Hector Morales pushed the handle of the red Diedrich IR-12 roaster, sending green coffee beans rattling into the machine. The clickety-clack of turning beans created a steady tempo accompanying Recreo Coffee and Roasterie’s opening routine on a recent morning.
Around 7 a.m. West Roxbury residents would start visiting the neighborhood’s “living room,” a term coined by a customer. Often, those sitting at the dark granite bar behind the roaster would quiz Hector about the process as they enjoyed their cup of coffee. “It’s part of the whole experience,” the tall, 56-year-old man with a kind face said.
Black tables and brown chairs lining the counter now sat unused, as safety measurements to prevent the spread of the coronavirus had limited indoor dining. Statewide restrictions imperiled the existence of many small businesses. But Recreo, devoted to its mission, stayed open.
Hector and his wife, Miriam, a petite 53-year-old woman with a warm smile, committed 30 percent of the revenue generated from each coffee sale to its source, El Recreo Estate in Jinotega, Nicaragua. Miriam’s parents, the farm’s owners, provided up to 200 workers and their families with housing, health care, and education during harvest season, she said.
The money helped maintain that support. It also covered repairs, investments like window installation at the farm’s school, and paid the salary of a full-time nurse who takes care of the workers amid the pandemic.
Furthermore, the Moraleses didn’t want to deprive the bustling West Roxbury community of one of the few remaining places they could frequent in those “dark times,” Miriam said. The pandemic was “heavy enough” for the Recreo family, Hector added.
“Where’s my good friend?” Paul Graham asked while ordering a white ghost mocha around 8 a.m. on a Sunday. Birdcages, wooden ornaments, and straw hats adorning the brick wall added a touch of Nicaragua’s warmth to the cafe’s decor. But a thick layer of clouds deprived the day of its dawn’s sharp glow.
Alex Cruz, the friend and employee in question, soon appeared and started a conversation with Graham, as he would with numerous customers throughout the shift. The Recreo staff emphasized the “connection” with guests, Miriam said, remembering their names and usual orders and excitedly sharing the cafe’s story with newcomers.
Those little interactions distinguished the coffee shop from others, a philosophy originating from the Moraleses’ time at a Hispanic ministry. In over 20 years of service, they learned to “care for things,” explained Miriam, who received political asylum in the United States after fleeing her homeland in the 1980s amid the Nicaraguan Revolution.
Since its grand opening on the stormy Valentine’s Day of 2015, Recreo customers returned regularly, got to know each other and, Hector said, even started dining together. One couple got betrothed at the cafe; the newlyweds later gave small Recreo coffee bags as wedding favors, Miriam recalled.
Cruz met his girlfriend Ciabha Kelleher through Recreo, and they now work behind the bar together. “Terrific people,” Graham said before heading to the patio.
The outdoor Eden, with colorful tabletop mosaics reminiscent of Gaudi’s glasswork, pleased customers with its heavenly ambiance even in the 44-degree cold. The patio provided a place to mingle, preserving the cherished connection even as the airborne virus kept people physically distanced.
However, Recreo couldn’t dodge every hit. Partnering businesses shut down early in the pandemic, instantly obliterating the wholesale department, Hector said. Then, Boston City Hall drastically reduced its operations, sending the second cafe’s sales plummeting by 90 percent. “Oh, now this is real,” Hector recalled thinking.
The Paycheck Protection Program helped the Moraleses cover rent and payroll, preventing layoffs, Miriam said. But four staff members decided to stay at home regardless, and those who returned received fewer shifts due to a change in opening hours, she continued. Cruz came back too, even though he was diagnosed with colon cancer in June.
The baristas saw their responsibilities grow due to health restrictions. They now added finishing touches to drinks as the self-service station, with jugs of milk and containers of sugar, disappeared. Face masks complicated the order-taking process. Guests needed to queue outside if three customers were already inside. The changes would upset some clients, Miriam conceded. But the vast majority showed support and understanding.
