The coffee industry has always been a motley crew of misfits from a variety of backgrounds that somehow lead them to one part of this business or another. When I tell you one of the future leaders of the coffee industry will be someone that studied mechanical engineering and photography while spending free time as a competitive cyclist, you may not even be surprised. This is exactly the case with César Vega, the founder of Café Integral, based in New York City.
Mr. Vega was born in Nicaragua and then left when he was very young due to complications from the aftermath of the Contra War. From there, César grew up in Miami, FL. When he turned eight years old, he would go back and spend his summers in Nicaragua with his extended family. It was this time spent in Nicaragua that provided a deeper connection to coffee. It was part of the culture, and he learned about coffee from home, family stories, and lore that surrounded them.
Mr. Vega would eventually move to New York to attend NYU to study and begin his introduction to New York coffee with a local classic, the ‘coffee regular’ which was his order. The coffee regular consisted of coffee, cream, and sugar in a cup with a lid and a stack of napkins on top wrapped in a brown paper bag. The amount of cream and sugar was up to the discretion of your local bodega.
César remembers, “I started to understand how good I had it growing up. It made me take stock. I remember moving (to New York), and the coffee had no real care put into it, and I always ended up over-caffeinated and upset.”
After César graduated, he went to work managing a photography studio that focused on food photos. All the while, César was moonlighting in the coffee world. “I had never had a barista job until I started the business years later,” Vega recalls. “I was doing green importing on the side. I would go back to Nicaragua. I brought in 12 bags of coffee to test the water. I was able to sell about half of it. I would roast samples at night and drop them off in the morning on my way into work.”
Eventually, this moonlighting would turn into daylighting, and César would start his own cafe in a clothing store in Manhattan. This was just the encouragement he needed to lean into it completely and commit to being in the coffee business.
Today Café Integral has a roasting operation, cold brewery, office, and training lab in Brooklyn, along with a cafe on Elizabeth Street in Manhattan. Even amidst all the noise of the pandemic, Café Integral is opening two locations back in Managua, Nicaragua, where the journey began. They are roasting locally in Managua on a 12 kilo Probat.
I had to ask César, did you have any mentors that helped you along the way? “Unfortunately, I haven’t really. I taught myself how to roast on a used 15kilo Ambex and taught myself espresso on a home espresso machine. All the people that helped along the way were already in it. Everyone in Nicaragua that trusted me early. The few families that took me seriously and gave me the benefit of the doubt, I learned a lot from them. They are still points of reference for me today.”
What advice do you wish someone told you when you first got into this business that you had to learn the hard way?
“The hardest part for me has been taking criticism. I’m pretty thick-skinned and stubborn; however it can be really tough to hear negative feedback and constant feedback. Everyone likes their coffee their way. That has been the most jarring thing is the grind of keeping up.”