On Cuban Entrepreneurs: I’m always inspired by entrepreneurs, their stories, what inspires them, where they find balance and how they stay successful - especially when it's a woman in a country with limited resources.

In Havana, I had the opportunity to meet, spend time with and get to know Glenda Lopez, owner of Papa Ernesto Café (name inspired by both Hemingway and Che). The way we met was adorable. Ricky and I arrived as the cafe was opening and the staff was scrambling to get ready for customers. A man was sitting at a table outside and Glenda was in the doorway entrance. The man yelled something to her in another language, she turned around to yell something back to him then turned to us with the most engaging smile and endearing eyes, saying “hello, welcome, what can I get for you?” Ricky and I laughed because it's not unlike the times that Ricky yells over to me when we are at an event, "pay attention you have a customer!" Same situation, different language.

Glenda didn’t look old enough to be a business owner, but after observing a few interactions with her staff I had to ask. She let me know that she’s a professional musician and needed something to do when she wasn’t touring so she opened a cafe (not a side job in my mind!). A word about cafes in Havana - they open at 8:30 a.m. and close until people stop drinking. You see, it’s customary to have alcohol at any cafe in Cuba as it's part of the culture and there’s no such thing as an alcohol license. We saw Glenda and the same staff from 8:30 in the morning until at least midnight that same day - always with a smile, welcome customers and connecting with people walking by on the street. 

I was so intrigued by Glenda that I asked if I could interview her - at the time I didn’t know where I would pitch her story but I knew I wanted to share it. She’s a 30 year old female entrepreneur who plays the flute, piano and sings for a living, has a 6-year-old son and a successful European cafe in Havana, Cuba with aspirations of opening more. She's big inspiration. 

Of note, she’s also vegetarian and offers the most flavorful lentil and quinoa dishes (inspired by her Slovakian husbands family). I had not seen lentils or quinoa anywhere so I asked why she offered this and how she sourced her ingredients knowing the limited resources in Cuba. She said “you cannot find quinoa in Cuba" (adorably pronounced Kee-Noah). Her husband flies to Miami once or twice a month to get quinoa plus other things that are not available such as Teriyaki sauce and to-go cups for coffee (she was the ONLY business in town to offer to-go). 

There was a set menu written on the door and printed on paper but she said that often times they come in early and hand-write a menu, because rarely can they offer the same things daily. She runs from place to place on foot in Havana trying to find ingredients like onion, peppers, and tomato because there is no such thing as wholesale and one place never carries the same thing twice. Imagine that? There is no one stop shopping in Cuba! So if you visit her cafe one day and fall in love with a sandwich don’t expect to get the same thing the next day. I initially saw this as a nightmare for an entrepreneur, but when I asked Glenda about this being a challenge, she smiled, shrugged her shoulders and said “what can we do, we improvise every day and it’s all good. People still come back and the food is always great so we don’t worry about it. Instead we just adjust to each day being different.” She does offer meat-based sandwiches because the Cuban culture has not yet caught on to plant-based food, therefore in order for her business to stay open she has to please many palettes (of note she said her next concept will be all vegetarian just a few blocks away from Papa Ernesto).

Some things are consistently there like sweets from a local bakery with whom she has a contract. It’s where they get their bread and desserts each morning. But arrive and grab them early because once they’re gone they’re gone. She also offers beautiful mango juice that looks like a tropical smoothie swirling around in a juice machine as you walk in. She proudly let me know that the mangos used to make the juice are from her family's la finca (Spanish for farm). They grow in her backyard and she juices them in the cafe. 

Each morning we started with delicious cafe (espresso for me, cappuccino for Ricky) followed by lime cucumber freshly squeezed juice that was refreshing and nourishing in the Cuban heat. We sat outside on the cobblestone street while getting heckled by locals to purchase the local paper, buy a handmade self portrait (see Ricky’s Burt Reynolds look-a-like) or we were greeted by one of the many stray dogs (see dog behind Ricky in last photo). 

Our experience at Papa Ernesto was one of the most inforgettable in Cuba. The lovely Glenda, her staff, the beautiful cafe, the vegan food, sitting on the street, meeting the locals and enjoying conversation all helped to create the most memorable Cuban experience. Thank you Papa Ernesto for treating us like family and welcoming us into your culture. 

Entrepreneur challenges: Glenda let an employee go this Sunday morning and was ready to work, wearing her "getting dirty in the kitchen" outfit . It's much cuter than our nicobella kitchen outfits!

Her fresh mango juice was delicious! It was already poured with the straw before I could say "no straw please."

On the last day I found out she offered sweet potato fries! Another vegan option in Cuba — I wasn't hungry, but had to have them.

As you sip your coffee in Cuba, there may be a person across the street drawing your portrait. Then they quietly come over and hand it to you. This portrait of Ricky cost us two pesos and I personally think it was worth twenty.

Dogs are very free in Cuba. :D

Glenda brought us next door to a very old building "built in the Colonial times" where four very wealthy families used to live. Now it houses 16 or more families.




  • Posted by Bobbie on

    Another great post and interesting insight into Cuban life. This story shows the human spirit and its capabilities even in the face of adversity. Looking forward to the next captivating post!

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