By Esteban Lopez
Antigua Coffee is a corner store cafe, located in Cypress Park on Figueroa Street, just north of Downtown Los Angeles, owned and operated by Yancey Quiñones and his wife. Yancey is a part of a lineage of family owned coffee growers, producers, and roasters who cultivate and import their own coffee beans from Guatemala. Although Yancey was born in Los Angeles — specifically Cypress Park — his family, who stems from Guatemala, has owned coffee farms in the Chimaltenango region for over 100 years.
The cafe focuses on high quality coffee and has dedicated itself to be a business that revolves around supporting and being a part of the local community by hiring from within the neighborhood. Since the beginning, Antigua Coffee has always strived to be community focused and small business-oriented, grounded in the notion that they are competing against national giants like Starbucks and Coffee Bean as well as other local competitors such as La Monarca Bakery & Cafe and Jones Coffee Roasters, who incidentally, also imports coffee directly from a family owned farm in Guatemala.
From an almost international perspective, Yancey felt there was a need to compete against the European or American owned cafes who were importing coffee from Guatemala. Since Yancey’s family had already been producing coffee there, he felt the need to establish a cafe within his own community that would allow him to import and distribute coffee straight from the source.
After receiving a business degree from Cal State Los Angeles, Yancey decided to open up a coffee shop that would integrate not only his cultural roots but his neighborhood and fellow nations, building a space that would bring locals together and allow them to experience the best coffee that Guatemala has to offer.
Antigua Coffee began in 2003, originally the business began in El Sereno but due to complications with the landlord they ended up moving to where they are now in Cypress Park, Yancey’s home town. Prior to the opening of the cafe Yancey had spent several years in Guatemala working on family-owned coffee farms.
As the cafe developed, it evolved into a community space or what is called a “third space,” a social hub separate from the two usual social environments of home and the workplace. People meet at the cafe for a variety of reasons: some for business meetings, to do homework or to simply engage in conversation with their neighbors; the cafe has become a space that creates a special sense of community. Neighbors who have lived near each other for a long time may finally meet one another at the cafe for the first time, often building bonds that may have never developed otherwise.
As the business progressed, Yancey strived to integrate the culture from where the coffee is produced, not only as a coffee producer, but also as an ambassador of the Guatemalan culture, more specifically the indigenous Mayan culture that has been cultivating coffee in the region for millennia.
When Antigua Coffee first opened, Yancey’s vision was not widely accepted, especially amongst his fellow latino neighbors or other Guatemalan community members. As Yancey stated, “My goal was to get all the latinos in the area, like myself, to come in and appreciate [the cafe] and be a part of the process, use up the space. We never had something likes this here. When I was growing up, all we had was iHop.” The truth of the matter is that Antigua Coffee isn’t actually solely supported by the foundational latino population, it is supported mostly by the new residents who have come into Cypress Park due to gentrification. As Yancey describes from his perspective of being a business owner and community member of Cypress Park, “Three years ago the Starbucks opened down the street, and that became the latino spot. All the latinos go to Starbucks and all the [ affluent residents ] come here. Because latinos want to feel like [the] middle class is attainable, they go into [Starbucks] thinking, ‘look, I can do this too.’ But the [ affluent residents ] are already middle class, they don’t need that feeling, they want high quality so they come [to Antigua Coffee].”
During the beginning stages of the cafe — whose intention was to be a part of the local community — they began to receive backlash from the same people Yancey and his family were looking to serve. Yancey goes on to describe the situation, “It became an issue, people thought I was a white guy, [when] I’m from here. I had threats, I had broken windows, they put signs up about gentrification on the windows. My own people, just hating on me. Without knowing that my mother came here in 1965 and settled in Cypress Park.”
