OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
The app's offline use was strengthened with the distribution of bulletins, and other alternatives to get the information out to the greatest number of persons possible. Photo: Courtesy of AlaMesa

Since Cuba opened the door to self-employment, more than five years ago now, eating out is much easier, across the country, and a good part of this accomplishment has been covered by AlaMesa (At the table), an informational platform that was first conceived in 2010, along with a veritable boom in the country's gastronomy. It is noteworthy that, within the updating of Cuba's economy, restaurant services has been one of the most dynamic sectors.

According to AlaMesa's commercial director, Ariel Causa, there is a communication gap between the increasingly diverse array of food service providers and potential clients. Thus the idea emerged of creating a tool that would allow for this communication, above all within the Cuban market.

It is clear that nothing was improvised. The great divide between saying and doing was crossed, to bring AlaMesa to life, after doing a study of all existing mechanisms to access such information in Cuba. At that time, available information was incomplete, not quantified, and directed primarily to those living outside of the country, Causa told Granma International.

This reality did not match the rapid development of new business models. The novel directory-magazine became the first and most complete list of restaurants in the nation.

Although the keys to the initiative's success have been many, noteworthy is the focus on using multiple means of getting the content into users hands and having an inclusive approach. AlaMesa includes, without distinction, private restaurants, cooperatives, societies, and state enterprises.

With respect to visual communication, the platform is essentially a tool that allows for the promotion of everything related to Cuban culinary culture, best practices, and whatever you may want to know about restaurants in Cuba, for both domestic and international audiences. Designer Yondainer Gutiérrez explained that, given the need to provide disaggregated information, a platform was created that allows anyone to look for a place to eat, anywhere on the island.

THE ROUTE TO EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION

Operating as self-employed workers, the founders of AlaMesa conceived the webpage, which first appeared in Spanish on May 20, 2011, and a few months later in English, with a "light" design to ensure easy access. Then came the sending of bulletins to registered email users, the positioning of profiles on social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube), and a cell phone application for both Android and iOS users.

AlaMesa is a practical and user-friendly culinary database. Photo: Courtesy of AlaMesa

Since Cuba does not yet have extensive Internet access, the initiative began by seeking clients door-to-door, and strengthening the app's use offline, with the distribution of bulletins, and other alternatives to get the information out to the greatest number of persons possible.

By the end of February, 2017, the creators' own statistics indicate that listed are 930 restaurants, bars, pizzerias, ice cream parlors, etc, in the country's 15 provinces; the application has been installed on 30,000 devices, downloaded from the web and updated biweekly; 80,000 online users; and some 18,000 followers on social networks.

"Knowing that the data was not updated and disorganized, we understood that our product needed to be attractive and give people a useful tool. In my experience as a programmer in different sectors, I learned that functionality is essential in creating something," said AlaMesa's programmer, Alfonso Alí.

He recalled, "The first e-mails we received from our users said they 'liked' the idea. Regardless of the information it contained, it seemed comfortable to them, pleasing visually. This was something that led them to spend more time on the site, and made us different."

For over six years, without fail, AlaMesa has released a weekly bulletin that reaches the mailboxes of users with information about new establishments, culinary experiences, help-wanted announcements, etc.

Via the blog Ajiaco Cubano, the platform puts at the public's disposal recipes and reviews. AlaMesa is available to individuals and institutions with knowledge about the topic, and maintains contact with entities like the Cuban Association of Social Communicators (ACCS), the Havana Luxury Restaurant Enterprise, the Cuban Culinary Association, and the Tourism Professional Training System.

Social inclusion is also defended: restaurants represented must not allow homophobic practices or racial discrimination.

The directory promotes special offers on holidays, and publishes an annual review entitled "Bajo la piel," allowing the team - with young and not-so-young members -to share their informed opinions on a variety of culinary issues in Cuba.

FOCUSING ON THE USER

The brainchild of five friends, AlaMesa gave each one the opportunity to apply what they had learned in their respective professions. This small group grew to include today almost 20 people today, using marketing, design, and technology to keep the focus on the needs of users.

