Entrepreneurs Emerge As Cuba Loosens Control

Sep 20, 2011
Originally published on September 20, 2011 8:29 pm

Since Cuba's communist government loosened its grip on the economy, thousands of small private businesses have sprung up.

It's a new frontier for budding capitalists, but competition is fierce and advertising is still tightly restricted.

Snack bars and food stalls are now all over Havana, but there aren't many as distinctive as Tio Tito, or Uncle Tito. The first thing you notice is the uniformed employees, scrambling to serve up Hawaiian pizzas and fruit drinks as music videos play on a monitor behind the counter.

The napkins and the to-go containers carry the Tio Tito company logo, and there's even a slick website, which is hosted abroad. The red-and-gold color scheme is no coincidence either, says proprietor and would-be Cuban fast-food king Ivan Garcia. If those colors can work for McDonald's, he says, they just might work for him.

"Those are the colors that stimulate the appetite," Garcia says. "I didn't make that up, it's what the research shows."

Garcia's business is one of only two start-up food stands to make it in his Havana neighborhood. Six others have already gone under since last fall, when President Raul Castro let more Cubans go into business for themselves.

Competing With The Government

These days it's no longer enough to hang a sign outside and sell sandwiches and coffee out the front door. Ismael Bello, another Havana entrepreneur, says the city has too many vendors trying to sell the same things, so he's trying something different.

With a new copy machine brought in from abroad, Bello and his family have started a printing and copy service called Avana, with an attractive, freshly painted storefront. He's competing directly with the Cuban government, setting prices at half of what state-owned copy shops charge.

"In five years, we could be a pretty big company," Bello says. "Next month we'll have our website, and if we keep adding products and services, we can grow."

It's not clear how big Cuban authorities will let these new businesses get as they try to build their brands and open new locations. The government's political messages and propaganda must now compete with more and more commercial signage, but advertising is still essentially banned.

So Cubans like Yanet Alvarez have found other ways to stand out. Her baseball-themed snack bar, the Perfect Play, is quickly becoming famous among fans of Havana's beloved team, the Industriales, attracting crowds to her converted garage.

Everything on the menu is named for something in the game, including a few rather unappetizing-sounding dishes like the Dead Ball and the Squeeze Play. But after toiling for years in drab state-run restaurants, Alvarez says it's exhilarating to be making her own business decisions.

"If a customer orders a sandwich, you have the freedom to say, 'Sure, I'll make it however you want it,' " Alvarez says.

That kind of choice is something of a novel concept in a country where nearly everyone still gets an identical government food ration. And the have-it-your-way ethos isn't the only formula being copied.

One new Havana establishment is calling itself Burger Rey — rey means "king" in Spanish. For now, with the U.S. embargo still firmly in place and no Whoppers to compete with, the market is wide open.

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DAVID GREENE, Host:

The communist government in Cuba is loosening its grip on the country's economy. That's left thousands of small private businesses to spring up. It's really a new frontier for budding capitalists, and competition is fierce. And yet advertising is still tightly restricted, and so entrepreneurs have to build their reputations in other ways - excelling in customer service, maybe it's décor, maybe better pricing. Nick Miroff has the story from Havana. NICK MIROFF: New snack bars and food stalls are all over Havana, but there aren't many that look like Tio Tito, or Uncle Tito. The first thing you notice is the uniformed employees, scrambling to serve up Hawaiian pizzas and fruit drinks as music videos play on a monitor behind the counter. The napkins and the to-go containers carry the Tio Tito company logo, and there's even a slick web site, Tio-Tito.com, which is hosted abroad. That red-and-gold color scheme is no coincidence either, said proprietor and would-be Cuban fast-food king Ivan Garcia. If those colors can work for McDonalds, he says, they just might work for him. IVAN GARCIA: (Foreign language spoken) MIROFF: Those are the colors that stimulate the appetite, Garcia said. I didn't make that up, it's what the research shows. Garcia's business is only one of two start-up snack stands to make it in his Havana neighborhood. Six others have already gone under since last fall, when President Raul Castro let more Cubans go into business for themselves. These days it's no longer enough to hang a sign outside and sell sandwiches and coffee out the front door. Ismael Bello, another Havana entrepreneur, said the city's got too many vendors trying to sell the same things, so he's trying something different. With a new copy machine brought in from abroad, Bello and his family have started a printing and copy service called Avana, with an attractive, freshly-painted storefront. He's competing directly with the Cuban government, setting prices at half what they are in state-owned copy shops. ISMAEL BELLO: (Foreign language spoken) MIROFF: In five years, we could be a pretty big company, Bello said. Next month we'll have our web site, and if we keep adding products and services we can grow, he said. It's not clear how big Cuban authorities will let these new businesses get as they try to build their brands and open new locations. The government's political messages and propaganda must now compete with more and more commercial signage, but advertising is still essentially banned. So Cubans like Yanet Alvarez have found other ways to stand out. Her baseball-themed snack bar, the Perfect Play, is quickly becoming famous among fans of Havana's beloved team, the Industriales, attracting crowds to her converted garage. Everything on the menu is named for something in the game, including a few rather unappetizing-sounding dishes like the Dead Ball and the Squeeze Play. But after toiling for years in drab state-run restaurants, Alvarez said it's exhilarating to be making her own business decisions. She even used the F word to describe it. YANET ALVAREZ: (Through translator) If a customer orders a sandwich, you have the, the freedom to say, sure, I'll make it however you want it. MIROFF: That kind of choice is something of a novel concept in a country where nearly everyone still gets an identical government food ration. And the have-it-your-way ethos isn't the only formula being copied here. One new Havana establishment is calling itself Burger Rey, with rey meaning king in Spanish. For now, with the U.S. embargo still firmly in place and no Whoppers to compete with, the market is wide open. For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff, in Havana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.