Vibrant Latin Flavors Arrive in Sleepy Saco

I parked in front of the building, exactly at dusk. The outside was illuminated with strings of lights and a warm, yellowy glow leaked through the papers that covered the windows from the inside. The old Coastal Cakes awning still clung to the space above the front door. I walked up a few cement steps and knocked politely on the wood.

A shadow appeared on the other side of the paper-covered glass and fiddled with a lock until the door was opened for me. A young latina woman greeted me with a smile, and the moment I entered the brick building, I was swallowed in the fun, exciting atmosphere.

Many Saco residents are wondering what exactly is going to replace the late Italian bakery in Pepperell Square. Fortunately, the little space will not stay empty much longer. A new Latin cafe will be opening there on April 17th, just in time for Spring Break! Husband and wife team Alejandra Paola Herrera and Carlos Alberto Guzman started with the fact that there was nowhere close in the area to grab a cup of freshly ground coffee.

Warm, caffeinated beverages, however, were not the only thing on their mind as they built their plan. One of the first things I noticed as I observed the half-finished restaurant was the culture that already engulfed the little space. Their homelands Chile and Colombia leave a large footprint on the walls of the place.

Herrera and Guzman knew that subtly introducing Latin American culture to the local folks was a priority. The two of them wish to break the stereotype that all Spanish-speaking people come from Mexico. They want people to know that the differences between Spanish-speaking cultures are striking. Herrera explained that her home country doesn’t even eat much spicy food. They want to show Mainers the culture that goes beyond Mexico.

“One time,” Guzman said, “I was working with a person that asked me, ‘Hey, where are you from?’ and I said ‘I’m from Colombia.’ and she asked me ‘oh, what part of Mexico is Colombia?’” Guzman recalls the memory with a good sense of humor. “And I said ‘no, Colombia is in South America.’ …But for my part I want to make sure people know about my country. Colombia is not drugs, it’s more coffee.”

“We want to change that image,” Herrera agreed.

There are 22 countries where Spanish is the native language and the new cafe owners want to include a little element from almost every single one of them. They picked out people’s favorite aspect of all of them, and created a cafe that Mainers would love to visit.

“We want to have a cool place where people feel comfortable to go and enjoy each other’s company. Where we come from there’s more life in the downtown. People walking and doing everything downtown–that was something I’ve missed the most. To have more things happening would be great. And if we can help with that, we can be happy,” Herrera said.

Of course, they will include traditionally Mexican foods and items to sell. But they really want to open our minds and introduce the Spanish culture that most of us have never seen.

“It’s not just Mexico. It’s Colombia, Argentina, Chile, Spain, Venezuela… you know? It’s nothing against Mexico. I love Mexico. But I want the people to know that it’s more than just Mexico,” said Guzman.

Aside from growing up in South American countries themselves, the husband and wife team also carries around a lot of knowledge about the restaurant industry. Herrera works as a server at Run Of The Mill when she’s not catering with The Blue Elephant or helping her husband set up the cafe. But, Herrera’s experience with food doesn’t stop there. Before the cafe was even an idea, she sold guacamole, salsa and empanadas at the Saco River Market with her ex.

However, working at The Blue Elephant was really what sparked the concept in her mind. Herrera often wanted a cup of coffee or smoothie on her way to work, and considered the empty Italian bakery place a nice spot for a cafe that would sell such things.

Lo and behold, the building blocks of Quiero Cafe.

Before gaining any of that experience though, she found her way into America, from Chile, with the intention to learn more English. She was able to dabble in the kitchen business of the resort she was working at when she first came here, and when she moved to Maine she began waitressing. Herrera stayed with the industry because she enjoyed the thrill of being in contact with people and having the ability to make them happy.

Her husband, Guzman, on the other hand, strayed in a different direction before he found the food industry. He majored in fashion design in college and owned a graphic t-shirt design business in Colombia after earning his degree. About three years ago, he came to the U.S. on a vacation to visit his mom and decided to stay. He sold his company in Colombia and has been living in the States ever since.

