When American social worker Shona Baum took a trip to Cuba seven years ago, she never imagined she’d be running a restaurant in Havana offering food from her beloved California.
But Baum’s chance encounter on Havana’s famous Malecón sea wall has taken her on an unexpected journey. She fell in love with a Cuban, Paver Core Broche. They got married and lived for years in San Francisco.
Fate intervened again when the Spanish-speaking couple was considering opening a restaurant in Mexico—and Cuba liberalized its rules for self-employed ventures. So, she and Paver teamed up with Paver’s brother Ibrahim, bought a small locale near the landmark Hotel Nacional in Havana’s Vedado district, and opened their bohemian California Café in March 2015.
Fusing California and Cuba has not always been easy, but the couple has pooled its respective native insights to navigate the cultural differences that affect their business. This includes training a Cuban staff to understand American attitudes, especially the American idea that “time is money.”
In Cuba for example, said Baum, employees folding napkins might notice U.S. tourists by the door and figure, “I’m working. They can wait.” Her five-page training guide tells them to drop the napkins and greet the guests. “If Americans stand there 20 seconds without help, they are going to leave,” Baum instructs the crew, all self-taught in English and eager to meet foreign visitors.
Finding supplies also can present challenges. The restaurant offers California specialties such as veggie burgers and fish tacos (and its dishes contain less sugar and more vegetables than typical Cuban eateries do.) “Apart from chicken [which is imported into Cuba from the U.S.], we try to serve everything that is locally sourced,” Baum said. But with no wholesale stores and irregular supplies at many Cuban markets, items such as spices are sometimes hard to obtain.
Katie Smith, a 25-year-old living in Brooklyn, N.Y, wasn’t thinking about those concerns as she enjoyed lunch at the cozy 24-seat café one recent weekday. She’d heard about the restaurant from friends and found the idea of California-Cuban fusion appealing—adding California’s zest to what she considers usually blander Cuban fare. “This is very flavorful,” she said, munching on a Cuban sandwich offered with the café’s homemade hot sauce.
“The place reminds me of a little hut restaurant you’d find in the Caribbean, and it’s a connection to home, because I’m from California,” Smith said. She and a pal sat on a covered terrace near a painting of a bear, California’s state animal, dressed in a Cuban guayabera shirt and smoking a Cuban cigar.
The intimate café appeals both to visitors looking for a real “people-to-people” experience and to Cuba’s emerging middle class—including many young people working in tourism—who can afford what by U.S. standards is modest pricing, said husband Paver Core.
Next up for the enterprising couple: An inn on Havana’s Guanabo beach. The likely name: California Hotel.