Ulysses Romero’s dream of opening cafes that create job and career opportunities is picking up steam. Since 2008, Romero has opened ten cafes in Southern and Northern California, now run by a staff of more than 200 employees. Soon his Tierra Mia Coffee will have eleventh and twelfth locations in Montebello and Long Beach. This year marks another milestone for the company with the launch of the Tierra Mia Cares foundation funding early childhood literacy programs in California and a youth sports non-profit in Brazil.
Recently, I spent the day with Romero to share cups of coffee, nibble on house-made croissants, and see the new Long Beach location. Their new store was a former Taco Bell and will be transformed into their newest cafe near Long Beach Polytechnic High School, which boasts a student body of more than 5,000 students. Will this be the next Central Perk or Espresso Pump for these teens? Those Tierra Mia baristas better get ready to make copious amounts of their signature Horchata Lattes and Mocha Mexicanos.
Our Tierra Mia coffee crawl began on a sunny autumn morning. Light streamed through the window of their new store on Monte Vista Street in Highland Park. The small cafe was filled with locals keen to get their morning fix. A man in a business suit stood near children sipping hot chocolates with their grandparents. A young couple snuggled while waiting to order. This cafe, the tenth Tierra Mia location, opened only eight months ago and already feels part of the fabric of the neighborhood.
From Highland Park we drove to Huntington Park in southeastern Los Angeles. Tierra Mia is on Pacific Boulevard with several Art Deco buildings along this major shopping street. In front of this cafe sits a parklet similar to the ones in San Francisco’s Mission District at Four Barrel and Ritual, creating a community gathering space.
Then we motored on to Lynwood, one of Tierra Mia's most successful stores. This location also houses its baking operations. And on this day, in addition to the regular workload of making a few thousand pastries for all of the Southern California locations, they were in the R&D phase of making croissants. We stopped as Romero tasted a test batch, looking at the crispy exterior and texture on the inside.
Next stop Long Beach, where a combo Taco Bell and Chinese restaurant will soon be transformed into a Tierra Mia cafe. “It is important to be in good retail locations. I try to think about it as big companies do which is developing a site criteria,” said Romero. “Ultimately, I put our stores in areas with high volume. In LA, it is about cars. In other areas, it is about pedestrians. You have to be convenient for people.” Several locations that were previously fast food restaurants have been transformed into cafes. Many locations see some of their highest volume sales at night in neighborhoods needing a cozy place to hang out with family and friends.
Working with these existing buildings helps to streamline the process of getting a new location ready to open. Three now have a drive-thru option, including their Pico Rivera location, where a KFC bucket has become a giant spinning Tierra Mia coffee cup. The new Long Beach store will keep the existing drive-thru.
In order to balance the customers inside the cafe with the orders coming from the drive-thru window, Romero has developed an ordering system and runs a tight ship. “We take the orders as they come in. We have a hot bar and a cold bar. We manage both lines at the same time,” said Romero, adding that order screens display customer wait times to help make sure those times are kept to a minimum.
That attention to detail and customer service has helped make each Tierra Mia a success. After some initial investments in the first cafe, each subsequent location has been funded by the generated income. Those initial investors have stock in the company and after five years were offered buy-outs, but no one took Romero up on that offer. Romero points to his growing staff as the key to success. He works with store managers to find people who are “smart, hardworking, and humble.”
“Almost all come in learning coffee from scratch. We retain many of our people. Many of them are now managers,” said Romero. “We want the people who work for us to be happy.” Almost everyone employed at Tierra Mia has trained and worked as a barista. “Even our accounting people,” said Romero. The staff sees the potential in committing to their job as colleagues get promoted to managers. Some have learned roasting. One former barista now works with Romero in their green coffee buying operations.
In addition to overseeing the 10 current locations and building two new ones, Romero has taken the time in 2015 to launch the Tierra Mia Cares foundation. “I always wanted to start something dedicated to education and improving the community,” said Romero. “The goal of the foundation is to work on initiatives around early childhood literacy. We have a non-profit we are partnering with and we are rolling out one of their programs called “Read With Me”. It is a backpack of books that the program provides and the children take [kindergarten] through second grade. They take these books home and the parents read with them. We are helping to augment the education that is happening in the classroom. They provide training to the parents and teachers.”
The goal is for every Tierra Mia store to have a partner school and eventually sponsor literacy events twice a year. Currently, Tierra Mia Cares sponsors Read With Me with Families in Schools for classrooms in South Gate, Lynwood, and Pico Rivera. “It gives a deeper sense of meaning to the work I do. It is important to the culture of our company,” said Romero. “We care about the community that allows us to exist.”
In Brazil, the company partners with an organization that facilitates youth sports activities for low-income kids in farming communities. Carmo Coffees is a Tierra Mia coffee supplier whose non-profit is called Cria Carmo, which translates to “grow-nurture Carmo”.
“[At] the rate that we are growing now, I think we can open three to five stores a year. That’s my target right now. We can only do that because we have a base of stores with people who are trained,” said Romero. His mission is clear: “I am trying to be a good leader to everyone in our organization. I have a responsibility to all of our people who have chosen to have a career with us. I want to ensure that the path they have with us is rewarding. At the same time, I want to grow our business and make sure it is successful. The more we grow, the more opportunities we provide to people.”
Julie Wolfson is a culture writer based in Los Angeles. Read more Julie Wolfson on Sprudge.
Photos by Raul Romero.