The First Café Bustelo Storefront Created a Sense of Community for Thousands of Latinos

The First Café Bustelo Storefront Created a Sense of Community for Thousands of Latinos nuestro stories

Credit: Nuestro Stories

There is no mistaking the bright, bold colors of that vacuum-sealed brick of dark roasted delight. 

Café Bustelo has been a mainstay in the Latino and Hispanic culture for nearly 100 years, with the first storefront opening in 1931. In a time when a major wave of Latino immigrants were making their way to New York, either through forced or chosen migration, the rich, dark roast reminded many of their former homes. 

Scent is considered one of our biggest trigger points when it comes to the processing of memories, and it is nearly instantaneous. The science behind it is that scent bypasses the thalamus and goes directly to our brain's scent center’ also known as the olfactory bulb. Yet emotionally, science means nothing next to the emotions it can provoke. The way our abuela’s house smelled when she made arroz con pollo, and the comfort it brought us. Or in Bustelo’s case, the intoxicatingly divine smell of coffee as it brewed in the morning. 

The origins of Bustelo

Born in Asturias, Spain, Gregorio Bustelo was known as a wanderer – a wayward traveler who spent much of his time between a variety of Latin countries before ending up in Cuba. There, he fell in love with the unique espresso roast savored and favored by los cubanos. It was in Cuba that he met his wife, who held just as deep an affection for coffee as he did. After they wed, they moved to Puerto Rico – and not long after the Jones-Shafroth act was signed, making Puerto Ricans instant American citizens. The Bustelo’s took the opportunity and moved to New York in 1928. 

Read more: What Exactly is the Jones Act?

Struggling to find work when they first arrived, the Bustelo’s decided to make a risky decision. They spent their money on a professional coffee roaster and began to roast and serve coffee out of their apartment. 

Since they lived down the street from a movie theater, one of the main sources of education in the neighborhood, they would time their roasting to coincide with when the movies let out. Word spread, and they began selling coffee to local restaurants. Each month their business grew, until they opened their first brick-and-mortar cafe on 5th Ave, between 113th and 114th, in 1931. The shop, and the company, prospered. 

The Latino culture has always viewed coffee as a drink. Not a beverage. The difference being a beverage is something you take and go. A drink is something that you sit, and sip. It is meant to act as a conduit for bringing people together – for chisme, for heart-to-heart talks, for confession. It is one of the backbones of our culture and we carry it with us no matter where we go. 

For many Latinos who have been forced to seek a piece of their identity in a place that felt foreign to them, Bustelo is still a mainstay to this day. In fact, if you were to walk into my kitchen right now, that all too familiar, the boldly-colored brick would be there, sitting right next to my coffee maker. 

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By Liv Styler

Olivia Monahan Chicana journalist, editor, educator, and organizer in Sacramento whose sole focus is to shed light on stories on our most impacted and marginalized communities, but even more importantly, for those stories to humanize those normally left out. She is an Ida B Wells Investigative Journalism Fellow 2022 Finalist, a member of the Parenting Journalists Society, and has bylines in The Courier, The Sacramento Bee, The Americano, Submerge Magazine among others.