Coffee is difficult to come by in Cuba. Like most tropical countries that produce coffee, Cuba exports the bulk of their yield. They sell primarily to Europe, but if not for the embargo, they would probably sell most of it to Starbucks. Perhaps because of this, Cuba does not have a café culture, and while you can occasionally find a proper coffee shop with an espresso machine and somewhere to sit down, these places are few and far between. In Cuba, rather than look for a coffee shop, you seek out a window vendor.
The window vendor is one of the quintessential parts of Cuba. For many years, private enterprise was prohibited by the government. They finally began to allow small, private businesses to open, but there were a lot of restrictions, and anyone who became too successful risked getting taxed into bankruptcy. The government continues to relax restrictions, and many more private businesses of all types are popping up. But selling from the window is still the most common type of small business in Cuba.
“Window Vendor” is not an official name. I’m just referring to them as such because they most commonly sell from a front window of their home. Cuban houses are built right on the street, and people walking from one place to another pass by the front windows all day. Only the wooden shutters separate those inside from the rest of the city. Most houses also have very generous windowsills which make a perfect counter for cups or plates. The counter isn’t always a windowsill. Some vendors set up a more formal counter in the hallway just inside their front door, or in their front room. But the window is the most common.
The window vendor has a number of advantages. One is that the business is right there in the home – no additional cost for rent, and a commute measure in footsteps. If you have a regular day job, you can make some extra money when you’re at home in the evening or on the weekend, and for many people selling from the window it is their primary occupation. If you don’t have customers, you can do whatever you would do at home, clean, read a book, watch TV. Need a lunch break? Just close the shutters. It is also hard to imagine a simple window business that sells coffee and snacks making enough money to run afoul of the government, so it is a relatively safe and headache-free venture.
They display what they have for the day on a board, usually one that is brightly colored. The items are written on pieces of lathe or paper that can easily slid in and out of holders on the board. Everything they have is listed, and as they run out of something they simply remove the marker for that item. Window vendors sell a variety of things: sandwiches, pizza, sodas, juices, cookies, and various types of snack bars, including my favorite, a peanut butter bar called “mani molida” which, if one is judging by taste is roughly 50% sugar. But no item sold from the window is more iconic than coffee.
The window vendor makes the coffee in the morning. They use the government-subsidized coffee, called ¡Hola! It’s dark roasted and cut with chicory root, much like the traditional coffee of New Orleans. The chicory gives the fairly bland Cuban coffee more body and a hint of sweetness. They prepare the coffee using an Italian stove-top espresso maker, add in generous amounts of sugar, and then put it in an insulated thermos. When you order, the coffee is served into tiny cups, each about the size of an espresso cup. When the thermos runs dry, the coffee is done for the day.
Cuban coffee is strong and very sweet. I don’t ever drink coffee with sugar at home, or really anywhere for that matter. I usually prefer coffee black. But I was surprised how good Cuban coffee is. The sweetness balances the coffee very well, and Cuban coffee without sugar just isn’t the same. I think it’s something that may not be that good if drunk somewhere else, but when you’re in Cuba, in the place where it’s served, it’s an indispensable part of the flavor landscape. It’s a good way to start your morning, but it’s even better as a late afternoon pick-me-up when the heat begins to make you feel heavy and sluggish.
There are drawbacks to being reliant on the window vendors for coffee. The biggest one is that they do run out. And sometimes it seems like they all run out at the same time. There were more than a few afternoons when we spent close to an hour seeking out our second wind in liquid form, occasionally without luck. It becomes a bit like a scavenger hunt, walking down new streets, always scanning for a board that still says “Café”. But just like the flavor of the coffee, the hunt for it, and the not knowing if you’ll find it, is part of the experience of Cuba.
Because in Cuba, you never know.