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Café Santo Is All About Community, Heritage & Good Coffee

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Small businesses are integral to the fabric of our communities and Latine entrepreneurs are vital to the ecosystem, the glue that keeps people together. Jefeando is a series that spotlights Latine small business owners and their importance to the culture; sharing a love for their customers, a desire to give back to those in need, and the use of technology to the fullest of its capabilities. They are part of the Meta Elevate community, which offers Black and Latine “business owners and communities free resources, education, and support to help support [their] goals.” Elevate represents a boost to their hard work and business strategies.

Pilar Castañeda and Marlon Gonzalez had a dream, and they made it true. Café Santo is that dream, a perfect balance between tradition, passion, community building, and art. Uplifting their stories through their coffee shop, they’ve managed to bring a little corner of heaven to their place in Los Angeles. It hasn’t been easy, but there’s nothing else they would rather be doing.

While growing up in Oaxaca, Gonzalez tried to find his place in the world. In his native city he was very fond of El Bar Central, a place where live music, mezcal and food collided. Confused and lost about his future, Gonzalez decided to get in touch with his sister Elisa Beristain who has been living in Los Angeles for years and asked her for help to move there and see what was out there. Working at restaurants eventually led him to work the espresso machine at what he describes as a “super hipster diner” which gave him the same feeling he felt in Bar Central.

He then met Castañeda who shared this passion with Gonzalez and suggested they go into business together. Starting small in 2016, they would set up shop at pop-ups and farmers markets where they would bring an espresso machine and sell coffee there. “This is how I felt connected with the coffee just through my personal experience and just with the need of expressing myself,” says Gonzalez. Having been married since 2014, their partnership and shared passion brought them even closer together, forming a stronger bond between them.

Café Santo has made itself stand out thanks to its ties with Oaxaca, importing beans from the region while offering other products. For Gonzalez, highlighting products from Oaxaca is part of his identity. They bring the beans from La Cañada and then roll them in downtown L.A.—he even calls the roaster his “primo” due to their close relationship. They also import chocolate from Oaxaca, one of the signature products of the region, making it possible to offer delicious concoctions like a mocha with both Oaxacan coffee and chocolate, which Gonzalez considers their best seller, as well as expected products from coffee shops.

While Café Santo was originally Gonzalez’s dream, it’s now something bigger. Not only is Castañeda involved, but also Mariana Rodriguez Fernandez, who does the art and graphic design, and chef Fredy De Mata, who is also from Oaxaca. “Now I feel like this is not my project anymore,” he says. “It’s part of my family, my closest friends, and my artist friends. And I really love that.”

When they started the project, Gonzalez had to move from Filipino Town to Montebello to a house Castañeda was renting at the time. The move from a hip neighborhood to a working class one made them be more aware of their immediate community, deciding to open their first shop in the latter. “The community doesn’t have any places just to hang out and to enjoy real quality coffee,” says Gonzalez. “So when we decided to open here in Montebello, it was really something special. We wanted to bring a different experience, we felt that the community deserved it.” They also bring culture to the community thanks to events that involve music, mezcal and chocolate pairings and car shows.

“For me, it was really important to invest in really good equipment and aesthetic because I want to be at the same level as [white-owned coffee shops],” says Gonzalez. “I want to make them feel that Oaxaqueños and Latinos can be at the same exciting level as the best coffee shop in L.A.” An important step for Café Santo was opening a locale in 2021; while a huge step forward for the business, it proved to be a big challenge. Not only was all this done in the middle of the pandemic, getting the paperwork ready as well as the expenses were huge setbacks. They also used a shipping container as their shop which wasn’t as cheap or easy as they thought. Eventually, they got their locale up and running to great success.

An important lesson for them was getting over their shyness. “We had our hearts broken,” Gonzalez says. “[We learned that] you need to speak out. At the time, we kept quiet and that cost us a lot of money. In the end, it was a good experience because we learned from our mistakes and now we have our place.” “We’re grateful for this,” says Castañeda. “When we open our next coffee shop, we’ll do things differently. It’s like your baby, you know? So obviously you have to take care of your baby.” In the end, the experience yielded a huge win for Café Santo.

“I think that’s been our way to let people know that we’re here,” says Castañeda about the importance of social media for Café Santo. “We’re very fortunate to actually have social media. This is a really good way to promote our business and to grow it. It’s kind of like [another form] word of mouth. It’s so crazy how customers will reach out through Instagram.” Gonzalez adds. “It’s so cool to see how coffee shops are a thing, so people dress up just to come and take a selfie with [their] coffee. People love the aesthetic [of it all].”

“Social media has provided us the opportunity to see what people are most interested in through their engagement on posts,” Castañeda continues. “It has also allowed us to interact with our clientele through polls, which allows us to gauge their interest in certain products.” They also used Indiegogo in addition to fundraiser events to help them fund their locale.

“Being able to take our presence in social media to the next level with the Meta Elevate community is so important,” says Castañeda. “I think it’s great that Meta Elevate has all these resources to help small businesses like ours.” “Especially [with] one-on-one mentorships, it’s really great to have a connection and learn and train,” says Gonzalez. “Meta Elevate is a great resource to find and grow your community as well.”

Café Santo has found their niche. Their combined efforts of quality coffee blends, Oaxacan chocolate drinks, top-notch food, aesthetically-pleasant merch, and a lovely locale has made them fixtures of their neighborhood and beyond, thanks to their appeal on social media. Gonzalez and Castañeda have finally achieved their dream of having their own business. Their challenges haven’t stopped but neither have their ambitions.

One of their biggest challenges has been growing, bringing more sales, hiring more people, and the time it needs to be invested. They express a desire to expand to other locals, and further down the line, they would love to open a Café Santo in Oaxaca.

“I’m really happy about what is happening,” says Gonzalez. “I do this every day. Coffee for me is not just about coffee, It’s everything around it, like family, friends, and events. So it’s basically my life. I’m very, very happy to be open right now, to serve the community, to express myself.”