A Coffee Shop Connects Colombia and Madison, Wisconsin

The Story Behind Café Social

By Teodor Teofilov

In mid-February, 1999, then 32-year-old Omar López landed at Dane County Airport, Wisc. The sky was clear and the sun shone bright, with snow covering the streets and laying snugly on the tops of the trees. The snow was the only remnant of the snowstorm that swept through the region the previous day. Pure whiteness covered the picturesque nature of Dane County, with cold stinging the lungs with each breath.

For López this was the first time seeing snow. Having lived his whole life in Armenia, Quindío, Colombia, where the average yearly temperature is between 80 and 86 F, it was a surprise for López to feel the cold of Wisconsin. In Dane County the average temperature in February varies between 15 and 34 F. Armenia is part of the “coffee triangle” in Colombia that consists of a rural area made up of three regions – Caldas, Quindío and Risaralda. It is famous for growing and producing the majority of Colombian coffee, which is considered by many the best coffee in the world.

“Oh wow it’s nice,” López thought to himself while taking in the purity of snow. But he wasn’t prepared for the winter cold that grips Wisconsin at that time of year and was wearing only a light jacket and thin jeans.

Omar López behind the counter of Café Social /Credit: Teodor Teofilov

Once off the plane, López was greeted by Jorge Grajales, the brother of his best friend, Yolanda. They went to grab a bite to eat at a Chinese restaurant, after which they went to Grajales’ apartment, where López would stay for the next three weeks until he found a place of his own.

The apartment he found was on Jenifer Street and overlooked the Yahara River and Mendota Lake. He lived with four other people, all from different parts of the world, and they formed a good community. For López one of the best characteristics of his new home was the tranquility of the neighborhood.

López looked younger than his age at the time with short dark hair, brown eyes and tanned skin. He came to the U.S. for a number of reasons, one of which was his best friend Yolanda Grajales, who managed to convince him the year before.

López, a civil engineer, graduated from the Quindío University, which is famous in the area for its civil engineering program. In Colombia, he worked for his sisters’ construction company – CONSTRUCCIONES BUENDÍA Y LÓPEZ – as lead engineer of the whole operation. He worked there for almost seven years and loved the job he was doing but felt that it was too much for one person. For López being a civil engineer was fun but he disliked that the people he worked with were too money driven. Another reason for leaving was that the work he did became too much – six-day weeks and 12-hour days.

“You know some families are all doctors, well, all my family are civil engineers,” said López about the fact that both his brothers and his sister are civil engineers, but his parents didn’t have any connection with the profession. His father was a Sergeant in the Colombian military and an accountant, while his mother was a stay-at-home mom. He attributes this trend in his siblings to the university and to a boom in construction in Armenia at the time.

The year before López arrived in Madison, his best friend Grajales, who was living and working in Bogota, Colombia at the time came to him with an idea. She had been in a long-term relationship and wanted to get married but it ended sourly as the guy she was with cheated on her.

“The only way to forget him is to leave the country,” López recalls her telling him. At that time he was thinking he needed a break and wanted to do something different. López sought a change of scenery and planned to do something for a year and then return back home. He recalls the two of them calling Grajales’ brother, who was living in Madison, Wisc., who told them they should come and study because there were really good schools and colleges in the area.

“People say every six or seven years you want to do something different, even in your house you want to paint a wall or do something,” López said about his move. “And that is true. In six years I was tired and I wanted to do something different and my best friend she wanted to do something different too.”

Inside Café Social /Credit: Teodor Teofilov

There was only one problem that López faced when he arrived in the U.S. – he didn’t speak a word of English.

The day after López landed he went around the neighborhood to look around his new abode. He put on several layers of clothes, a thick jacket and wandered the streets. He wouldn’t have much time to explore Madison though, as it wouldn’t be long before he would start studying. He remembers that he came to the U.S on a student visa and it was only three days after he landed that he started classes at Wesli Second Language School.

Learning a second language for a child is easy. For them learning and absorbing information is a built-in tool that they do subconsciously. However, as an adult, López would have to do it consciously and being over thirty made it a difficult task. López didn’t have the time to explore fully his new environment. He was focused on studying and all he thought about those first three days was about that. Where is he going to buy books? What are the teachers and classmates going to be like?

