Story: Mark Ludas @aulos.media
Photos: Peter Stog, Mauricio Lopez, Laura Ariza
Coffee is more than a drink. “It’s a way of life,” we might say. But, on a very real level, it’s even more than that. To countless farmers, regions, and entire countries, it is life.
One testament to that is the life of Andrés Gallón (pronounced “gah-JHON”), specialty coffee consultant for LOKL Cafe and a coffee shop owner in his own right.
That cup of delicious coffee you’re enjoying right now? You have Andrés to thank for it.
So how did a Colombian migrant who arrived in the United States at twenty years old with no money, no job, not even a place to sleep, become an international business owner?
And what is it like to know that, without coffee, you might not be here?
His story starts in the 1970s. As long as anyone could remember and into the first half of the decade, Brazil was the dominant force in world coffee production. But in 1975, severe frost decimated Brazilian coffee production, leaving a void that needed to be filled.
Enter, the Colombian coffee industry, which was already strong but started experiencing an unprecedented boom.
Andrés’s grandfather, Mario, was already a thriving coffee farmer, but this sudden opportunity helped propel him into a position of prominence in the coffee industry. “He ran his farm and eventually five more farms for friends and familymembers. Such was his dedication to coffee.”
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to meet him. He died when I was very young. But I have heard all of the stories.” Although he regrets never meeting his grandfather in the flesh, Andrés is grateful to have inherited Mario’s legacy, even to a small extent. But more on that later.
Andrés’s grandmother, Cecilia, nicknamed Chila, figures into his earliest memories of drinking coffee. A formidable woman, Chila came from a very poor background and a large family. “There were fifteen brothers and sisters; she was the oldest and she was responsible for taking care of everyone.”
For Chila as well as Mario, Colombia’s coffee boom offered opportunity. New farms were opening regularly, and the farmers needed rugged vehicles. “My grandmother was actually importing Jeep Willys from the United States into Colombia and selling them at the coffee farms. So that’s how she started to make some cash to support her family.”
The Jeep Willys business also allowed her to open a restaurant—Doña Chila—in the small town of Buenavista, Colombia, where—you guessed it—she also sold coffee.
But you might say, “well, I’m sure Chila’s financial problems were taken care of once she met Mario.”
The issue with that assumption, dear reader, is that Mario was on one side of the family and Cecilia was on the other.
Coffee came from both sides of the family.
Mario and Chila were friends, however, and one day Mario took his teenage son—Andrés’s future father, Victor—to apply for a job at Chila’s restaurant. He got the job, and while working there, Victor soon met a young woman, Odalys. She was Chila’s daughter.
And that’s how his parents met. “If you go to Colombia and talk to people from my generation, you [find] almost everyone is related to coffee somehow, especially people from the region where I’m from.”
So even before Andrés was born, coffee and commerce played a pivotal role in his life. They would serve as harbingers of the type of life that he would lead.
His relationship with coffee as an actual beverage starts at three or four years old. “I have these memories of my grandma [Chila] giving me coffee. Nowadays you would not think to give coffee to a little kid, right? But back then it was perfectly okay...it was part of the culture.”
“At breakfast, sometimes you’d request coffee instead of chocolate.”
He almost makes coffee sound like an aspect of maturation, of learning who he is and where he comes from. And three or four is a young age to grow up.
“Coffee is basically part of the DNA. It’s part of me. I didn’t know I had it until, you know, you grow up and you’re trying to find out what your passions really are. That’s when I realized that coffee has always been with me.”
But life was very hard. Income inequality in Colombia was some of the highest in South America. The government’s coffee policies, put in place in the seventies to harness the power of Colombia’s burgeoning industry by keeping prices low, eventually became obsolete. As the commercial coffee industry grew throughout the 80s and 90s, it seemed that farmers and sellers earned less and less.
Andrés had dreams and aspirations, things he wanted out of life, just like anyone else: to travel, to be independent, to do work that suited his ambitious and driven personality. Over the next few decades, coffee would prove central to his ability to succeed. It would also allow him to give back to his native country more than he ever could if he had remained.
In 1997, at twenty years of age and with a high school education, Andrés made a difficult decision. He left Colombia for Miami with the goal of becoming a pilot; the freedom to travel was the first thing on his mind.
But youthful career ideas often take a backseat to simple survival. “My first day, I was at the airport, passed immigration, and I was like, what am I going to do now?” With only $200 to his name and nowhere to lay his head on his first night in America, Andrés needed help.
“I had a piece of paper with two phone numbers on it. One was my cousin and the other was a friend of my mother. I called the friend first.”
