Contributor Julie Wolfson spends time with Ulysses Romero of Tierra Mia Coffee in this very special two-part series.
From Panama Geisha pour overs to custom-made frappes with horchata, Tierra Mia Coffee’s (TMC) menu has something for everyone.
Owner Ulysses Romero learned at a young age that a good product and hard work can pay off. His father started Romero’s Food Products, an internationally distributed producer of fine Hispanic food stuffs renowned for their tortillas; the Romero family has a huge house in La Habra Heights to show for it.
On a recent Saturday night, this palatial family home was filled with the sounds of mariachi and party goers as the staff, family and friends toasted to five successful years at Tierra Mia Coffee. This two-part feature series is about that coffee company – and its brand new cafe in Echo Park – but it's also about the culture of hard work and quality that drives Tierra Mia, traits seemingly passed down by blood from one Romero to the next.
Arriving at the party we were greeted by the mariachi band and a tiny girl wearing a sparkly party skirt with an “I Heart Tierra Mia” top. The garden was decorated with white tablecloths, burlap coffee bags and gorgeous yellow and white flower arrangements. As the staff arrived dressed up for a night of dinner and dancing, the mood was electric. I assumed this whole thing was going to be a treat – a giant party at the Romero's! – but my expectations were blown away Upon learning that Raul Romero, Ulysses' father and patriarch of the Romero family, had roasted two whole lambs in his back yard fire pit. The elder Mr. Romero then processed to make 120 pounds of lamb carnitas while the rest of the family pitched in with party planning, decorating and cooking.
Ulysses Romero had planned the evening to celebrate the contribution of his family and staff to the success of TMC. As the sun set and the sky turned from twilight to nightfall, Romero’s family and staff gathered to pay tribute to Ulysses. Some have been with the company from the beginning, while others were more recent. Folks happily talked about how their jobs had led to more responsibility, leadership skills, and promotions.
For his part, the patriarch Raul Romero was all smiles. “I feel happy and proud to see how hard my son works. He’s doing really well because of the way he manages his company and the way he treats his employees. He created the menu here at our house. My wife helped test the recipes. Sometimes she was already in bed and he’d come in to ask her to taste something. He wants to make the best coffee he can.” When asked about his favorite drink at TMC, he quickly answers, “I like the mocha.”
Turns out he's not alone. Ulysses Romero has grown Tierra Mia into a juggernaut of specialty coffee service in the Southlands, with 6 stores each outfitted with La Marzoccos, Mazzers, and house baked pastries. They roast coffees on twin Probats and source those coffees from importers working with high quality producers around the world. Best of all, TMC's cafes are home to a kind of gleeful hybrid of specialty coffee quality and cafeteria tradition, with signature drinks such as the Horchata Latte, and the Rice & Beans Frappe (more that later) sitting alongside quality espresso and brewed coffee service. Tierra Mia's website does not just contain an “About Us” section; there's also a link for “Sobre Nosostros”.
A few days earlier we had stopped by the new Echo Park location to see the construction in progress. I asked Ulysses to share his thoughts on the milestone, menu, and his dream of one day buying a coffee farm.
Now that you are celebrating you 5th year anniversary and are opening your 6th locations, you have talked about buying a coffee farm. Is that still in the Tierra Mia plan?
It is. I visited some more farms recently and I see how much work that is going to be. Right now I am so busy with our retail side and the opportunities that are being presented to us.
Where would your farm be? Where is your ideal location?
I don’t know yet. There’s a lot of economics involved and there’s also the results you want to get. We use a lot of Brazilian coffee for our espresso, but we use many different coffees throughout our menu. Geographically Central America would be easier to get to. There’s land costs to consider. That is something I will need to spend a lot of time thinking about. There are labor costs. We need to think about the economics at the farm level.
How many times have you gone to origin and see coffee farms in action?
In 2010 I went to Mexico and visited Pluma Hidalgo area farms in Oaxaca. I did an impromptu latte art training for the café in the small town square of Pluma Hidalgo. In 2011 I went to Brazil and visited 5 farms in Minas Gerais and Mogiana as part of an SCAA origin trip. The highlight of the trip was going to Carmo de Minas farms. In 2012 I went to Colombia and visited several farms in San Agustin in the Huila area with a group from Café Imports, including farm of Arnulfo Luguizamo when the Cup of Excellence #1 which resulted in apurchase for TMC from a farm in Pitalito, Colombia. I also visited the farm of Camilo Merizalde and saw his planted Geisha and nursery and bought some beans there. This year I went to Panama and visited Hacienda La Esmeralda, Don Pachi Estate, and all producers of famed Panama Geisha. I plan to participate in the upcoming Esmeralda Geisha auction.
I also went to Honduras and stayed with Don Fabio Caballero and his daughter Marysabel Caballero. I made a commitment to purchase beans from them for TMC this year. We bartered an iPad mini for their new Honduras Geisha coffee. I brought the iPad mini from LA on request, and told them I would only accept coffee as payment.
Watch for the rest of my candid interview with Ulysses Romero next week, right here on Sprudge. But right now I can't stop thinking about those carnitas…
Originally photography for this feature by James Hanna.