Connections for Success



Delivering Lessons Learned in Cuba to the Restaurant Industry
Robert Swenson

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 resourceful.

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 draws customers;
  • Repairing rather than replacing equipment; and
  • Finding alternate uses for supplies rather than disposing of them.

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 go 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 trip.

For more information, contact Rob Swenson at [email protected], or call him at 312.670.7444. Visit to learn more about our Restaurant Group.

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