Look for manuelitas, nacatamales, or baho in New York City, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a restaurant serving the Nicaraguan staples. And while the Central American cuisine has failed to make a splash in New York, Nicoya Cesar Vegas has built a cult following through his exclusive use of Nicaraguan coffee beans.
Four years ago, a 23-year-old Vegas threw himself headfirst into his business, Café Integral. After graduating from New York University, the Jinotepe native felt frustrated at NYC’s lack of Nicaraguan coffee. “That got me curious, so I wanted to import just 500 pounds of coffee,” he told GrubStreet. He initially tried persuading coffee shops like Stumptown and La Colombe about the potential of Nicaragua’s world-class coffee, but they turned him down. So he decided to invest $10,000 on a roaster and went into business. His friend offered him a space inside her clothing store, American Two Shot.
And like many eager 23-year-olds, he expected the coffee to sell itself. “You never realize that coffee and flavor have little to do with success,” he said. “My opening blend – I was convinced it was one of the best I had ever tasted and that there was going to be a line out the door. I cannot tell you how convinced I was that this was true. It didn’t happen, of course, but, slowly but surely, we hustled and people kept coming in.”
Fast forward to 2016, and Nicaraguan coffee has certainly made a splash in NYC and other cities. His first bar at American Two Shot remains. And he also has a cafe and espresso bar inside the Freehand Chicago. And just last month, he opened his first brick-and-mortar in Nolita. On Café Integral’s opening day, a new customer came to support Vegas because of their shared Nicaraguan background. This connection to Nicaragua has become integral to the success of his business. He spends three months in Nicaragua working with farmers to try to improve their joint product. These farmers and their families have been in the industry for generations. But he’s just as invested in the success of Nicaraguan coffee.
Before Café Integral came into the spotlight, Nicaraguan coffee didn’t exist in the specialty coffee scene – at least, not a high-quality cup. “It wasn’t that good, and it was quickly discarded by the quality-oriented people,” he told Afar.
“Coffee is part of Nicaragua’s viable future.”
Though he was born in the Central American country, he grew up in Miami. “So I essentially grew up loving a place and hearing about a place that disappeared out of my life,” he said. “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 No. 1 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.”
The industry has drastically changed since Vega started his business. Small coffee companies distinguishing themselves from Starbucks has given them the opportunity to grow. Café Integral is riding that wave, and he’s hoping to expand with the Freehand and have shops inside of its Miami and Los Angeles hotels.
Café Integral is located at 149 Elizabeth Street, New York, NY 10012.