César Vega almost singlehandedly changed the way coffee from Nicaragua is viewed in the United States. He talks to AFAR about the inspiration and driving forces behind his work.
César Vega, the 27-year-old founder of New York City's Café Integral, has completely transformed perception of Nicaraguan coffee in the United States. I first met him in his coffee bar inside the Freehand Chicago, and then we spoke by phone so I could better understand the inspiration behind his company and what it means to employ a single-origin sourcing strategy, a system that takes the coffee straight from the farmer to the end consumer.
MT: What inspired you to launch a coffee company?
CV: The simplest way to put it is that I was inspired by the product of coffee and the idea of the plant; it’s romantic and enamoring. And on the other hand, I wouldn’t have started a coffee company of this nature if I didn’t see it benefiting Nicaragua.
What’s your connection to Nicaragua?
I was born in Nicaragua in a town called Jinotepe, located in the department of Carazo, which is a historical coffee growing area. When I was three, my family and I were exiled to Miami. So I essentially grew up loving a place and hearing about a place that disappeared out of my life. It’s interesting to see a country for the first time, one that’s been built up to you. This is why I feel so much passion to see how I can make Nicaragua bigger, better, and more prosperous through Café Integral. It is of the culture in Nicaragua for coffee to be important; it’s the number one export. Coffee is part of Nicaragua’s viable future. If we do it right, we can bring education back to the country and improve the quality of life there. Every time I go back to Nicaragua, I try to bring a little of this notion back home to New York.
When was the Café Integral concept formed?
My background is in coffee tasting. I was really fascinated by the core of it. I wasn’t into being a barista; I was more obsessed with the idea of the coffee bean and how it was treated. When you looked at the specialty coffee scene before we launched, you couldn’t get a Nicaraguan coffee. It wasn’t that good, and it was quickly discarded by the quality-oriented people. When I was 23, I took my grandparents with me to Nicaragua, and we went directly to the coffee farmers, knocking door-to-door. It was a party of four pitching this idea across the country. I imported three thousand pounds after this trip and kept it in my apartment. I wanted people to taste the product.
What's the story behind your partnerships?
In November 2012, the girls at American Two Shot approached me. They asked if we could do a coffee bar in their clothing store [in New York's Soho], and we opened shortly thereafter in April 2013. I had never worked in coffee at the retail level, so this was new to me. We went vertical and set up a roaster in uptown New York. I bought the machinery and learned how to be a barista at home.
The Freehand partnership was precipitated through their brand director. They were looking for a café concept, and we both agreed there were good synergies between us. My first true experience with the Freehand properties was at their first location in Miami, the Freehand Miami. The hotel really changed my perception of Miami because it was such a cool concept and a very new and unique offering in the city. The partnership is important to me because it resonates so much with me. We plan to grow with the brand. We wont have a café in their upcoming Los Angeles property, but we will head up the coffee program.
Technically speaking, we go to the origin and visit mills and exporters. We meet the farmer and see what we’re going to buy. What we do that’s distinct is that I spend about three months in Nicaragua every year. We bring the farmers into the Café Integral family as a long-term project. We’ll buy their coffee for the next five years, come hell or high water, and we work together to make it taste better, year over year. These farmers have been doing this for 50 years, with generations coming before them. We don’t want to tell them how to do what they do, but we do want to partner with them.
How does it feel to launch a company that has such close ties to your home?
It’s one thing to be Nicaraguan and to grow up in Nicaragua, and entirely another thing to be Nicaraguan and to grow up in the States. I’m very sensitive to this connection, and I have a social responsibility because I’m working with people on something they will do for their entire lives. I am fully and indefinitely commited to this business. It’s a lot of work.
Do you think Café Integral fosters development in Nicaragua?
If it draws attention to Nicaragua and makes people want to visit, then that alone is creating job opportunities. In a coffee sense, we are paying better prices for the coffee and creating a higher standard of quality. This standard takes more bodies to produce and the farmers get paid better. We’re creating a platform for coffee growers to develop by fostering an environment where people can grow within the mill system. If people want to make this a career, then we have space for them. Five years ago that wasn’t the case. And within coffee circles, we’ve worked so hard to improve the perception of Nicaraguan coffee.
It seems like everything some days, whether that’s emailing, following up with my accounts, or visiting new accounts. Sometimes it’s technical maintenance or training. I could be checking in with my shops, roasting, or shipping orders. I also taste coffee almost every day to ensure quality control. So some combination of this is my typical day.
How does travel play into your business and life?
I travel a lot. It’s how we get things done. I love being on planes. When I’m jetting through the sky, and that sensation of going somewhere comes over me—that feels so good. I love travel because when I’m traveling and my environment is changing so much, it helps me hone in on my truest self because nothing else around me is static. Only my being is static. Travel shakes up everything around me and forces me to be the most me. Everything else around me is changing, but I’m the one control variable. I feel most like myself when I’m around nothing familiar.
What do you like most about this work?
It’s so much fun to connect with people from such diverse backgrounds. I went to Japan last year with a couple of coffee producers. We were at a seafood restaurant in Tokyo. I looked around and realized I was with people from Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Nicaragua, Papau New Guinea, Korea, and, of course, Japan. And that was all because of coffee. It’s nice to have those moments, to zoom out and see the universality of your product.
I also love working with the producers in Nicaragua—and tasting the product. To me, that’s the best part about it. You’re experiencing success on a personal and crop level, all while tasting the first signs of quality. It’s so exciting. From that moment, you’re working to make it the best. Once you have, it’s about maintaining and not ruining it.
Is there anything you don't like?
I hate the sales part the most. I hate having to convince people that my product is good. I’m extremely critical of our product, so by the time I take a coffee to market, I’m so convinced that the product is delicious that I don’t need validation on that. We put so much work into getting it into people’s hands, and then they still have to like it. I hate having to sell it in the traditional sense.
How has launching Café Integral changed you or your perspective?
It’s probably hardened me in some ways, and it’s definitely given me the belief that you can do anything. It’s liberating because this business is my choice. The sky is the limit. It’s also helped me focus on the fact that I love creating things and hustling really hard for that moment of creation. If I could spend all of my time working on the crop and the harvest, I would. But we need the other parts of the equation to complete the company. But I’ve realized that the idea of creating and tinkering with our product to improve it is something I love.
So what’s your go-to coffee drink?
I love filter coffee. That’s the most uncool answer, but I love hot, black coffee year round. I also love a good cortado.
I’m flying to Nicaragua to visit two of the micro mills we work with. We will have some pre-harvest talks, and then I will be at the Freehand Miami for Art Basel. We’re doing a pop-up cart, where we’ll be serving pastelitos (Cuban pastries) and a whole coffee menu inspired by Cuban classics. Think tiger nut milk lattes and café bonbons. We’re also working on a big project in Charleston, SC. Stay tuned for more details!