Local businesses mull Cuban trade possibilities
Dulce de leche is not currently a flavor offered by Philadelphia-based Bassetts Ice Cream Co. "Closest to that is our classic butterscotch vanilla, which has . . . those caramel notes that a dulce de leche does," Bassetts president Michael Strange said Wednesday when asked whether and how his company would serve Cuba if a U.S. plan to reestablish diplomatic ties and expand economic trade after nearly 53 years succeeds.
Dulce de leche is not currently a flavor offered by Philadelphia-based Bassetts Ice Cream Co.
"Closest to that is our classic butterscotch vanilla, which has . . . those caramel notes that a dulce de leche does," Bassetts president Michael Strange said Wednesday when asked whether and how his company would serve Cuba if a U.S. plan to reestablish diplomatic ties and expand economic trade after nearly 53 years succeeds.
"If we find the right retail partners there . . . and they give us direction on flavor . . . I would certainly look into developing those flavors," Strange said.
As it happened, he was on a call with one of Bassetts' newest export markets, China, when President Obama announced a new relationship with the Caribbean nation, one that inspired hopefulness among the region's business community.
"We've been able to travel there for several years now as part of a group. Opening it up on an individual basis, which we hope is what's going to happen, will be very exciting," said Chris Novelli, office manager at Just to Travel of Bridgeport, which recently merged with Wings Travel Group in Blue Bell. "It's a wonderful destination."
Cuba's coveted cigars becoming legally sanctioned for sale in this country would certainly be cause for a celebratory smoke among many stogie aficionados.
But "until anything becomes official," it wasn't something Holt's Cigar Co. was willing to comment on Wednesday, said J.R. Johnson, manager of the Center City store.
There are substantial hurdles to clear before any U.S. business can count on trade with Cuba, noted officials at the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit that has helped companies in Southeastern Pennsylvania and South Jersey generate more than $1 billion in export sales since its creation in 2002.
Chief among them: "It's up to Congress to take affirmative action before restrictions can be eased or lifted," said Linda Mysliwy Conlin, president of the center and formerly vice chair of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.
"As a world trade center, we remain optimistic that when the timing is right and appropriate and the U.S. government lifts sanctions," Conlin said, "we will be ready to help our companies correctly assess opportunities and be able to navigate the complexities and risks."
Those are not minor, said Dino Ramos, the center's senior vice president of trade services.
"My main concern for our clients would be getting paid. Right now, the big problem is they [Cuba] lack hard currency. . . . And then the other caveat would be, right now, there are very few private-sector buyers. Most of the goods and services are controlled by government agencies. I don't think their government has much money."
That said, Ramos noted that other countries have been trading with Cuba, including Canada and Spain.
At the Charles D. Close School of Entrepreneurship at Drexel University, Roy Carriker, a professor and director of technology entrepreneurship, said an educational mission to Cuba a couple years ago convinced him that U.S. businesses specializing in modern technologies - by that, he meant even basic plumbing - are "going to find opportunity there. The whole infrastructure is crumbling."
He also left wanting to return with Drexel students.
"There was just this incredible level of entrepreneurship," Carriker said, recalling physicians' driving taxis to make ends meet, as well as a man he found strategically positioned next to artisans who was crafting tubes out of cardboard and duct tape to transport rolled-up artwork.
"Everyone in Cuba has to be an entrepreneur to survive," he said.
At Bassetts, Strange will first wait for Congress to act and then for trade missions to identify potential reliable buyers. Key for Bassetts will be a growing hospitality and tourism industry, which would spawn more hotels and restaurants, he said.
Strange will have time to come up with flavors, suggested Wilfred Muskens, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for international business development. He has no immediate plans to open trade offices in Cuba.
"We could start looking at Cuba carefully maybe in the next year or two," Muskens said. "Our strategy . . . is really to focus on markets that are already open, for example the United Arab Emirates or Indonesia."