Mami is 66 years old. She gets up at 5AM to get ready for a long day of work at her small coffee shop in Manhattan. She calls it el negocito (the small business).
She has the energy of lightning — she moves quickly around her apartment in the Bronx, and takes a speedy walk down to the train station every morning. She’s taken that train ride from the Bronx to Manhattan 7,023 times over the past 27 years she’s owned her really tiny coffee shop. By now, everything is perfectly timed: she wakes up at 4:48AM, she’s leaves her apartment by 5:35AM and arrives to her destination by 6:10AM.
Upon arrival, she’s welcomed by a huge bag full of bread rolls, which the bread company delivers earlier in the morning. Since she runs the coffee shop by herself, she prepares the sandwiches, makes the coffee and organizes the soda bottles in the refrigerator.
She welcomes her customers with a big smile and a confident broken English. Despite living in this country for the past 45 years, she says “kofi” for “coffee” and mixes her past and present tenses. But what she might be missing in English fluency, she makes up in charisma. Her customers love her. Her day is filled with a fun and interesting group of customers that parade through her coffee shop daily.
“Adriana, ¿que pasá?” older Puerto Rican gentlemen say out loud, as they enter the coffee shop.
“¿Comó está vecino?“ she replies with a smile.
Her well-to do White customers shower her with small gifts from their travels abroad, and expensive clothes they never had a chance to wear. Mami loves collecting stuff from people. From scarves, to handbags, to small televisions, mami is always happy to get something for free. She then comes home and offers them to friends and family.
Adriana’s Coffee Shop is the place for immigrant factory workers to come and hang out during their lunch hour (1/2 an hour, really) and drink a cup of coffee and $2 sandwich made with love. But the best part is the conversation with mami — those 5 or 10 minutes of charla about nothing and everything. This is where women tear up about their cheating husbands, and gay guys come to share the latest in their love life.
The part I love the most about mami’s entrepreneurship practice is her use of a notebook to record transactions a fiao — which is like an I.O.U. – you buy now and pay later. Many of mami’s customer’s can’t afford to pay for their lunch right away, so they often say: “Adriana, anótame esto…” (record this), pointing to their lunch items. Friday is pay day for many of them, and they all loyally pass by to clear their balance.
Unfortunately, as many of the factories around mami’s coffee shop have closed and moved abroad, she has lost a significant number of her regular customers. The buildings that used to hold leather handbag factories are now being renovated into multi-million dollar luxury condominiums. Although mami has had her coffee shop for the past 27 years, she’s also losing customers to the new fancy delicatessen down the corner, where you can purchase latte and cappuccino.
Mami has never taken a sick day, or skipped days due to snow storms. The only time she’s ever closed the metal doors of her coffee shop have been to attend her children’s graduations. Her commitment to her negocito and her customers is admirable. I thank her for the valuable business lessons she’s taught me over the years.