Before it was filled with the aroma of espresso and the spray-painted canvases of Atomik's grinning oranges, Javier Betancourt's White Rose Coffee (6246 SW Eighth St., Miami) was a coke-and-wine den.
"When we started building out the bathrooms and pulled down the towel holders, there were stacks and stacks of cocaine baggies behind them," the 31-year-old co-owner of Ocho Placas Tattoo Company says. "They had these wine-barrel tables, but the top was a total mirror."
Today all that remains of the Little Havana haunt is a floor-to-ceiling mirror that lists affogato and kombucha alongside cortados, Americanos, and Cubanos.
Betancourt was better known for tattooing many of the city's baristas, not pulling shots himself. Then, several months ago, he struck up a friendship with Per'La's Paul Massard at the University of Miami gym, which swiftly segued into an idea he'd been mulling for some months.
"Out west, there’s really no independent coffee. The closest Starbucks is 20 to 30 blocks in either direction," Betancourt says. "It just felt right, and I wanted to take a gamble."
The space has been recast with a stark black-and-white palette and gritty skateboard videos blaring on a flat-screen television. The bar ensconcing the La Marzocco espresso machine is littered with palm-size sketchbooks bearing rough versions of tattoos drawn by some of Betancourt's artists, who also work at the café.
Friday nights, the place plays double features, including a classic film during the wee hours. Saturday mornings, customers can order a $5 mix-and-match cereal bowl with classics such as Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops possibly topped with Oreos and marshmallows. No need to change out of your jammies; just take your dabs at home and mosey over. There will even be King Vitamin cereal — the ragged, sugary corn nuggets Betancourt recalls growing up on as a "lower-class Hispanic kid... It's so good, and it'll shred your mouth!" he exclaims.
"I grew up in this area, and I just wanted something cool to happen."
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Though it hasn't been easy, Per'La — a local coffee-roasting company by Massard (who holds the coffee equivalent of a master sommelier certification) — and Chris Nolte stepped in to help. The company began roasting coffee on the western edge of Little Havana nearly two years ago and today is in more than two dozen restaurants and cafés across the city and is also sold online.
"A lot of people who want to open a shop have a passion for coffee, but for us it's about training them and reinforcing that training," Massard says. "We show them the whole process, from the raw product to the roasted product, then do a tasting so they can try the coffee side by side; then we start pulling shots."
Yet the hardest part is persuading some of the neighbors to cough up five bucks for a brew.
"For me, it's about having a responsibility to introduce this to the community and let them decide," Betancourt says.