Those included Graham who, having left the patio, knocked on the front window with his Recreo coffee tumbler and waved goodbye.
Alerted by the sound, Hector rushed to the roaster as it reached 426 degrees Fahrenheit and released steaming coffee beans into the cooling bin. After loading another batch, he headed to the basement office to ship two-pound medium roast coffee bags to a customer from Colorado.
Downstairs, Hector scribbled a thank-you note on a confirmation letter despite the undercharged shipping fee. The missing $4 made for a paltry loss considering online sales increased sixfold in May as compared to January, according to data shared by the Moraleses.
To lessen the pandemic’s impact, Recreo sent out newsletters and initially offered free shipping, encouraging customers to make online purchases. The customers keenly ordered the regular roasts or curated microlots from the warmth of their own homes. Some sent relatives samples, Hector said, bringing in new buyers. Four out of 10 orders now came from across the United States and beyond. “I just mailed to Belgium,” he continued.
Miriam and Hector eventually began distributing local orders themselves. Once, they delivered to a customer who bought coffee for the entire block nearby, Miriam recalled, to help Recreo stay afloat.
But many guests kept coming in person, sometimes leaving $20 tips. An elderly woman said she even had her groceries delivered, Miriam continued, but Recreo was her “happy place” she would keep visiting. Recreo’s West Roxbury cafe registered a 13 percent gross income increase in May in comparison to January, according to data shared by the Moraleses.
“People came just to support us,” Hector said before turning to a large coffee grinder and loading it with roasted beans. Soon after, Cruz came down the stairs. “Smells good,” the barista with curly hair said of the strong aroma that even face coverings couldn’t mask.
The cancer battle forced the 24-year-old barista to dedicate himself to treatment almost entirely for six long months. Every two weeks, he traveled to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to begin a 43-hour chemotherapy infusion treatment that he continued at home. Controlling vitamin and zinc intake to ensure his diet didn’t interfere with the procedure also became a near-constant part of his new, daunting routine.
Cruz now worked one or two shifts in the chemo-free weeks. To help pay his medical bills, Miriam — who said she treated him “like a son” — and his girlfriend Kelleher launched a GoFundMe page. By December, it raised more than $19,000. A customer named Cathy Ware donated $25, leaving a side note that read:
“When I come in and see Alex behind the counter I am always so happy. He is so kind and he makes me the best lattes ever. Wishing him well!”
Filled with gratitude, Cruz couldn’t distance himself from the Recreo community.
“It would be selfish of me,” he said. Even if potential exposure to COVID could threaten his life, he wanted to show he remained strong, looking forward to interacting with the people who cared for him in West Roxbury. Also, the idea of kickstarting the days of those he considered essential to the community’s prosperity, such as local teachers and doctors, motivated him to keep up with the job.
“I believe in the butterfly effect,” Cruz said. “That each little thing that we all do as a community shapes our community itself as well.”
His philosophy sounded like a near-perfect reflection of Miriam’s.
“I think a community is built with special little touches,” she said.
Hector would continue the roasting until around 1 p.m. As coffee beans rattled in the cooling bin, a bespectacled man named Peter came in to place his order, usually a medium roast with some tea bread. A small boy wearing a fluffy beige jacket rested in his arms and smiled at Miriam. “Do you need coffee?” she asked.
A single positive COVID-19 test could thwart the painstaking effort to, in Hector’s words, “keep the living room of West Roxbury alive.” But proactiveness continued overshadowing fear at Recreo. Miriam already wondered how to aid customers unwilling to wait outside in the winter. The cafe’s electric system couldn’t handle outside heaters, she said. Curbside pickup could be an option.
When freed from the paternal embrace, the boy discovered a toy frog peeking from a wicker basket hanging on the brick wall. He enthusiastically reported the finding to his dad and the two headed out. They couldn’t notice the welcoming smile Miriam’s thin lips formed behind her mask. What they could see was a wooden sign facing the door and bidding farewell to guests with a fitting message:
“With enough coffee anything is possible.”
Damian Burchardt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.