Ulysses Romero founded Tierra Mia Coffee in 2008 after earning an MBA from Stanford University, working as a New York financial consultant and contributing to L.A.’s non-profit sector. He now has five Latin-inflected coffeehouses, primarily in South Los Angeles, roasts coffee on a Probat named Sophia, and tasks a Hobart mixer named RoboCop with producing pastries daily. Romero recently found an apartment in Oakland and is planning Bay Area expansion. We spoke on December 1, and he shared his caffeinated inspiration.
Why did you originally decide to go with coffee for your business?
At Stanford, I got interested in doing something entrepreneurial. I saw the example of a lot of folks that came through the program and had been successful and done it right out of the MBA program. When I finished up, I wanted to start a business, and after bouncing some ideas around, initially my focus was to create a business that would cater to the Hispanic population. It’s a growing demographic. Time and time again, we’d have speakers come in, and everyone would ask, “Where do you see growth happening?” Speakers from Home Depot, Coca-Cola, all sorts of businesses, time and time again, it what everyone was saying. I was like, “Duh, this is what I understand. Why shouldn’t I focus on something like that?” That was my initial focus, and as I got into it and began developing the concept, I settled on coffee. I thought I can create a Latin coffee concept, just like we have grocery stores, music stores, financial services, and of course restaurants. No one had taken coffee and done it in that way, and to me it was a natural connection because so much of coffee that’s consumed in this country comes from Latin America.
Did you always plan to roast your own coffee?
I didn’t think we would get into it this soon. I felt like maybe after five or 10 stores, it would make sense for us to do it. I also began to see that at a certain volume – for me it was 300 pounds per week was the number I came up with – seemed to check out, just in terms of the investment you need to make. It really just developed from there, where I felt it made business sense, and from a quality standpoint, it made a lot of sense. A big thing I knew we would be able to improve right away would be the freshness of our coffee, and it’s such a huge impact on coffee quality and taste. Initially we were doing Intelli and brought in Stumptown and were doing both of them on our pourover bar, but we were ordering once a week, so you start to get into a window of freshness that bounces from a couple days to 14 days to 21 days sometimes. I can tell the difference in coffee if it’s been sitting there, and then Stumptown didn’t package their coffee with valves, so that would start to go stale sooner. That was a big thing I started to notice. The other thing you start to notice is we develop our own palates and our own preferences. We would taste coffees and try to figure out, “Well, this would be good, but we’re getting a bite at the finish. Is that bite coming from the green, or is it coming from the way it was roasted?” We were always trying to deconstruct what our suppliers were providing us. We kind of began to think, “Well, we should just do it ourselves.” The bigger question was, “Are you going to be able to do as good a job and quality?”
I began to do more research. I went to the SCAA show in Houston and took a couple classes on roasting. We actually roasted different coffees at different degrees. And then at the end, to see that you could get different results – the roaster has such a huge hand in your end product – it’s another variable. Now for us it’s really about honing that craft, getting the best green that we can and really putting our best foot forward on freshness. On the coffees that we serve today, we’re typically doing three to five days on brewed coffees and cycling through roasts twice a week. It’s been good. Now we’re able to handle our demand. It was a really good decision for us, especially as we’ve grown and added additional stores.
Was José [Rodriguez] in charge of quality control prior to roasting?
No, José was a barista. Everyone up to this point has been homegrown. We’re up to 78 employees. All of our managers, people in the bakery – we’re bringing new people in and training them – but basically everyone started as an entry level barista. José had become a manager at our Huntington Park location at the same time that we began roasting. He had a real deep passion for coffee, and when I mentioned it to him that we were going to start roasting and that I would need someone to roast, because I had to manage the business, he was very excited about it. José started as a barista, then became a supervisor, and became an assistant manager. When we started here, he was store manager/roaster for Pico, and now he’s just roasting. The title we’ve given him is Roast Master and Director of Coffee Quality…Basically what I want him to be able to do is have input into what we’re serving at each of our stores, making sure that our training program for baristas is done correctly, and also, I want him to have a connection between the roasting and what the customer’s served. He actually works bar, one shift, and gets the reaction of customers, which I think is really nice to be able to do now. Later it might get more difficult to do. We have a couple other guys that are roasting as well. We have three other supervisors that are working as barista supervisors. Also they’ll put in one to two roast shifts.
What’s your approach with your roast?