Once the first day came, López found himself pleasantly surprised as everyone at Wesli was nice and friendly. He found it difficult to learn English as the classes offered zero translation of the materials to Spanish. The intense classes were demanding as he couldn’t understand what was being taught at first. But slowly he began to catch on and follow what the other students were doing. López recalled that it took him three weeks to start getting a few words and the idea of what the teachers wanted them to do.

“It was really intense,” he recalled.

In the beginning of his education in Wesli, López had to study harder than his classmates, as many of them already knew a bit of English and he knew none. He focused only on studying and once classes were over he would go straight back home and spend 6-7 hours just studying the language. As time went on his listening and writing improved more than his speaking did. He recalls that one of his biggest problems was that he tried to speak English the same way he did Spanish. Another issue was that it was embarrassing for him to speak out loud because he made a lot of mistakes. Sometimes he would stay silent, not saying a word, because by the time he would understand what was being said, the class would’ve moved on to a different subject.

One thing López regrets is that he spend most of his time with Latinos and that didn’t make efforts to communicate with local Americans. For him, this was a slip-up because the English he learned at Wesli differed from the one spoken on the streets. However, he is grateful for the teachers he had because they were very patient. They would ask him to repeat what he wanted to get across multiple times until he got it and would wait patiently for him to express himself before correcting and answering him.

Despite the original plan being to stay in the U.S. for only a year to gain experience and study, López spent two years at Wesli and then moved to Madison Second Language School for two more semesters. After reaching a sufficient level in his second language, López applied for an MBA in Edgewood College. He got accepted and completed the degree with a focus in finance. Once he completed his masters, López became a realtor and joined First Webber – a Madison based real estate company and was also helping the Latino community by doing taxes.

López had one problem with life in Madison – the coffee. For him, the coffee that was served in every coffee shop in the city was too bitter and it lacked the richness of Colombian coffee. The first time he tried coffee here was in a Starbucks on State Street, as he lived near there. He came into the coffee shop looking to enjoy a nice cup of caffeine but was surprised at the bitterness and acidity of the coffee. He recalls that it gave him a stomach ache. A week after the first attempt he went to give Starbucks a second chance, hoping that it was only bad luck the first time. However, there was no difference in the coffee, nor was there in his body’s reaction to it. The coffee just wasn’t good.

He later asked his classmates at Wesli and MSLS on their thoughts of coffee in Madison, with a lot of them agreeing that it was worse than what they were used to.

“Ask a Colombian, they don’t like it, because our coffee is really smooth,” said López.

He describes Colombian coffee as rich and underlines that his problem with the coffee in Madison is that it was too bitter and acidic. Because of his dislike of the coffee here, López started to ask his sister, who had bought a coffee farm in Armenia in the mid-1990s, to send him coffee. He would get a pack or two a year from his family and when he traveled back to his hometown he would bring a five-pound bag with him. López would only drink the few bags of coffee he brought or that his family sends to him, but once it was finished, he wouldn’t drink any until the next one arrived or he went back home.

“I couldn’t drink coffee here,” López recalled. “I tried many coffee shops, many coffees and I bought coffee online and I just can’t believe this coffee people are drinking here.”

Café Social /Credit: Teodor Teofilov

In December 2004, López met his future partner in both life and business, Douglas Swenson, who is a year older than him, in a Mexican restaurant called Laredo’s. The restaurant, which is on South Whitney Way, has low hanging lights over tables, leather sofas and on its walls, a Mexican village is painted with people on the streets in traditional outfits and mariachi.

It was a coincidence that they would meet there, as López isn’t a big fan of Mexican food. He had gone out with the goal of finding a certain type of folders because he wanted to sort his documents. After having no luck at a small office supply shop downtown, he decided that Staples would have them. It was in the afternoon that he found himself hungry and at Laredo’s waiting for a table. As it was very busy that day, López recalls that the server convinced him to wait for a table. His table was quickly ready and he was seated.

At the same time Swenson, who has a short buzz cut and bright blue eyes, was sitting on a table nearby. Swenson loves speaking Spanish whenever he can, so when he noticed that López is from Latin America, he conveniently went to pay his bill at the same. They chatted for a little at the register and López invited Swenson to join him in his quest for folders in Staples. Swenson remembered that after walking around and buying the necessary supplies from Staples they went to have tea because it was too late for coffee.

