Driving east on Slauson Avenue, a giant coffee mug in the sky comes into view in the distance. The cup is the beacon for the newest location of Tierra Mia Coffee in Pico Rivera.
The Latin-themed menu offers single origin coffees, horchata lattes, Mexican chocolate frappes, guava and cheese pastries, and tres leches muffins. Club chairs, locally-made iron and granite furniture, and images from coffee farms fill the room. The baristas at Tierra Mia pride themselves on their latte art skills, and a photo of a beautiful specimen by manager Connie Mendoza hangs on the wall.
Tierra Mia owner Ulysses Romero was raised in Norwalk and La Habra, and went to St. Paul High School in Santa Fe Springs. His father and uncle own and operate Romero's Food Products, a company that makes tortillas and breads for restaurants, retail, and wholesale. Most mornings, Romero's mother arrives at Tierra Mia with flowers from her garden to fill vases in the seating area.
During a busy morning at the new Pico Rivera location, Romero shared his passion for coffee, his desire to create jobs, and why he moved back to the communities he grew up in to execute his café business plan.
Julie: How did the idea for Tierra Mia originally come about?
Ulysses: After working in New York banks, and a stint consulting in San Francisco, I came back to Los Angeles to help out with my family's business. From there I was soul searching, trying to figure out what to do.
I thought when I started Tierra Mia the focus would be on coffee, but I realized that job creation is the biggest thing we can do to impact the community, the local economy, and improve quality of life in the areas we are in. Each time we open new stores that are successful, we employ at least twenty people. That means a lot.
Julie: Why coffee?
Ulysses: While I was in grad school at Stanford I knew I wanted to start a business. When speakers came to campus were asked, "Where do you see growth?" They would say, "The Hispanic market is where you need to be." These were executives from companies like Coca Cola and Bud Light, and I thought, well, I understand that community.
I went to undergrad in Berkeley, and it's a pretty big coffeehouse place. I drank coffee all the time. It started out just for caffeine. I started drinking mochas, then lattes with a bunch of sugar. By the time I graduated I was drinking black coffee. I liked the experience of being in a coffeehouse.
My initial concept was to create a Latin coffee concept that I thought would be preferred in these neighborhoods. Once I started going to trade shows, tried different coffees and espressos, and seeing the latte art, I realized there was a whole other area I could build the business around.
Julie: What do you look for when hiring new people?
Ulysses: We tell our new hires this is a coffeehouse focused on quality from the beans that we use to the preparation. The second piece is that we are a Latin concept. That's reflected in the drinks we are offering, the service, and the décor. All of our locations have photographs on the wall showing coffee being grown in Latin America and the faces of the farmers. So many people who live here in L.A. have an agricultural background. For some of them, it makes a direct connection.
Julie: Are transformations of fast food restaurants part of your business plan?
Ulysses: It was not originally part of the business plan, but it is now because it makes complete sense. The original South Gate location was a completely new building. In Santa Fe Springs we are inside the renovated public library. Huntington Park was a McDonald's. This Pico Rivera location was a KFC.
Julie: And the Tierra Mia coffee mug in the parking lot was originally a KFC chicken bucket?
Ulysses: When we were designing this location, I looked up at that big KFC bucket. Just having to remove that thing was going to be a project. So we transformed it into a Tierra Mia coffee mug that lights up at night. People love it. Some call it the newest landmark in Pico Rivera.
Julie: Why do you think that this location in Pico Rivera and the ones in Huntington Park and South Gate are so busy at night?
Ulysses: We are busy in the evenings because we are in communities that lack places to go at night. We provide an environment that is nice for people in their own community, so we get busy late. South Gate is open the latest. There, we close at 11:30 p.m. and midnight on the weekends. Here in Pico Rivera and Huntington Park we stay open to 10 and 11 p.m. on the weekends.
Julie: You began Tierra Mia making drinks with Intelligentsia and Stumptown coffee beans. More recently you began roasting your own. Why did you make the transition?
Ulysses: Coffee prices were shooting up last year. Luckily in my Huntington Park location, that was originally a McDonald's, it already had a gas lines and hoods there. I did not have to open a whole new facility to roast coffee. We bought a small roaster and started experimenting. Right now we are roasting four times a week. We aim to serve all of our brewed coffees from between three to six days from roast for peak flavor.
Now that we are roasting coffee, we have talked about at some point buying a farm. It is something that I do not think is outside the realm of possibilities for us. We don't have the volume to do that yet, but I think that eventually we can figure out the economics and make it work.
Julie: In addition to the hot drinks, you also have several frappes on the menu including one called Rice and Beans.
Ulysses: When I was working on the business plan, I noticed that a lot of people in the community would order cold blended drinks. When I tried the product that was out there, it tasted powdery and artificial. I got in the kitchen and started creating my own. It took a lot of tweaking over a six to 12 month period.
Our Rice and Beans frappe drink is made with coffee, horchata, a little bit of chocolate, and a few extra coffee beans thrown in the blender for crunch. It's been really popular.
Julie: What are your goals for the future of Tierra Mia?
Ulysses: I'd like to open additional stores. I think companies are trying to improve on coffee as a category, improve on the level of the product. A lot of that is happening at the farm level. At the transport of the green coffee, getting here to roast it, and bring out the best flavors. For us, it's about continuing to elevate that process. I want us to make better coffee every year. If we can do that then I think we will be successful as a business.
From a retail standpoint I want to grow as much as we can. In five years, we should have at least five more stores. I'd like to open another store here in L.A. County, then head up to the Bay Area to open some stores there. If we can be successful there then we can expand to other places as well.
I like what I do. I like this industry. The business itself to me is more meaningful if we can continue to expand out retail presence and bring our product to other communities.