Andrés asked this family friend if he had any room. “His house was full. But he gave me some money, and he said, ‘I will get you where you need to go.’”
What about the other phone number, for his cousin? “I called [her], she lived in Orlando, and she said I could come there. So my mother’s friend put me on a bus and I went to Orlando. And that’s where everything started.”
Things happened like they always do: step by step. Establishing a sense of stability, learning English, and getting a good job all served as practice for slowly accomplishing his lifelong dreams.
The first step was believing that he could. “I didn’t have a chance to go to Thailand in my whole life, I didn’t even know where Thailand was. Or Germany. In Colombia, you just wouldn’t think about that, because it’s beyond your reach. That’s how you feel.”
“I remember thinking I want a job [that will allow me to travel] so I can know different places and different cultures, and my first job offered me that.”
Andrés worked for the flavor-and-fragrance industry, starting in the mailroom of a French company and working his way up to the position of financial analyst. “I was traveling for, like, two-and-a-half years straight.”
With that dream secured, it was time to start his own business. In 2018, Andrés made his move into the coffee industry. It all started on a whim, and a visit to his homeland.
“I went back to Colombia for a vacation.”
Mercado de las Pulgas de San Alejo, one of Bogota’s many outdoor markets, takes over multiple streets; the midday bustle is deafening, but electrifying. The scent of locally grown spices like cinnamon, coriander, and cumin invade one’s nostrils, while bright colors like traditional reds, yellows, and greens invoke Bolivarian memories that pervade the collective consciousness of so many South American nations.
And of course, the coffee—its presence, sale, roasting, brewing, drinking, merrymaking—is also pervasive.
After enjoying the urban tumult for several days, a sojourn to the serene countryside had a certain appeal. Andres decided to visit Buenavista and see the site of his grandfather’s farm.
“I had never been to Mario’s farm, and I hadn’t been to that little town in a very, very long time, so I wanted to see it again.”
“When I got there, it was like there was some kind of energy, you know? I felt like I belonged there. Inside this very beautiful, very small town, it was very peaceful, where things take their time. I’d been in the States for so many years, you get into that habit of that rush, working working working, so now you need that balance, to go to that place where you just be calm. And I found that there.”
It was in this peaceful, at-home state of mind that Andrés had his idea.
“Maybe I can build a coffee shop here. We can export coffee and we’ll sell it in the states and we’ll source it only from Buenavista to help the farmers directly and we’ll only employ people from Buenavista, and we’ll give something back to the town. I was writing this all down on a piece of paper, off the top of my head.”
Within one year, “I ended up doing exactly what I had written on that piece of paper.”
That was in 2019. Now, Andrés has secured a legacy beyond that of just a shop-owner. He and others like him in the coffee industry are leading the way in establishing a new paradigm of doing business, one that could enrich the lives of his countryfolk for generations to come.
Direct trade will be the subject of another LOKL article in the future, but suffice it to say, instead of a race to the bottom under outdated government regulations, or being subject to multinational corporations answering to boards of directors, a coffee farmer growing specialty coffee and engaged in direct trade can determine their own price for their product and compete on the open market without getting ripped off by middlemen or diluting product quality.
The impact of this financial empowerment among coffee farmers is manifold.
All too commonly, “if I say to a farmer, ‘I want to buy your coffee’ and they say to me, ‘what are you willing to pay?’ before anything else, that right there tells me that they do not even appreciate their own work themselves.”
Andrés connects this to income inequality: “It’s not fair that the farmer gets less than a dollar per pound when you are selling it for $20 a pound. That’s not fair.”
By contrast, “if somebody asks me, ‘Hey Andrés, how much is your coffee?’ I tell you one price, because I know that’s what it’s worth, and if [that person] says ‘I can get it cheaper,’ I say yes, of course you can, but you’re not going to get mine.”
“So I always say to the farmers I’m buying from, ‘you tell me a price. And if I don’t like it, we negotiate. I’m not going to give you a price; you figure it out, because I don’t grow your coffee; you’re the one growing it, you know how much it costs you.”
“You need to start putting value into what you do. And everyone I work with just loves it. They love it.”
Such is the legacy that Andrés is building: not just a flourishing shop and amazing coffee at LOKL, but a culture of commerce that values a fair price for the fruits of one’s labor and pride in one’s work, slowly but surely elevating the standard of living in a still-struggling nation, and improving its standing on the world stage.
What allowed him to persevere so effectively?
“I think it is my thoughts, it’s what drives all of my actions. How big are your desires and your dreams? That’s how big your results are going to be.”