Antigua coffee can be described as a typical, “third wave coffee shop,” serving espresso based drinks, teas, pastries, sandwiches and coffee roasting. Most of their revenue does not actually come from serving coffee; most of the income actually comes from coffee roasting and distributing the coffee throughout California, nationally, and internationally. The menu includes specialty drinks such as the Mayan Moca, which contains cacau, as well as horchata, another traditional drink from Guatemala. The menu also includes vegetarian and vegan options and the locally famous breakfast sandwich which has become a local favorite in the menu. The menu is a focus on quality and as Yancey describes, “[we] are a niche, whatever we do we focus on it and we do it right, period. You aren’t going to find 100 items here, you’re just going to find minimal items. That’s really the secret to success, focus on a product and do it well. That’s it.”
Not only does one get to indulge in high quality coffee and ready-to-order home style prepared food, customer service is also a highlight of the experience when visiting the cafe as Yancey likes to make the customers feel welcome and comfortable. “People are people at the end of the day, that’s just the way it is,” states Yancey, “It can be anyone, white, black, latino, asian… martian. I don’t care. Treat everyone the same. Period. That’s it. Like you want them to treat you.”
When one visits the cafe, they step into a space that pays homage to the Mayan culture; from the cafe’s name, the items served, the logo and even the business ethics and policies, they are all cultivated from the Mayan culture. When Yancey would visit Guatemala, he also had the opportunity to experience and absorb the indigenous Mayan culture, interactions that would later greatly influence how Yancey would develop his shop, with an emphasis on respecting not only the culture but the land and the people working on it.
Although Yancey embraces his Mayan roots and amplifies it through his business, his community has yet to truly acknowledge his attention to authenticity. Yancey points out, “But again, I’ve had Guatemalans who come in and talk [negatively] to me, ‘you are not Guatemalan, you are a fake.’ Okay. But then I ask them, ‘what does Guatemala mean?’ And they have no idea. And I ask them, ‘what is the original name of Guatemala?’ And they have no idea. And I ask them, ‘what does Cuauthtemallan mean, what does Tenango mean, what do all these names mean?’ And they have no idea and they cut everything down… They don’t know, they aren’t educated [about the culture]. I am.”
The mayan culture is reflected in the logo with a twist, Yumkaxx, The Mayan god of agriculture and animals is seen carrying a cup of coffee instead of the traditional corn,. Yancey goes on to point out, “This is coffee from our land coming to you. The Mayan culture is respect. So when you come here, respect the coffee you drink and appreciate it, and you don’t throw it away. People throw coffee away, [trashing] it by putting creamer in it. But to me, no, this coffee is so high quality you don’t put cream in it and if you do, you put a little bit but you don’t throw away the coffee.” Yancey passionately goes on to explain, “Because that is the hard work of the people working the land, these are Mayan descendants, this is their culture and I want you to appreciate every drop. Like they say, every bean counts.”
Through the cafe, Yancey is dedicated to share with his community the appreciation and insight he has of the Mayan culture and Guatemala, saying “Ask me why we have certain Mayan glyphs on our walls, ask me what that is and I’ll have an answer for you so you can learn [and] then you can teach other people. That is the integration of the Mayan culture. Bring it in, giving it a center stage to the world. Here we have people from all over the world who come here: Australians, Europeans, Japanese, Koreans, and when you show them what it is you are actually advertising as an ambassador of the Mayan culture. When the people go back home they remember what you told them, versus what we see in the media or how they depict us as savages or so forth.”
As stated before, Antigua Coffee does not just sell coffee or roast coffee beans, it shares culture and builds bridges of understanding between the Central American indigenous Mayan culture and people not acquainted with its history. The cafe sets the foundation for the indigenous people of Guatemala to have a voice and for their hard work to be appreciated and experienced. As Yancey insists, each drop of coffee is to be savored and experienced, not just for the affluent few but for everyone in the community and beyond. The coffee, served one cup at a time, offers the opportunity to take a sip of culture, to experience something ethnic and maybe, for just a moment, understand one’s own indigenous culture or that of someone else’s — no matter what their background.
In the United States, people have a unique opportunity to experience many different cultures, and instead of misuse of the Mayan and Guatemalan culture and natural resources, Yancey and Antigua Coffee seek to broaden and share it with the world directly from those that produce it. No middle man, no exploitation, just authentic coffee from the hands of one family into the hands of another.