To Taste the Moments of Coffee: the Roots & Resiliency of a Rio de Janeiro Café Owner

Kate Morin

© Copyright 2021 by Kate Morin

Photo by Agustin Diaz Gargiulo on Unsplash
                              Photo by Agustin Diaz Gargiulo on Unsplash

 As an ICU travel nurse on the front-lines of the pandemic, I took 4 months off to rest, recover, and live in Rio de Janeiro. During my time here, I met a lovely woman named Anna. This is Anna’s story amidst the backdrop of current day Rio de Janeiro.

Anna’s café wasn’t closing for another several hours, but she locked the door and closed the café anyway. It was August 2016 and the Olympics were in Rio de Janeiro, the first Olympics to ever be held in South America. This was a day she never thought she would see, and her heart was pounding with the wild absurdity of it all.

Mini Joe was across the street from the nicest hotel in the city, a sprawling art deco monolith called the Copacabana Palace. The hotel was hosting some of the most rich and famous people in the world, including a notorious (and absolutely enormous) family from the Middle East. The family patriarch alone had 7–8 wives, and each wife had her own entourage. Forbidden from drinking alcohol, their poison of choice was coffee. And the Palace was fortuitously, and notoriously known for having bad coffee. All the better for her.

On their first day in Rio, one of the members of the family entered her café and ordered one of everything on the menu. It was a test of sorts; once the café had secured the approval of one family member, it secured the approval of all the family members. The rest was history. Every day, like a revolving door, various members of the household would visit her café and buy in bulk. Most days, the patriarch of the family would station himself in the coffee shop, and one by one, enjoy coffee with the wives (a lot like having a packed schedule with back-to-back meetings). Throughout the course of several days, Anna would collect the bills from each transaction and combine them into one. And when it came time to pay, they handed over brand new, crisp stacks of cash, wrapped in paper and stamped with their family insignia.

That evening, after a particularly lucrative pay out (and in the face of more reals than she had ever seen in one place), Anna closed the café early. Behind the counter, she gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the beauty of the neat, crisp piles of cash, jumping with joy like a little kid at a carnival.

At the Rio Olympics, Anna’s café had been open for less than a year, and already she was achieving successes she had never dared to hope for. Her parents came from quite humble beginnings, both growing up in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais and moving to Rio de Janeiro as teenagers. Having grown up in extreme poverty, they both came to Rio looking for better opportunities. Her dad began as a bus driver, eventually moving up to a taxi driver, while her mom stayed at home to take care of Anna and her 2 siblings. While her mom lamented not being able to work, she was full of pragmatic, real-world advice like making sure to always wear nice underwear (because if you get into an accident, how else will the ambulance drivers know if you’re of a high enough social class to take you to a good hospital?) Her dad, despite a modest income, was very good with his money, and was able to buy a nice apartment in Copacabana and send Anna and her siblings to the best schools.

The power of hard work was instilled into Anna from the beginning, and she had a single-minded focus to succeed, to climb and to rise. She began her career in the corporate world and quickly moved from promotion to promotion. But after years of corporate success, she started to crave something else. She wanted to have something to call her own, a business where she could call the shots. More than anything, she wanted to create a place where people could be happy. Bars were too exclusive, catering only to those who drink. But coffee shops welcomed everyone — all ages, all backgrounds, coffee-lovers or no. Thus, the idea of a café was born.

Not one to skip steps, Anna decided to become a true coffee aficionado first. While simultaneously juggling her corporate job, she spent over 2 years learning all she could about what makes a good cup of joe. She visited over 200 coffee shops, not only to develop her palate, but also to discover what makes a good coffee shop, things often overlooked by the casual patron, such as menus, ambiance, music and furniture. She also signed up for a college class on coffee, which, while interesting, was geared more towards production and farming instead of roasting and brewing. Through this class, she happened to meet a woman whose parents-in-law owned a coffee farm about 400 km outside of Rio, and who invited her to come live with them for a few months. It was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

For 3 months Anna called Paraisópolis “home,” and she came to love the quiet tranquility there, so different from noisy and boisterous Rio. There was so much peace to be found in the blazing sun and blue skies, amongst the coffee plants that stretched in neat, orderly rows as far as the eye could see.