What we try to do now – I can try to break down what I think Intelligentsia does, or what Stumptown does – but what we try to go for is a lot of sweetness, really high levels of acidity without it becoming a grapefruit like acidity, more citrus acidity, good richness and body in the coffee, and very little bite. We really try to eliminate as much bite as possible, but at the same time, we don’t want it to be super bright. I don’t want super super tart coffees. I want them to be balanced. Coffees are different, like this Kenya is going to offer something different than this Mexico. This Mexico has a lot more chocolate or darker notes. This Kenya has crazy acidity. We’ll try to balance that out. This is the first sample roast off this new batch, so we’ll try to cut a hole in this coffee and tone down the acidity if we think it’s too high. Ultimately we want it to taste good and want it to be balanced. We’ll try to eliminate any negative characteristics I associate with bite or too much dirtiness or earthiness, any kind of bagginess. Obviously any fermentation or mold. Obviously to heighten the sweetness in the coffee. The acidity in the coffee is considered more of a pleasant acidity, more of the malic type, apple type notes or citrus type notes.
Do you do all the green coffee buying?
Yeah, José [Rodriguez] and I work together on it. Typically we’re working with a couple of importers. We’re just getting into starting to do some direct stuff. I haven’t bought anything direct, or where I’ve been working direct with a producer.
You just took that trip to Colombia.
Yeah, from that Colombia trip, we may do something, but it makes more sense for us at this stage to work with importers that are doing a good job of finding coffees and doing a lot of the work that it takes get good coffees. What we’ll do is get samples from them, fresh crop, basically look for micro-lot level quality all the time. That’s really the only thing we want. We’re trying to get coffees that are scoring – for us – 86 and above. If it’s not, we try not to buy it.
That’s through your own scale?
Yes, through our own scale, we’ll check back with the importers as well, “What did it cup for you?” We cross check with scoring they’re doing as well, but ultimately it’s based on what we prefer.
What’s your first coffee memory?
My first coffee memory was in high school. I was going to take the SAT that morning. I was a good student in high school and was very focused. I had a football game the night before. I was really tired. My mom said, “Why don’t you have some coffee?” I said, “Okay, that’s a good idea. It might wake me up, get me ready to go.” So she puts water on the stovetop and starts to boil it, pulls out some Nescafe, mixes it up. She’s like, “Do you want some sugar?” Wow, this is really foul. Sour and grassy is what I remember it being. Not even dark, just sour and grassy. And I remember thinking, “Wow, this is so bad. I’m just going to down it.” I chugged it.
I guess it worked because you ended up going to Berkeley.
Well, I didn’t do that well on the SAT. It worked a little bit.
My first espresso memory was at Berkeley, same kind of deal. My first mid-term – I wasn’t even drinking coffee at that point – but I walked in, there was this woman there, and I remember I didn’t even understand what it meant. I saw a mocha. “Okay, I think that has chocolate.” I remember from like a Taster’s Choice commercial or something. “I’ll get one of those.” So I tasted it and, “It’s drinkable. Not so bad.”
My first sort of pleasant coffee moment, where my eyes opened a little bit, was also in Berkeley, toward my senior year. At that point I graduated to mochas, lattes, and eventually into black coffee. I went to Café Pasqual, which was acquired by Starbucks later. I ordered a latte, it might have even been a cappuccino, but I remember it was made really well. The foam was velvety – it didn’t have latte art because this was ’94 – but I remember tasting it and tasting the sweetness of the milk and coffee. It was pleasant and balanced, and it was a sunny day, and I remember sitting outside with a friend. That was probably the first time I had a coffee that opened my eyes. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is really good.” Then it kind of just built from there.
Have you had any coffee mentors?
Yeah. I worked for Martin Diedrich. When I was developing our business plan, he had just opened Kean and this was ’06 and he was one of the first ones to do latte art and to do things at a really high level in L.A. I called him up and told him what I was looking to do, and we chatted for a bit. I told him about my concept and what I was looking to develop, a Latin coffee concept and wanted to focus on quality. He agreed to meet with me. He’s super helpful, gave me a lot of pointers and tips, and obviously he has a super huge wealth of knowledge in the industry. He was busy that day, but spent like an hour with me. He said, “Look, I’ve got to go, but if you want to come back once more,” so we met again. That second time, I asked him if he would let me work for him on weekends while I continued to develop my business plan and was looking for a location. At first he was like, “Oh, I don’t know,” because obviously it’s a chore if it’s not somebody who’s going to be with you for a long time. I pursued it and he agreed to it, and I spent five months working weekends while I had another job at the time. It was great. I learned a ton about quality, and it helped reinforce my belief in the importance of an approach, and what I saw there, you shouldn’t do it any other way. It really is about offering a good product. Otherwise, you’re competing in a margin game against 7/11 or McDonald’s. That’s ultimately what you’re doing, and that’s not going to get you anywhere. You have to be better. It sort of worked for us.
What’s your favorite aspect of owning and operating a coffee company?