Remember Juan Valdez, the donkey-toting cafetero (that's coffee farmer to the uninitiated) and official representative of the Columbian Coffee Federation? Well, the famed fictitious character, created in 1959, has finally returned. For the 21st Century, the brand has evolved into sleek, modern coffee bars, complete with Latin American coffee menus and Spanish-speaking baristas. The first outlet opened recently on East 57th Street in Manhattan, and it is a refreshing antidote to the Starbucks takeover of cafe life. Not only is it a cultural experience just to read the menu, but the space itself, filled with Wi-Fi users, curved blond wood, stainless steel and a green/orange/blue color scheme, is equally transformative in its simplicity and warmth. Can it be long before "nevado arequepa" rolls off the tongue as easily as caramel frappucino?
Juan Valdez literally gives its Seattle-based counterpart a run for the money. My macchiato arequipa, a blissful conconction of espresso combined with a touch of caramel-flavored milk, set me back a mere $1.75. Better yet, I ordered a "medium" nothing venti about it. But the real draw is that the new retail outlet represents yet another step forward for Columbian coffee farmers. Because the CCF is fully owned and operated by the farmer collectives, all of the profits from the shop go directly to the 300,000 farmers, not the middlemen retailers that Columbian coffee is typically channeled through.