José René Martínez Onofre does not specifically remember tasting his first cup of coffee but he does know it was pretty early on.
“I don’t think I was walking,” remarks Martínez.
A baby at a coffee klatch? Not such an unusual occurrence according to Martínez, when considering his background.
“Coffee is such a big part of our culture in Puerto Rico. My strong adherence to my culture and my history made coffee something that was always a part of my life.”
Coffee must run in his veins because six years ago, while looking for new wallpaper at an outlet on New Park Avenue, a delicious aroma drew him into a coffee roasting business next door. Several weeks later he bought the business, renaming it J. René Coffee Roasters. From that point on, he set out to learn everything he could about the science of coffee roasting.
“I got the incredible opportunity to become very proficient at something that I loved and it happened very naturally … buying the business turned into the greatest blessing of my life.” In the years since, he built a loyal following of people in search of extraordinary cups of coffee.
However, there were not any tables and chairs in his coffee roaster business and it became apparent to Martínez that his customers wanted to linger and enjoy a cup of the coffee on the spot.
“Coffee is a social drink and the one missing component at the old venue was a place where people could partake and get along,” notes Martínez. He decided that the time was right to relocate and redefine his business plan.
He conceived what he refers to as an “artisanal coffee gathering place” – an intimate café environment where people from all walks of life can come together to educate themselves, meet each other, share their life stories in a pleasant, social atmosphere. After searching for a year, Martínez, a West Hartford resident, settled on a space on Park Road that for 17 years previously housed a hair salon.
There was much renovation to be done and Martínez relied heavily on the team of local craftsmen to transform the interior in a few short months. He lavishes praise on Marie Engel, who partnered with him in his former business and will manage the new one. “Marie was extremely instrumental in helping with the design.”
This Saturday, J. René Coffee Roasters will open its doors at 320 Park Road.
The coffee shop’s interior is stylish and hip with a downtown vibe. Martínez calls it “modern industrial” with exposed ductwork on the ceiling; white tile lining the back wall; electronic product display screens reminiscent of train flip boards meant to invoke travel and its tales; another wall of red brick; and rich, dark wood lining the floors.
There will be Italian sodas offered as well as various teas and pastries and breads from and The Kitchen at Billings Forge. In the weeks to come, Martínez would like to add more food offering such as panini and soup. He wants to be certain that the café can master the serving of food efficiently before expanding.
The star attractions, though, are the immense silver coffee roaster that sits to the side in the front of the shop and a handmade rectangular white oak community table that sits front and center. It is at this table that Martínez hopes to encourage a give-and-take of thoughts and stories from his customers.
The oak table was inspired by coffee houses that Martínez had come upon while traveling in Europe. He uses the word “diversity” often to describe the kind of clientele that he would like to cultivate and, also Park Road itself. It is something that he knows very well as he was born in the South Bronx, spent his formative school years in Puerto Rico, and then received his law degree from the University of Connecticut.
“I am fully bilingual and fully bicultural,” states Martínez. In fact, he refers to his new business district as, “the village at Park Road,” for its unique blend of Mom-and-Pop stores that showcase diversity. “This is basically a franchise-free corner. You have the coffee shop, you have an antique store, you have a market, you have a bakery, and you have a Thai restaurant … this diversity is what makes towns great.”
Martínez motions to a siphon pot – considered by experts to be one of the best ways to make coffee, and a mainstay in homes until the early 1960s. He pulls out the spring-loaded filter and explains a local connection. The filter was invented and patented by a West Hartford resident one hundred years ago. Its design, he explains, prevents the glass from cracking at high temperatures and Silex, the primary manufacturer of siphon pots, has used it for years. Martínez loves the history and the tie to the town.
As much as Martínez loves talking about coffee, he also wants to educate his customers. He is heavily involved with the Specialty Coffee Association of America and travels all over the world teaching the art of roasting.
The sparkling coffee roaster that sits in the store is a reminder to customers of the nuanced work that goes into a good cup of coffee. He mentions how, in this time of standardization, consumers have little idea where the food in their supermarkets has originated.
“We sometimes take for granted some of the basic commodities that we enjoy and how labor intensive it can be to produce them. Coffee looks very easy to make but it is deceptively complex to make.”
Bins of raw coffee beans from many different countries wait in the climate-controlled basement. He estimates that he will carry about 10 different varieties of coffee beans at any given time.
Martínez says that there are three main facets of coffee: the actual drinking environment such as a café, the roasting of the beans, and the agricultural aspect which factors in the soil, temperature and climate of the countries that grow the beans.
These all contribute to what Martínez says are the three main sensory aspects of drinking coffee: the body or weight of the liquid against the palate, the acidity or liveliness of the taste, and the aroma.
That is why different countries produce different beans – Guatemalan and Columbian coffees tend to be bright and lively, while Brazilian and Bolivian ones are more subdued.
If Martínez has anything to do with it, “subdued” will not be the word to describe his coffee shop. Instead, he envisions an experience where customers at one table might be animatedly exchanging their ideas; in another corner his mother, a retired teacher, might be tutoring students in Spanish; and other customers will be sitting at a special table designed to partake of “cupping.”
Cupping, Martínez explains, is showing people how to taste coffee by taking a spoonful, slurping it and then spitting it out. “It’s going to be messy and fun.” He mentions the possibility of salsa lessons being offered also.
Martínez’s appreciation for history and storytelling is evident as he speaks of his own parents and of his father who had died just days before this interview.
As a young man, his father labored with oxen to cut sugar cane in the fields of Puerto Rico before coming to America as a factory worker. Martínez credits his parents’ values and work ethics for who he is today.
“As much as I would like this business to be self-sustaining, at the same time, I did not start this with the desire solely of making money. I started this with desire of putting balance in my life. And it has just grown and it has become a big passionate experience for me.”
J. René Coffee Roasters will be open Monday to Wednesday: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday to Saturday: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sundays: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information go to the website at www.jrenecoffee.com.