‘Cafe rico means more than just ‘yummy coffee’. It carries a deeper meaning, referencing a rich cultural agriculture. But it came from a mistake… the person who designed our brand initially came back to us with this logo, writing “cafe rico” to indicate the slogan placement: and I was like “that’s our slogan!”. It’s casual, unpretentious, which is exactly what we wanted.’
—Lalo, co-founder of BUNA
Mexico City is turning into a major capital of specialty coffee. Local pioneers BUNA are one of the major players of this fast-developing scene, and at a turning point for the team: they’re about to move their roastery to a bigger space and in the middle of their café renovation, which will reopen early April. Their shop, called BUNA 42, is located in La Roma, the city’s hippest neighborhood where specialty coffee shops are popping up, and is the continuity of an adventure the owners started years before on a rooftop terrace.
I met Lalo, one of the founders, in BUNA’s beautiful roastery space in Mexico City’s Colonia Doctores, and asked him about BUNA’s past, present, and future.
The BUNA brand seems to have grown organically over the past couple years. How did it all start?
I fell in love with coffee back in 2012, after working in a cafe in Colorado. I met a lot of interesting people there. Seeing anyone passionate about their work was rare at the time! That’s when it hit me: being from Mexico, I saw an amazing opportunity to experience specialty coffee in a coffee-producing country, where baristas and roasters have a more direct connection to producers and can easily go visit farms. So I moved back here and with high school friends turned partners Santi, Alberto and David, we did just that. We knew nothing about coffee but had a unique set of abilities and skills, and we all put our expertise on the table.
What was your plan then?
We didn’t really have one starting out. There was no clear direction at the beginning, we just knew our company would have to do with coffee, Mexico, and making it great. We bought a roaster because we couldn’t find any roasted coffee that we liked, and we opened Tercer Lugar, our first coffee shop, because it seemed like the next logical step. It was a very novel idea, it didn’t look like a coffee shop at all. It looked like someone’s living room. The idea was to not have any expectations, no menu. It was a huge success, in terms of recognition… The idea really resonated with people. Through this coffee shop, we met a lot of people who asked for our coffee. We were not ready, but since enough people were asking, we thought it may mean that there was a lot more demand to be met. So we started wholesaling coffee. The market led us to what our business is now, and today, BUNA’s core business is to sell coffee to restaurants and set up wholesale programs. We are very committed to providing great service to our wholesale customers. We visit them at least once a month, do a lot of training and equipment maintenance. We now have about 80 customers, mostly in Mexico City.
How did you start sourcing from scratch?
Finding producers has been a huge and ongoing challenge. When Santi and I started looking for high quality green coffee and weren’t sure how or where, we realized we needed to go straight to the source. That’s when David, a career biologist, came along and joined the team to deal with sourcing and the production side of the business. In coffee, it usually works the other way. You start at an entry-level job, as a barista, and then a roaster, and then a green buyer for coffee. Our approach was very different: David knew nothing about coffee, but he knew about plants and agriculture. It’s been really cool to see him grow into that role.
He started by looking at government maps for research on soil and types of geography, and from there decided where was a sustainable place to grow coffee. Then we would go, find farmers growing coffee and ask them if they wanted to work with us. Today, this still happens, but it’s also a lot of pointing towards other collaborators, we hear about this guy, and they tell us about that guy… And now that we have a brand, people reach out to us as well. But it’s still a lot of David looking at maps… We call him the “map whisperer”. Today, our coffee comes from 8 of the 14 producing states in Mexico, so David is constantly on the road. We never know where he is, but as long as there is good coffee in our warehouse, it means he’s doing his job right!
How did you convince farmers to work with you and implement sustainable practices?
For David, what is important is to purchase coffee grown from sustainable practices. It’s easily said but another thing to actually accomplish it. And sustainability has not only to do with agriculture but also with the farmers and the economics of the trade. A really huge source of green coffee in Mexico are these huge estates, mostly from inherited property of old landowners. They grow a lot of great coffee. However, most of these estates are not sustainable. So even if they are great sources, we can’t buy coffee from them. Most of the people we buy coffee from are very small producers, from places with very good soil and whom most of them had abandoned growing coffee. They had coffee planted, and it’s been there for a long time, but they stopped selling it because it was too much work and not a good business anymore. David goes to these people who have, their entire lifetime, been torn down by the business of coffee and are convinced that it’s not a good one. And it’s not easy: here comes this young white guy who tries to talk them into going back into it. I have the deepest respect for the way he approaches the situation. For a biologist and a research scientist, he’s really good at talking to people. We joke that he’s more like a sociologist! You’d be surprised how many people show up and tell farmers what to do. He, on the other hand, asks a lot of questions. And they get on board! What David asks of them is very arduous: use all-organic practices, make and carry the compost, harvest only selected matured cherries… It’s extremely hard work. I don’t think they would keep doing it if they didn’t feel it was worth it.
What’s the idea behind the soon-to-be reopened BUNA 42?
