In November, I traveled to Cuba for a week-long vacation with my
wife and another couple. I departed the United States with an
open mind and not really knowing what to expect. The trip was
a mind blowing, amazing experience that is hard to put into
words. As a regular contributor to the ORBA Restaurant Group
Blog, I wanted to share three lessons that I learned about life in
Cuba and relate them to the business of running a restaurant.
1. Be Resourceful
After the Revolution and U.S. trade embargo, much of life in
Cuba appears to have been frozen in time. The most obvious sign of
this are all of the old cars still driving on the roads. Some of
these cars lumbered noisily down the roads spewing black exhaust,
while others were painstakingly refurbished and in pristine
condition. We had the pleasure of touring downtown Havana in a mint
condition 1955 Oldsmobile Starfire. Our tour guide explained to us
the difficulties of restoring and maintaining the car without the
ability of being able to order replacement parts. Repairs had to be
made by either making the broken parts work again or adapting
similar parts from other cars. Our tour guide was quite
Applying this lesson to the restaurant industry is quite natural
with its historically thin profit margins. Some of the areas
where resourcefulness could really help the bottom line are:
Turning what could be a stumbling block into an asset that
Repairing rather than replacing equipment; and
Finding alternate uses for supplies rather than disposing of
2. Be Hospitable
We went on a tour to the town of Viñales to meet a fourth
generation tobacco farmer. We planned on learning more about a
popular Cuban industry while procuring some cigars directly from
the source. That mission was accomplished but there was so much
more to learn. The farmer's story was heart wrenching: His
family's farmland was seized after the Revolution. Now, he has
to rent from the government the very same land that was owned and
farmed by his family for centuries. Not only that, he has to sell
the majority of his crop to the government for a fraction of what
it is worth. After learning about these hardships, he invited us
into his home for a cup of homegrown coffee. That was the best
coffee I've ever had.
After working with and dining at many restaurants over the
years, one inconsistency that I've noticed in the hospitality
industry is actual hospitality. Being kind and giving customers
something for free will help generate more business and increase
loyalty. Paying attention to your customers can definitely go a
long way toward sustaining a successful restaurant.
3. Be Thankful
Another lesson on life in Cuba that was emblazoned in my mind
was the scarcity of food and freedom. Finding food or other
necessary supplies can become the equivalent of a scavenger hunt.
Expressing your beliefs or going wherever you want to are
restricted by the Cuban government. Despite these adversities, our
hosts and tour guides were amazingly generous, thoughtful and
inspiring people. They would give us the shirts off their backs and
the food off their plates. I am thankful for the experience of
meeting the Cuban people and thankful for all of the resources and
freedoms that we have living in the U.S.
Being thankful is important to remember when running a business
like a restaurant. Front of the house and back of the house
employees are both important and deserve thanks and
appreciation. Compensation goes a long way in keeping
employees' morale high, but engaging them and being respectful
are also very important factors. Happy employees can help improve
the bottom line. It is also important to remember the great
opportunities we have living here in the U.S.
I learned that Cuba is an island full of great experiences,
wonderful people but also many hardships. Those thoughts
definitely have some parallels to the restaurant industry and I
wanted to share just a few of the many lessons learned on my
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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