Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Restaurant Cooperative’s Uphill Battle

A Restaurant Cooperative's Uphill Battle / 14ymedio, Zunilda Mata

14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 15 September 2016 — At night the corner
is illuminated and the new awnings surprise passersby. The Casa Potín
restaurant, for decades, embodied the decline of state services, but now
it is experiencing a rebirth in the hands of the cooperative. So far, as
a cooperative, it has managed to increase the prior monthly salaries of
300 Cuban pesos (about $12 US) by ten times. However the managers of the
establishment feel that the lack of a wholesale market and the high
costs of renting the site are obstacles to the development of the business.

Located on the corner of Linea and Paseo Streets in Havana, Casa Potín
has passed through several stages since its days of excellence early in
the last century when it was privately run. Many years after being
nationalized, and with the arrival of the so-called Special Period, the
place declined due to limited menu, lack of hygiene and the poor
professionalism of its employees.

Three years ago, when it was converted into a non-agricultural
cooperative and received bank credits equivalent to one million CUPs, it
began to climb out of that hole. Most of the money was invested in
refrigeration equipment, furniture and restoring the premises. In
addition, the members of the cooperative worked to form a unique
opportunity to try to recover the singular menu and the lost prestige.

The centrally located establishment is one of the 189 dining
cooperatives that have been approved in recent years in Cuba. At least
80 of them are already operating and the rest are in the midst of making
repairs and applying for credit before opening to the public.

"This place has changed, there was a time when it was in trouble and had
a very limited menu," says Ramon, 72, a neighbor of Casa Potín. The
retired engineer is a self-confessed "devoted customer" of the place,
which he has seen transformed from "disaster to glory." However, he
believes that the prices "are not within the reach of many pockets and
continue to be high."

"When we took over the management of this restaurant through this new
method [government permission for non-agricultural cooperatives], the
place had been closed for months because the previous management had
accumulated a debt of half a million [Cuban] pesos and we had to assume
that," said a member of the cooperative who requested anonymity. The
woman is optimistic and added, "If everything continues as it is now, we
will pay off the debt at the end of this year."

The reason for the large amounts of imported products consumed in the
restaurant is the absence of a wholesale market where the products can
be bought, according to Casa Potín's managers. "We were very excited
when the Zona+ wholesale market [owned by Cimex, a government entity]
opened in Miramar, but in reality there is no difference between the
costs of buying there and at the other market," said a waitress at the

The legislation allows this state entity to raise the prices of some
products sold in the dining network cooperatives, a sword of Damocles
under which they must work. Similar measures applied to the agricultural
markets and private transport have contributed to shortages and loss of
quality in goods and services.

"We have had problems the whole summer with supplies from the Beverages
and Soft Drinks Company," says one of the cooperative's employees, "so
we can't guarantee a stable supply of domestic beers or malts."

Cooperatives have the prerogative to import equipment for commercial
purposes through the Cimex Corporation, something that is still closed
to self-employed workers.

Not only is it an uphill battle for the managers of Casa Potín to get
basic supplies. Of the 18 initial workers who initially became part of
the cooperative, only three remain at the forefront of the management of
the restaurant-bar.

"People think that this is something where you don't work very much and
earn a lot, but that is not the case, we sweat it every day, making the
numbers at the end of the month is not easy," adds the employee, who
acknowledges that when the place was managed by the state many products
from the warehouse "were lost" and "there was a lot of diversion of

The transformation into a cooperative has not changed the ownership of
the property which remains with the state and each month the Havana
Restaurants Company charges about 13,000 Cuban pesos (CUP) for rent.
"It's hard, very hard, but we have more autonomy and many customers are
returning to Casa Potín."

*Translator's note: "Diversion of resources" is an all-encompassing term
used in Cuba for what is generally theft by employees.

Source: A Restaurant Cooperative's Uphill Battle / 14ymedio, Zunilda
Mata – Translating Cuba -

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