Taste of Old Havana

Julian Crews expected his visit to Cuba to be an unforgettable experience, but he didn’t expect the food to change his life.

In 1999, Crews, a general assignment reporter for Chicago’s WGN TV, traveled to Cuba to cover former Governor George Ryan’s unprecedented visit as the first U.S. governor to lead a humanitarian mission to Cuba in nearly 40 years. At a restaurant in Havana, Crews watched three waiters serve one of Cuba’s most renowned dishes---frijoles negros (black beans).

At first bite, Crews knew one thing without a doubt. His great-grandfather’s version was better. “I realized at that moment that there wasn’t anything better than my family’s frijoles negros on either side of the Florida Strait,” Crews says. “I knew they were amazing because I lived in Miami for about eight years, and I tried a good cross-section of Cuban food. Nothing touched my family recipes.” The seed for a business had been planted. “That was the first time I thought about [packaging] the centuries-old family recipe,” Crews says.

In December 2008, Crews launched Old Havana Foods, a Chicago-based company producing all-natural Cuban gourmet products, including his family’s celebrated black beans, Chili Cubano and Famous Black Bean Dip. As of now, the products are only available through oldhavanafoods.com, the Old Havana Foods website, which also showcases music, art and literature from his artistically inclined relatives. But several retail outlets are considering carrying the brand, and Crews hopes that, by the end of 2009, Old Havana Foods will be in a number of stores—a sure sign of success for his labor of love.

A veteran journalist, Crews had no prior experience in the food industry. But he had covered culinary shows and food events, where he gained access to seasoned food-industry professionals. Talking to food show organizers and vendors, Crews learned that many gourmet companies started with family recipes. “People would start cooking great family recipes for their friends and eventually start selling it. I started thinking about launching a line of all-natural, gourmet Cuban-style food,” Crews says. “Every time I cook the beans, I always get a reaction of, ‘Wow, this flavor is like nothing I’ve ever tasted before!’”

That reaction brought Crews’ great-grandfather, Julio Rivero, a modest degree of fame in Old Havana when he perfected the recipe in the late 1800s. The secret to the unique flavor lies in sweet onions, sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil, freshly pressed garlic, Caribbean spices and peppers, raw cane sugar, a splash of vermouth and a signature sofrito made from 12 natural ingredients.

At home, the process takes nearly two days, but Crews knew that a bottled version of the product would fill a growing niche. During an initial research phase before launching Old Havana Foods, he discovered that more non-Hispanics than Hispanics were consuming beans in recent years, and general bean consumption is on the rise. Outside of New York and Miami, Crews says, people are less familiar with Cuban cuisine, and he had the opportunity introduce them to it with easy-to-prepare meals.

Crews spent months searching for a co-packer to reproduce the recipe exactly the way he makes it in his own kitchen. “I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to find a co-packer because I wanted to start with a small batch on a shoe-string budget,” Crews says. In addition, he had to balance his full-time job and family responsibilities as a husband and father of two.

And then there was the economy. “I certainly didn’t anticipate the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression when I started Old Havana Foods. … There were times I lost heart, having mouths to feed at home and really wanting to get this business going. It was almost an obsession.” He persisted and saw a robust launch in December with an expected post-holiday slowdown, followed by incremental growth in spring. Innovative marketing boosted the launch, with blogs, Google ads and other web tactics. His bosses at WGN have even encouraged him to write about the entrepreneurial experience on the WGN Morning News blog, where Crews posts entries under “Julian’s Beans Quest.” Down the road, he hopes to go guerilla with a 1957 Oldsmobile painted with Old Havana Foods that will cruise through the Chicago Loop.

For Crews, all the effort is about much more than beans. The passion comes from family memories—his grandmother cooking delicious food and telling stories about Cuba. Through Old Havana Foods, Crews continues the tradition for his son and daughter and invites the public to partake in the legacy. “There is a definite sense of pride and joy in seeing a dream finally become a reality. I have this feeling that my old Cuban ancestors are propelling me forward toward the goal, which is to create a leading, all-natural Cuban gourmet line of food.”

Diana A. Terry-Azíos