Abogados, cafe owners Ofelia Ponce and Inti Martínez-Alemán will tell you, is Spanish for lawyers. But, with the exception of some coffee drink names (like Lawtte), Abogados Cafe has little connection to the law. Other than Martínez-Alemán's legal offices upstairs.
This year-old shop in Como Park is all about the coffee — Latin American specialty coffee — and ambience.
Eye On St. Paul recently visited the husband-and-wife team that opened the Twin Cities first Latino-owned coffee shop to see what the buzz is about. This interview was edited for length.
Q: What prompted you to start? You had the law firm before the coffee shop, right?
Inti: I needed to get a real job. [laughs] So, Ofelia loves coffee, always loved coffee. When she moved here, I took her to dozens and dozens of shops, different places in the coffee community. When the pandemic hit, we were like, "Oh, coffee shops are shut down." We bought a little espresso machine, and we started pulling shots, and [making] latte and cappuccino.
Then our tenants downstairs outgrew their space. We said, "What do we do with all this space? We can't rent it out as an office anymore because everybody's working from home." So, we rezoned the building. That required signatures from our neighbors. And they said, "You should get a coffee shop."
Ofelia: Every single house [said that], like every single one of them.
Q: Just out of the blue?
Ofelia: Instead of getting a tenant, I mean, I love coffee. And [Inti] got into coffee through all [the pandemic]. And so, we're like "Let me do it." We're both from Latin America, born and raised in Honduras. We know coffee. So, we did it.
Q: Are you both still attorneys?
Ofelia: We're both attorneys in Honduras. Inti is licensed here.
Q: What's your specialty?
Inti: I do business litigation, primarily for Hispanic business owners.
Q: So, how's it been going?
Ofelia: It's been going great. The Como Park neighborhood has been nothing but very supportive. Everybody wanted a coffee shop — for 20-plus years. And people that moved out, that lived in the neighborhood, once they learned a coffee shop came in, they've come back.
Q: What coffee are you best at?
Ofelia: We specialize in specialty Latin American coffee. We wanted to have something that spoke to us. Right now, we have Mexico, Honduras, Colombia and Peru. And we use each one for different things. So, Mexico, if you try any of our signature drinks, that's Mexico. And that's because of the notes. Mexico has lot of caramel. And goes very well with milk. We use Honduras for our cold brew. Because that has notes of chocolate. That's really nice when it's cold. Colombia, we use it for our drip coffee and has notes of orange and lemon.
Q: It's almost like you're curating a collection.
Inti: That's true. And it takes a lot of caffeine to reach the right recipe. [laughs] Sometimes we are in love with an idea for a drink, but for some reason we can't just nail it. So, we won't put it on the menu until we feel like, "Will I drink this myself?"
Q: Do your customers have this same kind of expertise, or are you introducing it to them?
Inti: I would say 90 percent are not experts. But I'd say one out of 10 are connoisseurs. They ask very precise questions.
Q: Would you turn me into a connoisseur if I came here often enough?
Inti: Something that we realize with coffee is, one, it's very personal. And two, it's not only about the palate, but also the social connection part. Connection with the baristas, with us, even with your peers who are in the room.
Ofelia: That's what we're going for. We're going for a Latin America coffee experience. We're only serving Latin America specialty coffees. Our coffee shop recreates a small town. Maybe someone from Colombia might say, "Oh, this looks like my grandfather's backyard patio. Or my great-grandmother had this tile." That's what we're going for.
I would say our business relies on a focus on service. Hospitality. So, Latin America is very, "Would you like a glass of water?" And then we ask you again. And then we ask you again, and it's not because we want to be insistent. But when you come to our home, we want you to feel at home.
Q: Any surprises after a year?
Ofelia: I think that we weren't expecting as much catering.
Inti: We didn't know that that was an under-tapped market. For coffee, or breakfast. Meetings.
Q: What is your favorite part of running the coffee shop?
Ofelia: The people.
Inti: I mean, it sounds cliché, but it's actually getting to know people — them sharing with us very personal details over the counter. It's very moving, very touching.
Another thing, you have no idea how many people who are strangers become friends. And I think it's because it's so small.
Q: How many people can you seat?
Inti: Comfortably? Fifteen.
Q: Coffee shops are notorious for somebody bringing their laptop and sitting all day. Do you have that?
Ofelia: We don't want that. We want people to have a coffee experience. In Latin America, unless you're an expat, you go there to talk.
Inti: In Latin America, if you pull out a laptop, you have no friends.
Q: So where do you go from here? Coffee full-time?
Inti: We're taking it one step at a time. So far, I'm still practicing law. And I love practicing law. But I also like the hospitality industry. Who knows where we'll be in five or 10 years.