The innovation scene in Cuba is just beginning to emerge, with teams creating new websites, apps, and even design shops on a weekly basis. It’s an exciting place to be, but many innovators are uncertain of how to move forward. Cuba is a complex and ever-changing landscape, lacking a path for them to follow.
Fortunately, this new class of innovators does have one thing they can look to for guidance: the rapidly growing restaurant scene in Havana. Private restaurants, known as paladares, were legalized over a decade ago, but they’ve taken off in the past three years. The brilliant chefs that run them offer some great lessons for Cuban’s new innovators.
Here are six things that Cuban innovators can learn from six of Havana’s greatest restaurants:
Start with what you’re good at: O’Reilly 304
Cubans are talented and intelligent in a wide range of disciplines, from mathematics to design to education. There are opportunities everyone and no lack of problems on the island, but Cubans have to start with what they’re good at.
Though there’s a lack of resources, there’s no lack of talent in Cuba. It’s evident in the restaurants like O’Reilly 304, which leverage the talent of their chefs to work around their limitations on ingredients, delivering food that’s inventive and delicious. You can see this creativity even in their seasonings—they offer a homemade hot sauce that’s spicy and sweet and impossible to get anywhere else on the island. Cuban creators must similarly focus on a problem they can solve with their skills and education, whether it’s programming or clothing design, and deliver a killer solution.
Know your Customer: Café Fortuna Joe
A great little bar/coffee shop in Miramar, Café Fortuna Joe sports walls covered with memorabilia from the first half of the 20th century and tables built from converted home furniture. The décor might seem touristy anywhere in the US, but for local Habaneros it’s a welcome change. Hip young Cubans flock there, for coffee and drinks with friends or an fun and inexpensive dinner date.
The menu is simple and tourists are hard to find. The restaurant excels at picking its market (young Cubans) and providing them what they want (a different experience, for a low price). Every Cuban innovator should follow their lead. Find your customer, and give them what they want.
Focus, Focus, Focus: Chanchullero
Cuban innovators, just like restaurants, need to focus. Many new establishments around Havana have wide menus, ranging from pasta to pizza to rice and beans. Though this certainly helps manage scarce resources—when something is unavailable, there are many replacements—it can make it difficult to attract customers, who may worry that a wide menu means many mediocre options instead of one great one.
Chanchullero has done just the opposite, with a select menu that varies on a theme: well-prepared meat on top of a green salad, sides of cooked vegetables and rolls. It’s the closest thing you’ll get to a paleo meal in Havana. And this simplicity means that the restaurant can focus on execution.
Cuban innovators must do the same. Many brilliant Cuban developers have a hard time focusing, instead trying to solve a dozen problems at once. Though there are plenty of problems to solve on the island, innovators must pick one to focus on first.
What to visit any of these restaurants? Download our travel guide for information.
Work with what you have: Santi
Though resources are scarce, that doesn’t mean they’re nonexistent. Cuba has a wealth of natural resources and talent. For a restaurant like Santi, this means using something that Cuba is literally surrounded by: fish. Sitting over a small inlet where fishermen dock their boats for the evening, Santi relies on a daily supply of fresh seafood and offers plates ranging from grilled tuna to sushi.
Though acquiring fresh fish can be a challenge in Cuba, it’s still an abundant resource for the restaurant. Cuban Innovators must similarly find what they can work with here in the country, whether it’s design talent, programmers, tourism, or casa particulares. Cubans must start with the low hanging fish—er, fruit.
Create what you don’t have: Mediterraneo Habana
The realities of Cuba mean that not everything is available. For restaurants, this can mean short supplies of spices or fresh vegetables. For other innovators, this could mean lack of access to software or materials.
Sometimes this means that you have to get creative, and create what you don’t have. In the case of Mediterraneo Habana, this meant running their own farm to source their vegetables. Though certainly a costly challenge, the effort shows, with some of the best and freshest veggies at any restaurant in the city.
Innovators must similarly find ways to create what they don’t have, which has a long history in Cuba. Whether it’s by repurposing old machinery, building new equipment from scratch, or building relationships to access needed materials, there’s no lack of resourcefulness. Cubans must apply this same thinking to build reliable access to the resources they need, and find ways to create whatever they don’t have.
Interested in learning more about the innovation Havana has to offer, or about any of these fantastic restaurants? Check out our travel guide.
Push the boundaries, but work within them: La Guarida
In Cuba, innovators must be knowledgeable in what they can and can’t do. But, as one cuentapropista put it, “it’s easier to push boundaries than to ask for permission.” Though innovators must certainly be cautious to follow the rules, some level of risk taking is required.
This spirit is embodied perfectly at La Guarida, one of oldest privately owned restaurant in Havana. Opening in 1996, the spot is located in a gorgeous and crumbling townhouse turned apartment building in Centro Habana. It was the first fine-dining paladar in the city, opened at a time with the Cuban government began allowing families to run restaurants out of their homes.
La Guarida obeyed the law, but pushed the boundaries of what a paladar could be. Dozens of high-end paladares have since followed in its footsteps. In other innovative disciplines, many laws are outdated or don’t cover all types of enterprises, especially in the technology space. While no entrepreneur should deliberately break the law, they must be comfortable operating in some level of uncertainty.