Swenson’s background is in musical theatre and he has lived in many different cities where he did theatre. However, theatre was never enough to pay the bills so he took different side jobs – in New York City he was managing a restaurant. Swenson had recently returned to Madison, his hometown, to find a job. While on the hunt he was living with his family. After the fateful meeting with López, it was in February 2005, that they moved in together in López’ apartment.

After living together for years, López and Swenson got into the coffee business together. It was due to López’ dislike for coffee in Madison, and the fact his sister owned a coffee farm in Armenia that they decided to start importing coffee. It was in late 2010, they discussed the possibility of turning this into a business and it was at the start of the next year that they had made a logo and simple packaging for their product and went to a distributor in Madison.

The business name – Café Social – was chosen after multiple choices were rejected. It took them nearly a month to decide the name of the coffee business they were going to make and Swenson recalled that they spend more time on deciding it than actually designing the logo or the packaging. They chose Café Social, because it has the same meaning in both English and Spanish – except for the pronunciation.

After the first step was done, López found a Madison-based distribution company online and set up a meeting. They went to the office of the distributor with a basket and a thermos of brewed coffee. López recalled that the reception of the coffee was really good and the guy they presented to said: “It’s the best coffee I ever tried.” López and Swenson were excited that the distributor loved their coffee. With the help of the distribution company, they went to the Woodman’s in Janesville to try and get their coffee on the shelves. The distributor made an appointment with the supermarket and they went early in the morning but the people at Woodman’s weren’t excited. However, all it took was for them to try the coffee and the person that tried it wanted it for all of Woodman’s’ supermarkets.

The business was developing well with the coffee being on the shelves of over 20 supermarkets. This caused a predicament for López. He loved being a realtor, but now importing coffee from his sister’s farm in Armenia had started to earn money. The only problem working for First Weber was again the mentality of the people. As with his job in Colombia, López disliked the money-driven nature of people in real estate. On the other hand, he loved the people in the coffee business. López decided that he would focus solely on coffee and quit being a realtor.

On Aug. 15, 2016, López and Swenson opened a coffee shop in the Uncommon Madison (an apartment building now known as Lark at Kohl). Swenson having worked in Steep & Brew in the 1980s, had seen how a coffee shop can be beneficial to a brand as it makes people think “Oh, when I drink this coffee I think of that store.” López and Swenson discussed opening a coffee shop often, and they had even put down money on another location near the Colectivo on State Street. They had liked the old building on Francis Street, where the space was, but decided not go through with opening their coffee shop there because they learned that Colectivo was going to open near them.

One day in early July, 2016, Swenson found Uncommon Madison – a new apartment building that was going to open the next month and had a “gorgeous little lobby”.“That looks like a coffee shop,” he remembered thinking as he walked in and talked to the management of the building. As luck would have it, they were looking to lease out the part of the lobby because part of the zoning agreement was that they had to offer something to the community. Lopez and Swenson got to open their own coffee shop, which would hold the same name as their brand – Café Social.

Café Social is in the Lark at Kohl building, near the Kohl Center. Once you enter through the glass double doors you are greeted by the sweet aroma of freshly brewed coffee, mixed with the pleasant smell of toast. The coffee shop is opposite the entrance, in the corner, with tables, couches and chairs laid out across the room. The main room has large floor-to-ceiling windows that make the area feel larger and open.

López, now age 50, stands almost every day behind the counter of Café Social waiting for the first customer of the day. He has changed little since he first arrived in Madison – the only sign of his age are the wrinkles around his eyes. Almost every day López goes through the routine of preparing the coffee shop for the day. He does so with an automated routine – prepare the register, preheat the oven, put out the “Open” sign and most importantly, brew the coffee.

“I love it here,” López said with a thick Colombian accent. “We got a lot of support from the community around here.”

Having been in the coffee business for seven years, López knows the full history, process and the road that his coffee takes to reach Madison and be served. He explains with a passion how in his sisters’ farm the harvesting is mainly done in the months between October and December, where they hire over 60 workers for those months to pick coffee. He delves in explanations on the way the coffee is processed and the heavy regulation that the Colombian Coffee Federation imposes to assure the best quality coffee is exported from the country.

López and Swenson aren’t planning to open another coffee shop in the near future and are content with how Café Social is working at the moment, but they plan on joining the Madison Public Market – a year-round farmers market that should open next year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.