Our Bar in Havana
The 22nd of March, a Sunday, was the last day of work at Jibaro. I had been feeling a bit tiñosa, which is Cuban slang for vulture, as in the pesky harbingers of bad weather, circling in the sky, announcing an impending 'storm'. Even from the end of 2019, I had my reservations about 2020.
The US government measures had crippled tourism and the access to supplies was becoming ever more difficult. Unsurprisingly, whenever someone asked what my thoughts of the new year were, my mouth unavoidably quirked in disbelief.
And yet 2020 was our year. We had recently reopened for our second anniversary, debuting our first cocktail menu, two years after developing the first mocktail menu in Cuba. We had a small but rising community base of equally demanding and endearing Cuban clients who would go out of their usual ways to come to us in the traditionally expensive and tourist-governed Old Havana. Our project ConBAC had seeped into Havana's collective imaginary and we were preparing to celebrate its first anniversary in June with a free-entry, boozed-packed event arranged into talks, workshops and masterclasses by leading specialists from the UK, Canada and the US. Our infant community project Jibareando in San Isidro was taking its second and third baby steps and could stand up on its own now. Hell, we had been announced as finalists of the Tahona Society Award, repping Cuba!
Then the virus hit. And in the aftermath, after accepting and adjusting to the new situation, an all-too-familiar sentiment reclaimed my mind and body. That Sunday, after shutting down and speaking with half of our staff, layered between the gloomy forecast one-liners and the unfazed stares was something else, a sort of latent conviction in weathering the 'storm', irrespective of its intensity. Maybe it was blind hope. Or maybe for us at Jibaro, it was rooted in how past hurricane seasons had taught us how to continuously reinvent ourselves if we wanted to keep our heads above water.
Our position is modest, and so is our understanding of how to face and cope with this situation, which is new to us all as it's devastating to an often-forsaken sector. But given that it's almost always hurricane season over here, hey, maybe there's something of value to be shared during this 'storm'.
- What if our bar could be something else?
For us, that means becoming a small lab through the development of our line of sustainable, minimal-waste, artisanal mixers, which are staples in our cocktails and dishes, but have also gained their own external demand. Our clients are all across the spectrum, from spirit brands' events, competitions and promotional campaigns, through small/medium bars interested in serving more than mojitos and frappe daiquiris but whose demands and identities prevent them from streamlining their own mixers, all the way to the smallest consumer, the 'home-tender'. Personal consumption of alcohol and mixers has skyrocketed during lockdown. The home-tender grows riskier and starts to experiment more. You get the picture. Besides, investing in this line of mixers inevitably contributes to advancing parallel ventures such as ready-to-drink cocktails, as well to maintaining a lifeline for local suppliers.
- If you haven't helped yet, you can start. If you have, carry on.
These days where money is scarce, thinking of helping others needs to be a constant, mainly because those of us able to reopen in the future will not be the ones hit the hardest. Our time, knowledge and bodies can make a difference. And that matters. Bringing in our staff to volunteer, donate and use their time with us matters. No matter how cumbersome starting a project from scratch may be, there's always a way, whether it is through a social development local agency or an NGO, there are established organisations with the right infrastructure to act as conduits for all of your energy and effort. For us, that means working on our environmental education project with the kids from our community and supporting our local mixology school ArteCorte. Think of something. We are always needed somewhere.
- No one is an island
Alliances, especially if they are complementary, are of the essence. If you were a cocktail bar with little emphasis on food or food-drink pairings, then now maybe you can change that. Thinking of different ways to enrich and elevate your clients' experience is always urgent. But how to do so? What if my kitchen is not equipped or my staff trained to do so? It's certainly not a good time for investing. All valid points. But what about reaching out to that chef who cooks the best tapas you've had but hasn't quite worked out a cocktail menu yet? You can always become momentary or permanent collaborators. Showcasing their products in your space and vice versa is of mutual interest. The competition is not going to close us down. The fear of change and the inflexibility will.
Here at Jibaro, we don't believe in easy solutions or miracle works. Not because of lack of faith, as we would love some love from the universe, but because our experience ever since the very beginning has taught us that we cannot afford to wait for it. We do tend to forget, sometimes, amidst all the struggle, that we are already lucky to do something we love. Let it never change.
co-founder of Jibaro, a bar/restaurant in Old Havana, Cuba
"When you feel unable to change your bar, you have become old."
― Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana
If you are a bar owner and would like to contribute to Bar Entrepreneur Frontline please email me at Simon@DiffordsGuide.com. Thanks to support from Havana Club all published contributions will be paid for, with a matching amount donated to The Drinks Trust charity (formerly The Benevolent), or a local hospitality charity of your choice.