Day in and out, she learned all aspects of what it meant to live and breathe coffee. The growing and tending of the crop, the perfect time to pick the bean, the meticulous process of drying and roasting. It was fascinating how coffee engaged every one of the senses — the color of the beans, the feel of the grind, the sound of the beans cracking while roasting, the robust smells and acidic flavors.

Anna was struck by the happy peacefulness of the people who lived there, full of knowledge that had been passed down from generation to generation. There were so many details that couldn’t be learned from a textbook, things like deciding where to dry the beans depending on the location of the sun and the time of year. She started to see coffee in a new light, not just a cup of Joe, but a meticulously sourced and crafted form of art, made by real families who worked tirelessly day and night.

Anna’s palate became truly sophisticated here, able even to tell the difference in flavor depending on how mature the bean was when picked. As she liked to say, she was learning to taste the different moments of the coffee.

Anna returned to Rio filled with purpose and clarity. She quickly found 2 business partners (both female entrepreneurs, like herself) who were interested in opening the café with her, Tanya and Carmen. Tanya handled the finances, Anna handled the coffee, and Carmen handled the day-to-day in the café. They rented a modern space that could be seen from Anna’s apartment window, and named it Mini Joe. Opened in 2015, it became a haven for the uncaffeinated masses, with big windows and yellow accents to match the taxis swarming around it like bustling schools of fish.

Almost immediately, business was booming. They almost immediately started making a profit, and eventually opened up 2 more coffee shops. In fact, things were going so well they planned to open 8 cafes by 2018. But few small businesses were prepared for the storm of the covid-19 pandemic. What was once unfathomable quickly became a reality: a world in which restaurants and cafes were public enemy #1, with people afraid to leave their houses and to breathe the same air as strangers.

The first official lockdown occurred in March 2020, but even when the lockdown lifted a couple weeks later, business was irreparably different. There were no tourists, no workers getting their morning jolt. In the face of economic turmoil, people just weren’t spending their money on coffee. Anna had to scale back the hours of her employees, with most only working half their pre-pandemic hours. As compensation, the government agreed to pay 50% of employees salaries if businesses would pay the other 50% — this way, the employee would still be making their usual weekly salary, despite only working half as much. Thanks to this, Mini Joe was able to limp along. But when this government support was cut after six months in September of 2020, businesses suddenly had to shoulder the full burden of their employees salaries; most had no choice but to lay off people en-masse. As a direct result, unemployment in Brazil peaked in September at 14.6%[1].

Throughout the course of the pandemic, the following months were the most financially challenging for Mini Joe. From the beginning, Anna continued to work at her corporate job, but up until the pandemic, the cafes had been successful enough that she never had to funnel her own money into supporting them. But after months of losses, in December 2020 Anna and her partners made the difficult decision to close 2 locations, leaving just the first café open.

Unfortunately, the pandemic was far from over in Brazil, reaching its most dire and deadly point in April of 2021, with 4,000 people dying from COVID every day, or to 1 person every 20 seconds. By the end of April, the death toll stood at 436,000, second to only the United States.

The president, Jair Bolsonaro, did a dismal job of managing the crisis. His missteps were innumerable: oxygen shortages in hospitals, endorsing ineffective drugs, and worst of all, ignoring the offer of vaccines for 6 months, a delay that may have cost up to 95,000 lives[2]. In fact, many state governors began negotiating directly with vaccine companies for doses for their individual states, fed up with waiting for the federal government to get it together.

Bolsonaro remained devoutly anti-lockdown, filing multiple lawsuits against governors who imposed restrictions on their states, arguing that lockdowns were causing Brazil to spiral into poverty. Of course, in combination with a lack of government support, this has proved to be true. The unemployment rate is hovering at a record 14% and the number of Brazilians living in poverty has tripled during the course of the pandemic[3]. Currently, more than 55% of Brazilians face food insecurity[4].

