Earth & Conservation

Owning a Restaurant Under the Cuban Embargo

In Cuba, the number of private restaurants, also known as paladares, have soared. So, what is it like to own one of them?

Underground restaurants are revitalizing Cuba's dining scene, as well as their economy.

For decades, all restaurants in Cuba were owned and run by the state. Many of them thrived initially, but during the years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, food became scarce. Most people were concerned with simply getting enough to eat each day, so going to a restaurant was out of the question.

Many of Cuba's restaurants subsequently failed and the country picked up a nasty reputation for bad cuisine.

Then in 1993, Fidel Castro legalized several privately owned business types, such as restaurants and salons, in hopes of boosting the country's failing economy. This is when underground restaurants, known as "paladares" first starting popping up everywhere. Initial regulations stipulated that these private businesses must only employ family members and typically restaurants could not have more than 20 seats.

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In 2011 that number was increased to 50 under Raul Castro (Fidel's brother) and Cuba again loosened restrictions on private businesses. During the five years since then, the number of private restaurants in Cuba went from 100 to 1,600.

Niuris Isabel Higueras Martínez has been cooking since she was nine years old and owns one of the paladares in Havana. Her entire family invested their own money in the restaurant, and her uncles gave the tables and chairs from their own kitchens to use in the dining room.

With a change in Cuba's business laws came a welcome change in attitude as well. "Before, business people were looked down upon," Martínez told Seeker. "Now, we're seen as an important part of society. It's a special moment to be an entrepreneur."

After restored relations with the U.S. last year, Cuba has opened up to foreign investment again. But the U.S.-imposed economic embargo still prevents them from trading with the U.S. This makes getting restaurant supplies pretty difficult for paladares owners like Martínez.

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"Every time I travel abroad, I bring back 10 or 20 pounds of spices. There are spices that we use but we can't find them here," Martínez says. "I've brought frying pans, cutlery, many things for the restaurant, but in my personal luggage. When we can buy products from the United States, which is so close...and which has such good equipment and merchandise, it's going to be much better."

Martínez knows the future of her business will largely depend on the ability to serve not only tourists, but local Cubans as well. She hopes the country's economic conditions continue to improve, which will allow more locals to eat at restaurants, but it must not come at the expense of the low crime rate, public health care, and excellent education system Cuba is so fortunate to have.

"My dream for the country is that the economic conditions improve," she says. "But some things should stay the same, like the public safety we have. I can walk down any street in my country and I'm not afraid. Few countries in the world are as safe as Cuba."

Paladares have become an essential part of a Cuban vacation. U.S. tourism has greatly increased since relations were restored, and in addition to the comforting safety of walking down Cuba's streets, visitors can now easily enjoy authentic meals prepared by very experienced cooks like Martínez.

-- Molly Fosco