With the purpose of constantly adding value to the product, making it more solid, AlaMesa has been able to successfully present coherent means through which users can access the information provided.

The largest data base of restaurants in Cuba is not only useful, but user-friendly, as well. In the words of Causa, the people behind AlaMesa respond to high expectations, and are never satisfied with being mediocre, working hard with attention to detail and discipline.

He reaffirmed, "We are very concerned about the user, and we have allowed users to mold what we are via constant interaction. You can't talk about a successful product that doesn't involve the people toward whom it is directed. We have lengthy discussions about every change or decision with the goal of maintaining high standards of quality. We put passion into what we do because we are responsible for something people use, and we know how to listen to their suggestions, their criticism."

While they are still knocking on doors as they did when first starting out, Causa adds, "There are many restaurants now that call us first, because they know about the platform's reach, visibility, and usefulness. The owners get involved because they are users, too. There are clients who have even collected the bulletins, which are currently being received by some 4,000 users, and include information about courses and events related to the culinary arts in Cuba."

Also noteworthy is the fact that being listed on AlaMesa is completely free of charge, as are downloading the app and access to all information generated.

In this regard, the engineer Causa emphasizes that work on AlaMesa is decentralized, explaining, "We have been able to acquire collaborators in every province, since there are local idiosyncrasies that those of us in Havana are not aware of, and because we seek personalized attention for our clients. Face to face contact is irreplaceable. This is the way we are able to respond, immediately and effectively, to any need, doubt, or interest of restaurants. Our collaborators know the customs, places, and people in each area. We only lack a presence in Granma and on the Isle of Youth. We're working on that."

For Causa, the effort has been a real learning experience that began with 20 restaurants and is now close to a thousand. He recalls that, for a long time, their work did not provide enough income to survive, but they made the effort to construct AlaMesa, which has in turn constructed them, he said.

Alina Menéndez, owner of the Hecho en Casa restaurant and loyal client, stated, "AlaMesa is more than a digital directory to decide where to eat. It is a voice for the daily change occurring in the country. It is authentic and very Cuban in its writing, design, and discourse, paying attention to the tone, concerned about its image. Through it, the country and its food services are constantly improved."

CHANGE ALONG THE WAY

On the other hand, the founders of AlaMesa emphasize that over the last few years, they have made a series of changes, as the way in which self-employment is seen has evolved, and obstacles overcome.

Causa explains, "Many things that we couldn't have before are now a reality. The very evolution of the economic model's updating has allowed us to do a bit more everyday, of course, abiding by laws established for the non-state sector. There has been an understanding on the social and government level of the advantages that a tool like AlaMesa possesses."

Alí adds, "We battled a great deal to get a site on the .cu domain, and after a modification to the legislature was made, in October of 2015, we were able to get it." (alamesa.nat.cu).

The technical expert adds, however, that work with state entities will move forward gradually, and still depends more on the mentality of individuals involved rather than the law. He reports, for example, that Habaguanex S.A. has worked with the directory from the beginning, because they understand how important it is that "The person sits down to eat and eats well."

Attorney Jenry Álvarez noted the advantages of having a legal framework within which self-employment is seen and functions, although she believes that the reality has now outgrown what was initially conceived, and that the country is analyzing the best way to move toward a future with "many more possibilities."

Álvarez, responsible for representing AlaMesa which has a trademark registered with the Intellectual Property Office, noted that there are still state enterprises that are reluctant to work with the self-employed, even though such workers pay taxes and additionally generate jobs both directly and indirectly.

The attorney continued, "We are beginning to work with the Palmares and Gaviota (state) companies, to include information about their restaurants, and are learning how to gather the information and offer them our services in an effective manner, to strengthen relations. Of course, this is something we want to take to all state chains, and will oblige us to expand our portfolio of products, that today includes, among other things, photo galleries, promotional spaces, and publicity articles."