Tapping into a niche market in Cuba, given the prevailing confusion regarding current regulations on travel to that country, is a gutsy move.
However, it's one that Cuban-born Saul Berenthal did make when he opened the seven-room Chateau Blanc bed-and-breakfast in Havana on Sept. 14, the first and only family-owned, kosher-compliant establishment in Cuba.
The story leading up to the Chateau's debut "has many branches," according to Berenthal.
His family hails from a community of Jewish Cubans who fled Cuba for the U.S. in the early 1960s; Berenthal was 16 when he arrived in America. He became a U.S. citizen and worked for IBM before starting a software company.
But Berenthal maintained a strong connection to Cuba and the Jewish community there, returning to visit many times.
In 2014, when President Obama announced a diplomatic opening to Cuba, Berenthal saw it as a pathway to get Cubans into the 21st century, and in 2015 he paired up with a business partner to build a factory in Cuba.
They planned to make tractors for small farms. They'd both seen farmers in Cuba struggling to till their land with shovels, hoes or oxen. The tractors would be manufactured in the U.S. and assembled in Cuba, and they hoped to start production in 2017.
However, that venture got sidelined, so Berenthal took a different approach.
"I believe that by encouraging travel to Cuba, we can help strengthen not only the local Jewish community but also help develop the 'cuentrapropista' initiatives -- the name given to someone who is doing a business activity on his own," he said. "There are about 180 such activities now in Cuba for which one can request a license to operate. Operating a B&B is one of them."
As Cuban born, he could invest in Cuba and own a house in Havana or in another city, in the countryside or at a beach area.
He purchased the four-story building from the grandson of the former president of the Bank of Cuba, who had also left Cuba in the 1960s. Chateau Blanc is in the Nuevo Vedado residential area of Havana near embassies that borders the Almendares River and the Havana forest.
"We were going to name it the White House -- my daughter's married name is White -- but decided to go with the French words for white house," he said.
The building was totally refurbished and features a ballroom for 80, a rooftop bar and lounge called Posh, complimentary WiFi and common areas with televisions, a library and large kosher kitchens.
"We're concentrating on the kosher market of travelers," he said. "It's a unique segment, and we hope to attract Jewish travelers from around the world, but everyone is welcome. We want to show the Cuban people that there is an opportunity to promote and attract the kosher Jewish travel sector."
The Chateau's kosher kitchens are overseen by a certified supervisor to ensure that all foods are prepared according to strict kosher standards. Berenthal said that guests are not allowed to bring in food, and all food in the establishment is prepared onsite. Staff will pack to-go lunches or meals for guests who are sightseeing.
The seven air-conditioned guest rooms include two suites with living areas that can each accommodate up to four and six guests.
Berenthal's two Cuban partners oversee the B&B's day-to-day operations, along with a staff of 12 locals. Berenthal said the hotel was "an opportunity for them to learn hospitality skills and to participate in a Cuban-owned entity that demonstrates that business in Cuba is alive and thriving."
Already, Chateau Blanc has hosted a Cuban wedding and has a group booked in November and two more in December.
Chateau Blanc works with a number of licensed tour operators to ensure that U.S. travelers are compliant with the current OFAC regulations under the Support for the Cuban People category of legal travel, which requires a full schedule of activities and exchanges with Cuban people.
Berenthal's own licensed tour operator entity, www.P2P-llc.com, was founded in 2018 and handles all the bookings, arrangements and itineraries for his guests at Chateau Blanc as well as for travel throughout Cuba for Jewish and non-kosher travelers.
All-inclusive rates for one week for U.S. travelers are $2,400 per person year round, including accommodations, meals at Chateau Blanc, ground transportation and the required itinerary of activities.
"We do bookings for both Chateau Blanc as well as for travelers utilizing hotels or other casas if that is their preference," he said. "We want to leverage our experience in travel planning regardless of whether we host the accommodations or not."
For example, he is currently working with a group that may split their accommodations, with some staying at Chateau Blanc and others at a hotel.