HAVANA – Cuba has quietly opened a first-of-its-kind store specializing in bulk goods in Havana: Zona +, a high-ceiling space with racks stacked with large tins of tomato sauce, toilet paper and cooking oil by the gallon.
It's not quite Costco, and it falls short of satisfying longstanding calls for a wholesale market to support the growing class of small-restaurant and-cafeteria owners who have set up shop under President Raul Castro's economic reforms begun six years ago.
But it could help relieve the pressure that those entrepreneurs have been putting on other retail stores by snapping up huge quantities of goods, leaving regular customers in the lurch.
On a recent afternoon, Naidi Carrazana pushed a shopping cart loaded with cases of beer, bottled water and soft drinks she needs to stock her small cafeteria nearby. She acknowledged that business owners like her who make big purchases have been emptying market shelves of things like flour, chicken and tomato paste, and said the new store can help with that.
"A place like this allows you to buy in bulk, and that's a benefit for us and a benefit for the people," Carrazana said.
Located in the upscale western suburb of Miramar, Zona + launched a little over a week ago with zero fanfare. Manager Javier Munoz said shoppers are allowed to buy unlimited quantities, but he declined to comment further because he was not authorized to do so by the store's state-run parent company.
Employees said business has been good despite the lack of publicity, as word of the opening spread mouth-to-mouth. One customer showed up in a car and bought 50 3-kilogram (6.6-pound) cans of tomatoes to supply a restaurant.
Similar stores are being planned for other parts of the city, they added.
In Cuba, government entities are the only ones able to import and acquire goods at wholesale, and wholesale access has been a crucial demand of the 500,000 or so small-business owners and their employees, many of them working in the food-service sector.
The government has promised to set up wholesale markets for private entrepreneurs, but that has yet to materialize and their only option has been the same retail stores where the general population shops.
Although goods at Zona + are bulk, that doesn't entail a price break. For example, a kilogram of high-end Serrano coffee costs $14.05 there, while the same kilo was $14 on the same day at a regular store elsewhere in Havana.
"The place is pretty, the service is good, but it's still the same price as retail. In truth, it doesn't resolve our problems," Carrazana said. "I hope this is like a seed for a wholesale market where we entrepreneurs can buy at a different price."
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