Vladimir Bencomo and Joel Cuellar started their businesses in Havana in 2013, taking advantage of a government decision to allow increased private economic activity.
In a rented house near the Almendares River, they opened their pastry shop with a $5,500 loan from a friend, an oven from an old kitchen and a hand blender for making meringue.
Six months later, they moved the bakery into the Vedado neighborhood, to a 1940s architectural gem with high ceilings and stained glass windows, near the Parque del Quijote and the University of Havana.
Business has gone so well that the company reported 3.5 million pesos — about $135,000 — in sales to the island’s tax authorities.
But Bencomo, the pastry expert, and Cuellar, the lawyer and businessman, were still hungry to expand. Reversing direction on the usual Miami-to-Cuba export pattern, they opened an outpost in Miami’s Kendall neighborhood at Bird Road and SW 147th Avenue in August. They funded the expansion with a loan from a sister who lives in Jamaica and by selling some of their belongings in Cuba, said Cuellar.
Its name is the same as in Havana: Almendrares.
The name was designed to be portable to neighborhoods beyond the Almendares River. And almonds – almendras in Spanish – are all but required in modern pastry making, a versatile ingredient that “gives a touch of elegance to all pastries.”
Bencomo, who describes himself as “hyperactive and very interested in creativity,” said the Miami branch was born out of “the need and desire for expansion.”
Cuellar is already a resident of the United States and Bencomo is in the process of obtaining his residency. They both arrived in Miami with the B-2 tourism visa valid for five years and then applied for permanent residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
In Cuba, a person can have only one license for private economic activity, he said. “I could have expanded unofficially, opened another business in the name of any relative, but I did not want to risk having someone assume the business was mine and make trouble,” said Becomo. His Havana bakery employs 25; he didn’t want to risk their jobs.
And then there are the challenges of operating within Cuba’s strict legal limits, said Cuellar, 36.
“If Vladimir needed two sacks of flour, three flats of eggs and a sack of sugar, that had to be bought in the place and at the price established by the state. There must be proof that the ingredients were not bought on the black market,” he said.
In Havana, the business also had to cap sales so they wouldn’t exceed government profit limits — a system Bencomo, 45, finds frustrating.
“Why can’t I have a shop in Varadero, which has only one pastry shop, Doña Neli, and it’s always empty? Why can’t I? The more I grow, my tax payments will increase, there will be more jobs, more workers and more benefits,” he added.
Bencomo remains the official operator of the Havana bakery, now administered by one of his best friends, who has worked with the team since the beginning.
Their success on the island has translated into Miami sales. “Nearly 50 percent of the clients we have here know us from Cuba or know about our bakery there,” said Cuellar.
Bárbara Medinilla, a client the bakers call “the president of our fan club,” met the pair during her first return to Havana, 30 years after she left.
“I went with my granddaughter to celebrate her birthday. I asked for a good pastry shop and my sister recommended Almendrares. We bought a box of assorted pastries and ate them during a trip to Varadero,” said Medinilla. She later bought 500 pastries for the birthday party.
“The pastries here are also delicious,” said Medinilla, who stops by frequently for a cappuccino.
Bencomo is excited about the seemingly endless possibilities. “Who said that beef pasteles can’t be square and that the guava ones can’t be round?” asked Bencomo.
The shop offers a wide variety of sweets and cakes, including the famous Bombon cake; the Selva Negra, made with chocolate cake and strawberries; and the Oreo, based on the famed cookies.
Bencomo said he’s also trying to recreate in Kendall some of the old favorites in Cuba, including a cream cake like the famous ones sold in the 1980s in Havana’s Centro Market, in the old Sears building on the corner of Reina and Amistad streets. He’d also like to make a series of gaceñigas, a famous simple cake created to honor a visiting Italian soprano in the 19th Century. But he can’t find the rectangular mold.
The businessmen plan to expand to new areas like the Design District or Wynwood, where Bencomo can explore his creativity with more experimental pastries.
“I am not interested in what other bakeries are doing, only in what they are NOT doing. I want people to try something different,” he said. “With me, if you don’t buy I give it to you free because I know that you’re going to come back. That’s how sure I am of what I make, and the love I put into it.”
This story was updated to include more information about the owners.
Follow Sarah Moreno on Twitter: @SarahMorenoENH