When we first open BUNA 42 a couple years ago, there was a small roaster in the back, for us to do some production, and showcase the process. The goal was not to make food. Even though food is a very important part of me and my partners lives, we knew running a restaurant was a very different business from running a coffee shop. Meeting with purveyors, pricing… the business aspect of food is something we were not really ready to deal with. But everybody was asking for breakfast! So we decided to go for it because we really wanted to make our customers happy. And we came up with a simple but good menu.
But as we recently went through a rebranding for BUNA, we redefined our identity. And the shop no longer represented what we want to communicate. If you come to our shop to eat chilaquiles and drink orange juice, we are not able to communicate with you who we are.
So we decided to remodel: the new cafe will showcase our brand, the whole experience. We are a coffee company and we have all these cool things happening: the fields, and producers… We also realized we didn’t need that much space. But we were already committed to it, and it is a great location. So we split the space in two. We gave the other half to an Italian chef who worked for Massimo Bottura in Italy, moved to Mexico to open a pasta place. It’s perfect because our customers to be able to eat food, and drink our coffee, but we don’t have to serve the food. The space will feel like both a coffee shop and a restaurant. We found really cool architects who were able to create a consistent design: you enter a little atrium, the restaurant (Santoria) will be on the right, and the coffee shop (BUNA) on the left. They’re definitely separate, but from the outside, it looks like one big space. All the outside seating is still communal – you can use it as a client of the coffee shop or of the restaurant. Inside, we each have our own seating.
It’s a place for us to communicate what we do with our brand, with our company, with our team and with our coffee, but where the experience and the feel is that of a coffee shop.
One of your big ideas is to remove the snobbism from coffee. Can you tell us more about that?
I think there’s a huge disconnect between the places where the coffee is grown and the places where people consume the coffee. And even if it’s less the case in Mexico, since coffee is grown here, even if people are more connected, it also allows more myths to be perpetuated. People will think “Ah, coffee from Oaxaca is my favorite!”, or “coffee from Chiapas is the best!”. So we have a different set of challenges to overcome. That’s the hardest part because we really want to share what we do, but something that I think the coffee industry has been not sensitive enough about is how they end up communicating. I think our industry often comes across as being very pretentious. We got to live this as customers since none of us were coffee people before we started this company.
We’ve also worked towards making the coffee shop a nice place to visit. We’re almost casual to a fault, because I think our peers in the local industry look at us like we don’t care enough. But it’s the opposite, we care deeply, but we also don’t want to be assholes to our customers.
All of our 15 employees joined the company knowing nothing about coffee. We always say: “you can teach someone about coffee, but you can’t teach someone how to be a good person”. So we try to hire good people.
You guys also have a new take on design. Can you tell us about that?
It was very hard for us to sell our coffee, not from a business point of view, but because there’s so much to choose from. There’s so much weight associated with certain things: region (which can be very misleading to people), variety, elevation, fair trade, organic… But we also want to sell to people who just want coffee and don’t care or know about elevation or whether it’s washed or dry-processed. That’s why we decided to personify our coffees. We gave each of them a name and a face, like a person, with the design of the packages, and nothing else on the bag. They each have an intention: Dahlia will always be sweet, Alebrije will always be fruity, but it leaves room for change from a year to another, just like a person can change. Our coffee doesn’t force the information on you. And if you want to know more, you ask or go on the website. We’re not hiding the information, it’s quite the opposite, we just want people to be curious. Customers remember our coffees by our name or “face” and it builds an emotional bond. They like it because of the relationship they have to it more than because what’s in the package. We want to use the motto: “Curious? Learn more at buna.mx”. To us, this is the most unique thing we’ve done.
What’s next for BUNA?
Apart from the new bigger roastery and the remodeling of the shop, we are about to bring someone onto the team to run a training department, and the new space will have a dedicated training facility. A lot of the training we do is for our wholesale customers. Restaurants having a notoriously important staff turnover, so we always teach new employees how to use the machines, serve the coffee. The more we grow, the more we realize how important that is. We want to launch a modular certificate for coffee, where you can attend one class to learn about one thing, or course the whole thing. A lot of people ask it from us, and we do, for free and for our customers, but if people are interested, why would we say no? It’s also a great experience for us internally. I love distilling everything to its essence, and thinking about what is important for someone to know if they want to learn about coffee.
The development of a rich local specialty coffee scene is a great reason to visit Mexico City and check out the brand new BUNA 42, as well as others local cafés. As Lalo points out, BUNA “has paved the way for a healthy competition, and they want other roasters to start to make it easier for people to find good coffee. In coffee too, a rising tide lifts all boats.” Or if you wait a little, BUNA might come to you… Lalo says they’re tempted to open shops in the States, starting with LA, where a Mexican brand and BUNA’s storytelling would resonate the most. Keep your eyes and ears open!
BUNA 42 is located at Orizaba 42, Roma, Distrito Federal, Mexico +52 55 6724 5578
Fiona is a contributor and curator for Kalsada’s press play. You can find her sipping on a cup of coffee on a sunny corner of Paris or Mexico City.