By Robert Cyr
When many of us decide it’s time for a cup of coffee, we reach for the can or the crystals; line up in our favorite national java chain; or, for the more serious coffee lovers – get out the grinder and French press. And all of this likely without a thought of where it comes from or how it got into our mugs. But Jose René Martinez Onofre, owner of the newly-opened J. René Coffee Roasters in West Hartford, is not like the rest of us.
Although Onofre, 44, was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Puerto Rico, he’s since made a home in central Connecticut and is an assistant attorney general in the state Attorney General’s Office, specializing in the Unfair Trade Practices Act.
Tall, well-spoken and well-dressed, he sipped espresso on a recent afternoon in his bright café. He explained with an inspired tone that his drink is a complex Peruvian and Kenyan blend, containing beans he traveled to examine himself.
“I do more than sell a cup of coffee. I can tell you its origins, the nuances of the flavor expectations and how it was grown,” he said.
It’s clear while talking with Onofre that he’s a man who’s found his passion and is running with it. And it all started by chance, he said, six years ago – when he was shopping with a friend on New Park Avenue and smelled coffee roasting next door. He fell in love with the roasting machine and process at that coffee shop and decided to buy the business, which he promptly renamed. Since then, he has steeped himself in the world and language of coffee.
But that business did not have space to sit and sip, so when he saw an opportunity to move to a bigger spot, all the equipment came – including the prized roaster, standing more than six feet tall.
The move to 320 Park Road, West Hartford, completed a lifelong dream, said Onofre, of opening a community space where people could sit and talk. It was just a coincidence that coffee became the vehicle for that dream to happen, he said.
But still, why coffee? It was not necessarily the time-honored beverage, but its connection to the land and culture that grabbed him, Onofre said. While Puerto Ricans certainly love their coffee as much as most of the world, Onofre said he was opened to the agricultural process by his father, Jose Martinez Del Valle, who was a sugar cane farmer on the island nation before becoming a factory worker in America.
Competition is not a concern, Onofre said. And his café is decidedly nothing like the chain coffee specialty cafes across the country. J. René Coffee Roasters is clean, spare and elegant. On a wall over some tables is a flat-screen TV with a slideshow of Onofre with coffee farmers on their plantations in exotic locale like Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatamala. He travels far and wide for just the right coffee bean to roast in his business, he said.
“Sadly enough, we’ve lost the idea of what coffee really is,” he said. “We want to tell the stories of the people who work so hard to grow this, the place where it comes from. This is an artisan coffee gathering place – not a coffee shop.”
The café was warmly welcomed by the small businesses nearby along Park Road, an area that Onofre’s girlfriend and café manager Marie Engle likened to a “village” not very different from New York City’s village culture. Engle, who was instrumental in designing the café and its long, European-style community tables, said she has been overwhelmed by the good feedback they’ve gotten since opening their doors last week.
“There are a lot of artists, professionals and people who have lived here for many years of many different backgrounds,” she said. “They enjoy that we took an old building and brought it back.”
The café, next to a specialty book shop, is a century old and once housed a hair salon and earlier, a fish market, Onofre said. He also plans on introducing Salsa dance lessons and an ongoing line-up of local musicians.
But it wasn’t only the artisanal coffee that brought customers in on one recent day. J. Rene’s serene, well-lit space was a perfect creative impetus for 70-year-old West Hartford resident Susan Fair, who said she finally had found a place to finish writing her novel in a relaxed, cosmopolitan atmosphere.
“I never seemed to like the atmosphere of the bigger chain places,” she said. “They’re too loud and messy and crowded and the coffee isn’t very good. This is what a coffee café should be. A good place to get together with people. I hope they keep it going.”
J. René Coffee Roasters is open Mondays to Wednesdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursdays to Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. More information available on its website.
Photo by Robert Cyr