island with Non-Agricultural Cooperatives (CNA), El Biky was the first proposal submitted by individuals to be authorized. As president Pavel Ortega explains, previously cooperatives were only created through a change in management structure of an existing state-run organization, or when an already existing work collective opted to form one.
Initially, Ortega recalls, just four members applied for the authorization from the Havana Provincial Administration Council to form the cooperative. “We managed to repair the space through a bank loan and incurred a debt of one million CUC,” he notes.
“When I say that, people almost have a heart attack. It is a large sum, but you can pay it off, if everything is done right. After having imported the equipment through the CIMEX corporation, ranging from a sink to a cup or glass, we began to pay off the debt. To remain profitable, El Biky must make sales of at least three thousand CUC a day and we are already making some four thousand on average,” the president explains.
According to Ortega, another loan has already been granted to complete the top level of the 90-seat restaurant. Self-employed workers and cooperatives have been contracted to carry out the construction work.
A CHANGE OF MENTALITY
In an analysis of the functioning of CNAs, the president of El Biky notes that the whole world operates on the basis of loans, and the best way to gain space as a small business is not by simply changing from one management structure to another, but rather transforming mentalities while learning to take financial risks.
The President of the El Biky cooperative advocates that small businesses take more financial risks. Photo: Alberto Borrego
“This is what continues to hold back the emergence of cooperatives. It’s not enough to change the physical appearance of a workplace, if it continues to operate in the same way. You have to adapt in order to compete with the private market. We launched an experiment without being fully trained, but the country has confidence in many projects and provides support,” he states.
According to Ortega, whether at the micro or the macro level, to manage any business requires knowledge. He argues that one can’t move from being the administrator of a state-run enterprise to a private one, and expect that this will work out as if by magic, as knowledge, experience and different systems are required.
AN IMMEDIATE SUCCESS
From the social point of view, Ortega emphasizes, one of the most famous corners in Havana has been renovated, while jobs were created which benefit more than one hundred families.
He adds that the cooperative successfully competes with private businesses on two levels: the aesthetic and gastronomic. “There are very well thought out breakfast, lunch and dinner menus and we have many regular customers. Sometimes the morning is as busy as dinner time. One of our appeals is that we make natural juices to order and have fully personalized tableware,” Ortega explains.
Both Cubans and tourists enjoy the food here, although the cooperative does not focus on the latter clientele base. “The business from daily customers is more important than larger onetime visits,” Ortega stresses.
As for the service, he adds that El Biky is one of the best restaurants in Havana in terms of value and quality. “Although we hope to lower prices, we have to wait for a wholesale market to be established, as we purchase everything from the retail sector. Having no wholesale market to meet our needs increases costs, and forces us to have prices that, although not high, are not what we would like,” he explains.
The cooperative wished to provide top quality products within an atmosphere of good taste, and sought the advice of young people in this effort. In the words of Ortega, “It took almost a year and a half to achieve this. It was difficult, but worth it. Some say it happened quickly, yet for me it appeared a lifetime, as we exhausted ourselves with the task of securing not only food supplies, but the materials required for the refurbishment.”
AWAITING A WHOLESALE MARKET
Although the Ministry of Economy and Planning offers beverages such as water, soda and beer through contracts, these are the only supplies that are stable. “The meat, rice, eggs, beans, etc. are purchased in the retail network, although we are able to import equipment and utensils,” Ortega explains.
Cooperative members currently take home on average 500 CUP for each day they work, in the form of advances, to provide regular remuneration. In Ortega’s view, a time will come when the cooperative will be able to budget basic salaries, in addition to using this or other forms of distributing earnings after expenses to members.
At El Biky, currently one of the most successful non-agricultural cooperatives in Havana, you can find someone with a degree in accounting washing dishes, or a dentist waiting on tables, as anyone with a desire to work is accepted as a member and trained accordingly.
INSIDE THE COOPERATIVE
Calixto Casanova, with experience in both the private and the state sector, believes that the cooperative provides a different work environment, with improved service, quality of produce and dishes.
As head chef, he is responsible for ensuring the quality of all menu items, which he tries and approves.
Likewise, he must ensure that all food served has the required combination of taste, texture, and aroma, as it is not enough for a dish to simply look good.
He says he is pleased to be earning enough to support his family. In addition, customers are happy and make this known in the restaurant’s complaints and suggestions book. Casanova argues that maintaining good service is much more difficult than first achieving it, and that consistency is what leads to real success.
A recent Dentistry graduate, Jessica Riera, began working in the non-state sector with no previous experience in gastronomy. She began working on a trial basis, trained up and now has a permanent position in the cooperative.
“I’m here because you receive better wages than as a dentist and I need to meet expenses at home. Most customers make you feel good for the service you provide, while there are others who sometimes mistreat you, but you just have to smile at them,” she says.
From another perspective, the young Mario Enrique Domínguez notes that the key is to continue to build on one’s skills, in order to provide better customer service, so that those who visit leave satisfied and come back. “Soon I will begin to study English, because we receive many foreign customers.”
Meibel Cuello, who previously worked at the Karl Marx Theater, arrived at El Biky with knowledge of traditional cocktails and had to learn how to make many others. “Here we receive 10% of sales daily plus tips, and people leave very happy, because they enjoy a variety of very well prepared drinks and meals,” she states.
In the case of Reinier Cuello, who is also working in the non-state sector for the first time, he explains that it is very important to have good working conditions and that cooperative members enjoy a comfortable work schedule.