It’s visible nearly everywhere you go in Rio: people loitering outside of grocery stores, begging for money at every intersection, the same word splayed across a thousand handwritten signs: “fome” which means hungry in Portuguese.

In April 2021, faced with rising covid cases and hospitals on the brink of collapse, Rio de Janeiro imposed a 2–3 week lockdown termed a “super-holiday.” Yet, with over 1000 favelas and a population of over 6.7 million, the police had a challenging time enforcing closures of each and every mom-and-pop shop and hole-in-the-wall bar. So it was that Anna found herself and some non-Brazilian friends outside a boteca that was definitely not supposed to be open. Their conversation abruptly died when a police truck pulled up outside the entrance to the bar, the machine guns pointing out of the truck windows like they always do.

Crap — are they here to close the bar?” her friend whispered, her eyes going wide like a deer in headlights.

They held their breath, inconspicuously looking down at their drinks. A police officer in full military fatigues got out of the truck and approached the bartender. A few words in Portuguese, an exchange of cash, and they went on their merry way.

Did they just do what I think they did?”

Anna’s friends were surprised at the blatantness of the exchange, but they didn’t understand how no place here was safe from police corruption. Not this random watering hole, nor her posh café across from a pseudo-Palace. Every week without fail they came to her café demanding their 40 reals. She tried to explain the sense of helpless resignation to her friends. “The one time I refused to pay, my café conveniently got robbed and the cops just shrugged their shoulders like, ‘what did you expect?’”

In Rio the police are everywhere, operating largely unchecked, confident of their protection. In 2019, the police in Rio de Janeiro fatally shot 1,814 people[5]. (For context, in the entire United States, 999 people were killed by police in the same year[6]). It’s no coincidence that with the election of Bolsonaro in 2019, the rate of police killings increased by over 20% compared to the previous year. Bolsonaro has essentially given the police a license to kill, and has been quoted as saying criminals should “die in the street like cockroaches.” But it’s a tenuous balance between police and crime. With the 20% spike in police killings in 2019, there was of course a corresponding drop in homicides (a 19% decrease to be exact[7]). It seems the death rate is about the same either way, the only difference is who’s doing the killing. As Anna says, police are criminals too. The only difference between them is who’s wearing the uniform.

With winter fading into summer, a light at the end of the tunnel has emerged in Brazil. Covid numbers are down, and about 60% of the population has now been vaccinated. Fortunately, business started to pick up at Mini Joe too. Nowadays there’s always customers peppered around the cafe and sometimes it’s even hard to get a seat. Anna is confident business will be completely back to normal within a few months, and her original goal of opening 8 cafes has been pushed back to 2022 instead. Anna and her partners are also looking into expanding into nearby Niteroi, a city across the Guanabara Bay and connected to Rio via bridge. Despite the difficult year, Anna is hopeful. She received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine and is looking forward to a world where she can travel freely again. Eventually, she would like for the cafes to be successful enough that she could quit her corporate job. And yet, returning to the golden age of the Rio Olympics wouldn’t be half bad either — when lockdowns and pandemics were the stuff of movies, and Hollywood-esque stacks of cash were reality.

[1] Unemployment rate in Brazil from January 2018 to October 2020. Via Statista

[2] Jair Bolsonaro is not the only reason his country is in a ditch. Via The Economist

[3] Brazilians thrown back into poverty as COVID aid dries up. Via Aljazeera

[4] Ravaged by Covid, Brazil Faces a Hunger Epidemic. Via The New York Times

[5] ‘License to Kill’: Inside Rio’s Record Year of Police Killings. Via The New York Times

[6] Number of people shot to death by the police in the United States from 2017 to 2021, by race. Via Statista

[7] Rio de Janeiro 2019 homicides fall as police killings surge. Via AP

I’m Kate, an ICU travel nurse who has spent the last couple of years working and traveling to covid hotspot to covid hotspot. At 30 years old I’ve visited 30 countries, and use both writing and international travel as a balm to combat the stress and burnout inherent with nursing.

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