It was the smell of coffee that started it all.
In 2006, José René Martínez was shopping for wallpaper with a friend when a wonderful scent got his attention. Following his nose, Martínez stumbled upon a gentleman roasting coffee in his own little shop within the large industrial building. Instantly, they struck up a conversation. “I don’t know what possessed me,” admits Martínez, “but two weeks later I offered to buy his business.”
Two months later they sealed the deal and Martínez has been exploring his love and passion for coffee ever since.
From Passion to Success
By following his passion, Martínez has not only opened the door to a life he never could have imagined but has garnered recognition as a successful minority business owner. In fact, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal recently visited Martínez’s coffee shop, J.René Coffee Roasters in West Hartford to present him with the Connecticut Small Business Association (SBA) Minority-Owned Business of the Year Award (presented in March).
Of the award, Martínez says, “We were fortunate to be recognized for the work that we have been doing throughout the year.”
Martínez’s work doesn’t end at roasting coffee either. Martínez owns two brands: J.René Coffee Roasters and VICTUS Coffee. The latter is used to support nonprofit organizations that promote wellness and social advocacy through endurance sports.
Using his business to make a positive impact on the community is a priority to Martínez and he finds a variety of ways to do this: from using the proceeds of VICTUS to support nonprofits to hiring a minority high school student and becoming his mentor to encouraging connection through coffee in a culturally saturated environment.
Supporting a Diverse Community
On supporting a diverse community, Martínez says, “I think the first thing that you do is you take affirmative steps to ensure your staff is diverse. To generate a diverse community, it starts in-house. You have to take steps to ensure a diverse community exists within your own store, and you give people who may, often times, are not given an opportunity … you give them a chance. And not just give them a chance but you also mentor them. As several kids that have been working for me started out of high school through a program that was geared to help inner city kids learn skills that will help them grow as young professionals in the future. It wasn’t easy but you work on everything, you work on their education skills, you work on their study habits, you work on their work ethic and you teach them the importance of excellence in all their endeavors.”
A Cultural Experience
Not only does Martínez create a culturally diverse back-of-the-house, but the ethos behind the coffee shop is to bring people together over coffee, which means understanding each other and accepting each other.
One patron, Edward Wilson, drives from out of town to visit J.René Coffee Roasters on the weekends because the vibe is so comfortable, informative and unique. “[Martínez] walks around and he will stop and talk to you about the coffee and talk to you about the origin of coffee, he is excited to share his passion,” explains Wilson. “The guy travels all the time—in my opinion, he is the Anthony Bourdain of coffee. If you go to his shop there are pictures of places he has gone all over the world. They are subtle shots but they are shots of him with beans, of him with people picking the beans, it’s got like a whole cultural experience going on that is more than just his culture, it’s other people’s culture that you’re learning about just by looking at these pictures … at these flashes of moments.”
These “flashes of moments” capture Martínez in places like East Africa, Indonesia, and Central South America. “Coffee is the second most commodity second only to oil,” informs Martínez, “and it affects so many different lives in so many different industries. So for me, it has been an incredible experience because through coffee I’ve learned, I’ve traveled all over the world to visit different coffee ranches … and from a business aspect, you’re learning about commodity as it relates to coffee, the science of coffee and the art involved in coffee, the artistic approach and the humility in preparing a shot where often times you spend more time cleaning and everything else than you do preparing a shot. There is just a lot of work that goes into it; it’s a celebration of labor. So when I think of all those things they all resonated with me, with my culture, with my work ethics and the things I thought were important to me.”
The Value of Small Business
Because J.René’s is a small local business it gives Martínez control over every component in a way that he can be true to his passion and not compromise his vision, though, admittedly, it does have its challenges.
“We don’t have the level of sophistication that corporate businesses that have multiple stores have,” admits Martínez. “So we navigate learning one step at a time. I am a lawyer by profession (that’s what I also do) and I am very fortunate to have this opportunity but I realize for so many [small business owners] the risks are great—you just don’t know the answers and you can’t forecast for tomorrow easily. But you do your best at something that you love and do it in a way that you hope consumers will appreciate and support for a long, long time.”
In Wilson’s opinion: “You get a bit more at J.René’s [then at larger chain coffee shops]. You get hands-on experience.” Wilson is proud to be a part of the J.René community and can certainly say he “knew Martínez when” and energetically shares his story:
“When I was first exposed to J.René’s Coffee he was grinding beans and wholesaling out of a small location where he would only open on Saturday and Sunday mornings. [Martínez] didn’t sell coffee by the cup but gave it away for free to anyone who showed up. That atmosphere was organic and people stayed there for hours to just talk and marinate in the atmosphere he created. He was frequently bugged to open a shop. To further develop what was happening on those Saturday and Sunday mornings … he did just that. [Martínez’s] passion for coffee and the artisanal environment he has created for his patrons to enjoy it in, has been something special to watch grow and be a part of.”
J.René Coffee sells artisanal coffees that Wilson says you can drink black … no sugar or milk needed. And that is important to Martínez: maintaining a high-quality product. But at J.René’s, what’s as equally important as the product is the social experience. It is this quality that makes his small local coffee shop truly a local gem.
Martínez says that: “The biggest thing that a small business can do is have a good understanding of what the community is all about and modify their approach and their product based on the community they are serving. Also to focus on the interpersonal relationships that you develop with the customers. You get to see this person come in … and then you get to see this person come in with a girlfriend … and then you see this person with their wife and have their first child. It’s a real blessing. We really do become an extended part of their family.”
It is with this ideation that Martínez has created an environment conducive to social exchange, where people can sip artisanal coffee while ideas fall around them and unite them.
By September Martínez expects to have at least one additional J.René Coffee Roasters store opened in West Hartford and is currently in discussions to open a VICTUS Coffee shop in August.