For coffee entrepreneurs who like to explore new places, moving to a producing country to open a specialty coffee shop sounds like a dream. You get to immerse yourself in another culture, work with farmers on a local level, and support the specialty coffee culture of a traditional community. No more overseas shipping containers, no more long delays after harvest, and fewer communication complications.
But is it all as romantic as it sounds?
To find out, I reached out to Kate Avansino, the US American Co-owner and Founder of Cafébre in Oaxaca, Mexico.
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Coffee and art combine at Cafébre. Photo credit: Nicole Diefenbach
Working With Local Producers
The bustling energy of Oaxaca fades into peaceful stillness as you walk into Cafébre’s interior patio. Your soul settles; you take the time to select a drink from a chalk menu that’s half coffee brew methods, half artwork.
But Cafébre is about more than just the consumer experience. It’s also the interactions between producers, baristas, roasters, and enthusiasts. As a longtime baker, Kate was lured into coffee by its complexity, yet it’s the ability to connect to a community that kept her hooked.
The artwork at Cafébre is contributed by a mix of locals and friends. Credit: Nicole Diefenbach
Being in Oaxaca, a highly indigenous area characterized by small-holder coffee production, Kate and the rest of her team can forge strong relationships with farmers. “We are nothing without our amazing producers,” Kate tells me, “and like to think of ourselves as guardians of the flavors that they give us, not superstars that create them.”
Kate and her right-hand woman Saraí López regularly meet producers to conduct on-site brewing exercises, help them plant new coffee trees, and more. What’s more, they make a point to cup coffee with all the producers they buy from.
Kate explains that many producers never get to taste their own coffees. This isn’t just unjust; it’s also detrimental to producers’ ability to evaluate quality, experiment, and understand consumers’ demands. Through cupping with the team at Cafébre, producers develop a deeper connection with the final presentation of their coffees and see through the lens of a customer.
Kate Avansino and Kevin Mayberry sort green coffee samples. Credit: Nicole Diefenbach
Serving a Community of Consumers
However, it’s not just producers that Kate and her team work to serve. It’s also the local consumers, who often have different expectations of coffee than third wave aficionados in Portland, Melbourne, or Oslo, for example.
I ask Kate about the challenges this poses. Whether you are in Oaxaca or San Diego, managing expectations is key to satisfied customers. Not every person who walks into your café is going to want a lightly roasted, unsweetened, specialty coffee.
Kate and her staff have had to absorb a myriad of expectations regarding coffee, and perhaps the key to Cafébre’s success relies on how they react.
Beans, grounds, and brew: three tools used for sensory training at Cafébre. Credit: Saraí López
“We believe that there is no right and wrong in coffee, that people simply have different preferences,” says Kate. “That being said, we have logical and scientific reasons why we roast the way we do, why we extract espresso volumetrically, why we texture our milk to a slightly lower temperature.”
Cafébre’s quality standards are unmoving, but customer interactions rely on patience and explanation. A cornerstone of their service model is explaining what they do and why they do it, while also respecting other people’s relationships with coffee – a delicate balance to strike. Kate emphasizes that this is common to the specialty coffee industry everywhere.
“Specialty coffee is an amazing world that seems to have its head in the world of science and its heart in the world of art,” she tells me. And so, even though rigid roast profiles and espresso brew ratios are a vital part of Cafébre’s preparation, baristas connect to patrons through the sensory elements of the craft. Before brewing, freshly ground coffee is presented to each customer to share the delicate dry fragrances.
Enabling customers to experience the magic in good coffee. Credit: Nicole Diefenbach
Demonstrating Cultural Sensitivity
It’s not just different coffee cultures that Kate is operating in. Operating a specialty coffee shop in a coffee-producing country as an expat or immigrant requires cultural awareness. Kate and her husband have set out to respect both the farmers who producer their coffee and also Oaxaca’s local culture.
In this region of Mexico, there is a long-standing tradition of gold and silver working (orfébreria). The name “Cafébre” both references this and the art of coffee extraction. Kate is aware that it takes more than a good name to integrate, however. She’s lived in Oaxaca for more than a decade but knows there is still much to learn.
“I try to remain extremely sensitive to cultural situations that I may not fully understand,” she says. Listening to her customers and partners, remaining humble, and being open to criticism – this is how she shows respect. What’s more, she believes these actions are crucial to Cafébre’s growth.
Cafébre’s five-kilo coffee roaster. Credit: Nicole Diefenbach
Supplies & Repairs: A Challenging Situation
On a more practical note, opening a coffee shop in a producing country can create administrative and logistical challenges. As every specialty shop operator knows, certain supplies are difficult to source. This problem is only exacerbated when working in a producing country or second-wave area.
So what happens when you need to replace a scale or buy a new gooseneck kettle in Oaxaca? Saraí, as Cafébre’s quality specialist, once had to drive all the way to Puebla, over four hours away, in order to purchase Kalita Wave filters.
Kate assures me, however, that it’s not quite as difficult as it may seem. “Some parts have to be sourced and shipped from Mexico City,” she admits, “but it hasn’t been too bad.”
The launch of Amazon Global has helped, even though it often takes a long time to receive orders. Shipping is not nearly as efficient as in the United States, but strides are being made and progress is noticeable.
As for equipment repairs, Cafébre has a local specialist that keeps their tools maintained and ready for service. They can be relied on for emergency repairs – a necessary consideration for any third wave coffee shop.
Freshly roasted coffee sourced from Finca La Cañada, Mexico. Credit: Kevin Mayberry
Regardless of where you open a specialty coffee shop, Kate tells me, “The more that others see your passion and share it with you, the more you will grow as a person and as a business.”
When it comes to running a café in a producing country, make sure to balance your ideals with the norms of your surrounding culture. Listen to your patrons and allow your business to evolve to meet their needs. And take advantage of meeting local farmers to create a healthy and respectful network.
I’ll be cheering you on all the way.
Written by Kevin Mayberry.
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