El Cielito Café is revolutionizing the coffee business in L.A. Instead of buying coffee in bulk from a warehouse, Daniel Olivares decided to work directly with coffee farms and farmers.
Being from the Latino community and learning that most of our coffee comes from Latin America, Daniel wanted to represent and help his community by giving coffee farmers their fair share of revenue.
Representation, community, good coffee, and honest pay are at the forefront of Daniel’s business model. Here’s how the El Cielito Café found success working directly with Latin American coffee growers.
I’ll start off with this; what made you want to open up you coffee house with so many around in L.A.?
Well, I’m from Echo Park. And Echo Park, the whole neighborhood, changed because of coffee. I saw the socioeconomic impact coffee shops make and I thought, “Well, I can do that, but for the betterment of my people. Not to take over neighborhoods.”
We started in 2015 and I basically had every odd against me. So to start this place I used my boxing money and scholarship money. I used FAFSA money that I had saved up. And I used some working money from working as a mechanic.
I got familiar with the Southeast area because of boxing. I had a boxing fight at the Azteca Boxing club, and after I was driving around and I saw this location. That’s when I decided to go for it, see what would happen. I really liked this neighborhood [South Gate] because it reminded me of the old Echo Park. There was a sense of community here.
So you saw the inequity between coffee farmers and coffee roasters here that sell coffee. And there’s middle men involved in that process. How did you go about cutting out the middle man? Cause at some point you were just picking up the coffee at a location, and then jumped to meeting with a country’s representative and somehow making a deal directly with the farmers growing the beans.
It was crazy. So, a lot of coffee, the majority of coffee, if not all now, work with brokers. So coffee brokers import the beans and store it in huge warehouses. A buyer just goes and says what they want. I wanted to help my people and if I was buying it from a broker I really wasn’t. I put the word out there that I wanted to work directly with farmers, which wasn’t really heard of before in coffee, because it’s very expensive. And, when I bought the roastery, I was 22 and a half years old. So I thought this was easy. I found out there’s a lot of finances and politics involved in importing coffee. That’s why we let these rich guys deal with it.
Eventually people started telling me, “Yea my dad owns a farm. My grandpa does. Can you help us out?” Then I realized the logistics behind it. Bringing it over and paying for a broker on one end and another broker on the other. Going through customs and everything. I thought, “I don’t have the finances for that yet.”
Just by a stroke of luck, or God, or universe, I came into the coffee shop one day and there was a guy waiting for me. This guy had a dad with a farm in Nicaragua and they were tired of getting ripped off.
So I started working with him and testing the model, with the numbers and trying to figure everything out. And we were finally able to get that going. What came to my surprise was that he was charging me the same price a broker would charge me, but there’s more middle men involved [with a broker]. So I was like, “as long as the money goes directly to you guys [in Nicaragua] that works better.” We started working and I started putting it out there, “this model works. We can do this.”
That attracted other coffee farmers. That’s when I got El Salvador on board, Guatemala, now Honduras, Brazil, Costa Rica. It happened to mountain over. It got me banned from Ecuador too. I can’t do business with them [funny story].
You can listen to the whole interview here, which includes how Daniel Olivares got banned from Ecuador.
When you first put the word out there, that you wanted to work directly with farmers, you didn’t have enough money to do it. That is until one farmer came along and you figured out the logistics. What changed at that point? How did you come into the position of, ok I can do this, I can figure out the logistics; we’re going to bring your product over here and you’re going to get more money for it?
What really helped was Ernesto from Nicaragua. He got everything down. So it didn’t seem like the money was going to scatter out and about. It seemed like there was that stream line. Homie did his homework. There’s getting [the bean] picked, and processed, ready, and then sending it out. Especially, from what I learned, countries don’t really align with the U.S.’s trade agreements. I think Nicaragua sided with communism during the Cold War. So every time our product [goes through customs] it gets flagged. [Customs] holds it and they charge you. For no reason, imports from Nicaragua will be put on hold. They charge you like a grand a day.
I work with Guatemala, and our business partner out there is the son of the head of economics [for the country]. So that was figured out for sure. The bean from El Salvador comes from a married couple. The husband works for NASA here, so he figured out the numbers. Yea, we’re a cool group of individuals.
So Ernesto, The couple from El Salvador, and the business partner in Guatemala, do they all own farms in their respective countries?
Yes! Ernesto dad’s own a coffee farm out in Nicaragua. Kenny, who’s in Guatemala, manages the farms out there. J.J. and Linda, who are from El Salvador, Linda’s side of the family has owned a farm for generations. It’s just that everyone got tired of the broker b.s. and we were able to link up and figure that problem out.
Since you’ve been working directly with farmers, how have you seen the positive impact of your business with them?
Nicaragua’s percentages increased substantially. It’s weird cause growing up in the U.S., you would think if your profits grew that much, you’d have a mansion and a nice car. But the first thing they did was build a school out in the farm. And we’re in talks of building out a clinic there because the farm is at least an hour away from the main city. So to have that brought to the farm, that’s cool. With Kenny, in Guatemala, it’s the same, and with J.J. and Linda, there’s making improvements in the farms around them, improvements to the infrastructure to better roast the coffee.
[Working directly with farmers] also helps with quality control. I don’t have to hassle brokers if the coffee was bad and then track down a farmer who sold him the coffee and who doesn’t even know me. That, opposed to working directly with the farmers, telling them a batch was bad, and they do the numbers, make some calls. Then come back with, “Oh it was the processing plant.” It’s crazy seeing that the whole line minimizes.
You’re also into your own, local community. How has El Cielito Café integrated into this community and what have been the results of that?
I was afraid of coming in and being portrayed as someone trying to gentrify. I wanted to come in peace. You know, in Echo Park it was like colonization 2.0. People came in like, “Yea this is your neighborhood, but this is our style, how I do things.”
So I wanted to come in and be like a servant to the community, rather than saying, ‘Hey man, you guys don’t know shit about coffee.’ The first thing I did was host an art show. I made it free to the community, to enter and display your art. I heard crazy stories about how people had to go to Downtown L.A. and pay to display there art. That was f*cked up. So I started doing [art shows] monthly.
Then the community suggested I should do pop ups. So we would do these things. And the videos are still up on our Instagram. It would look like a swap meet in here. I would have vendors here and not charge then a thing. That blew up like crazy as well. For our third year anniversary I had a Juan Gabriel impersonator, and this place just ended up becoming like a community center, with really good coffee.
I’m really about helping people out. And seeing their faces light up, having something to do, and it’s really cool to see. It’s really cool to see the talent that gets brought out when people aren’t afraid or have to pay up.
Located on Long Beach Blvd in South Gate, check out El Cielito Café. They’re open every day M-F 6-4:30, Weekends 7:30-4:30. Follow them on Instagram for their latest coffee creations, local events, and knee-slapping memes. Are you an artist or vendor? Contact them to find out more about their community events.