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Serving the Latino community

A coffee connoisseur hopes to expand by surpassing Starbucks in quality and offering Latin-inspired drinks.

September 15, 2008|Cyndia Zwahlen | Special to The Times

Ah, the romance of owning your own coffeehouse: the gently steaming cups of fragrant cappuccino, the intellectual chitchat with your regulars, the freedom of being your own boss.

The reality?

Try getting up at 5 a.m. to drive an hour round trip -- without the benefit of caffeine -- to pick up pastries for your shop. Staying on your feet as long as 17 hours a day. Training green employees to deliver consistent quality. Scrubbing floors. Replacing employees. Battling Starbucks.

Repeat, seven days a week.

That's life for Ulysses Romero, owner of Tierra Mia Coffee Co. in South Gate.

The Stanford MBA graduate and former business consultant is pouring his energy and the knowledge picked up working for coffee retailers large and small into a concept he hopes can grow into multiple profitable locations.

"It's one thing to sit in a coffeehouse and drink coffee; it's another thing to run it as a business," said Romero, who opened his doors in March.

The 30-year-old coffee connoisseur doesn't plan to merely compete with Starbucks Corp. His goal is to surpass Starbucks in quality and entice Latinos and others with Latin-inspired coffee drinks, as well as beverages familiar to most coffee-chain regulars.

Tierra Mia's direct-trade beans are imported from Latin American farms by Intelligentsia Tea & Coffee Co. of Chicago, which insists growers get at least 25% above fair trade, the internationally established minimum price per pound. The beans are roasted in small batches in Los Angeles by the specialty supplier, which also has a coffee shop in Silver Lake.

The shop's baristas were trained by Kyle Glanville, who won the 2008 U.S. Barista Championship and heads research and development at Intelligentsia's Los Angeles roasting facility.

At Tierra Mia, any single espresso that takes more or less than 23 seconds to pull is tossed. Each coffee is brewed to order. Milk isn't pre-steamed in large jugs. Such attention to detail is key to exceptional taste, Romero said.

His offerings recently caught the attention of Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic at the LA Weekly, who called the shop's espressos "world class" in his short review and raved about the Cubano con leche, an espresso pulled into turbinado sugar and combined with steamed half-and-half.

Sales of espresso and other drinks have increased 5% a week since the shop opened, Romero said. With about 145 transactions a day, the owner says, he probably is breaking even. His goal to reach $400,000 in sales in the first year is within sight, he said.

"I think we've just scratched the surface for the potential at this location," said Romero, who is backed by 18 investors, both individuals and partnerships. Some industry veterans agree.

The Latino market "hasn't really been served very well at all regarding specialty coffee, and it's a community that has a long history of having a deep coffee culture," said Martin Diedrich, who founded the Diedrich Coffee chain before leaving in 2004 to open Kean Coffee shop in Newport Beach.

"I think it's an absolutely fabulous idea," said Diedrich, who grew up on a coffee plantation. He let Romero work at his shop, shared his business plan and helped refine the start-up's strategies, he said.

Romero considers Tierra Mia one of the so-called third-wave coffee retailers. These business owners label Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and other chains as the second wave, an improvement on, say, instant coffee or mass-market brews, but not delivering top quality and flavor.

"I think it's probably not dissimilar to wine or microbrewery beers where maybe category leaders that are much larger in size, like Sam Adams, helped define the context. Then you have the other folks who come in after that and refine it and take it to another level," said Doug Zell, founder of Intelligentsia.

Superior coffee, he said, can be had for less of a price increase than is required to step up to a quality microbrew or a specialty wine. In fact, Zell believes quality coffee drinks are underpriced, even at the third-wave shops such as his Silver Lake location where prices are higher than at his Chicago locations.

Those prices are a leftover from the days when he had to compete with Starbucks during its expansion boom, said Zell, who is opening a location in Venice.

Although that means Tierra Mia's potential customers may not balk at his prices, which include a $1.95 16-ounce brewed coffee and $3.95 for the same-size specialty coffee drink, Romero acknowledged that his fledgling business faces several challenges.

His coffee may taste great, but Tierra Mia has no brand recognition. Most of his business now comes from first-generation Spanish speakers and is concentrated in the evening. He is just beginning to attract the morning commuters who whiz by his busy intersection off the 710 Freeway. Many are on their way to one of the four or five Starbucks locations within a few miles of Tierra Mia.

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