Guzman was a manager for Taco Trio for a little while before he and Herrera decided to open their cafe. As a manager he learned a lot about the restaurant industry, and grew farther away from graphic design.

“When immigrants don’t know how to speak English, the kitchen is easier because you learn by doing instead of speaking. For me, that’s how I started. And I think it had something to do with that,” said Herrera. 

For a long time, the married couple has dreamed of a cafe to call their own, and simultaneously noticed a lack of a smoothie place nearby. Not the mention the lack of Latin American culture in the small city of Saco.

Herrera and Guzman were able to contact the sellers of the little shop. They figured nothing could hurt from just taking a peek. What did they have to lose?

“[The realtor] got us inside, and we loved it,” Herrera told me. “We said, ‘Don’t rent it! Wait for us!’”

They saw the place in August of 2016 and made the decision to change their lives for the better. They signed the lease in November of that same year.

“I wanted to do it more… for us. And we get along so well working together, so we knew it would be good,” Herrera said smiling at her husband.

The menu of the new cafe will be rather simple to start. Herrera considers it “street food,” not something you would sit down to eat. However, there is no shortage of tables to sit at while chatting with friends as you sip on a cup of coffee. The “casual” menu will include eight different empanadas, each made with fillings to fit the needs of vegetarians, meat lovers, and all the different eating styles in between.

Empanadas are all over Latin America. Typically, the fillings vary depending on where you get them. Some places put potatoes and rice in theirs, however Herrera will be filling hers with ingredients like sautéed vegetables, ham, and cheese. They wanted to find a nice balance of everything so that everyone who comes could enjoy a memorable taste of Latin America culture.

Smoothies will bring a nutritious element to the menu. Herrera added them to fill the need for a smoothie place in the area. She, in fact, loves the fruity drink, and considers it the easiest way to eat healthy. Not surprisingly, smoothies are her favorite menu item. Playing around with flavors to make a quick and delicious refreshment is something Herrera will enjoy doing every single day.

Placed right alongside the smoothie options, will be a selection of juices. Part of the Colombian culture is all the tropical fruits that are grown there. What better way to add a little slice of Colombian taste to the menu?

Tea and salads will create more healthy options, and tamales will bring a taste of the Mexican cuisine to their restaurant.

But, if that’s not enough to convince citizens of Saco, let’s not forget about the coffee. The moment the decision to open a cafe was reached, Herrera and Guzman planned trips to their home countries to do a lot of research. Which means the recipes they use to make their menu items are right from Chile and Colombia. Coming home, they brought with them two, magnificent, golden coffee machines that can produce the one-of-a-kind taste of Colombian coffee. And it will be brewed right here in sunny Saco.

“It’s very laid back and simple. Simple but good,” said Herrera.

Nothing fits that description better than the name of their cafe. Quiero Cafe gives the indication of a latino origin without being obnoxious about it. And my favorite part: it translates to “I want coffee.”

“What I want to say is, to come with an open mind and just enjoy,” said Herrera.

As I was leaving the little shop, I watched Herrera and Guzman stand proudly together as they asked me a little bit about the article I was writing. On the wooden floor, I stood looking at the unfinished place. Empty counter tops and appliances, still empty walls, handmade tables awaiting chairs, windows covered in paper, wires still hanging from the ceiling. I realized how much more needed to be done, how far from perfect everything was, and yet how lucky I was to be seeing this couple’s dream coming to live. When I glanced back at the married couple, they were looking at the imperfect space like proud parents.

When I asked how much of themselves they put into the place, they exchanged a look with each other and laughed. “200 percent,” said Herrera. “Everything,” said Botero.

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2 Responses to Vibrant Latin Flavors Arrive in Sleepy Saco

  1. Anonymous April 1, 2017 at 1:59 pm #

    Great article & photos!! I am excited to visit and look forward to some authentic Columbian coffee and empenadas!

  2. Zoe May 1, 2017 at 10:15 am #

    Great article!! I’m so glad to see that there is a local coffee shop opening right around the corner from TA. I can’t wait to try this place out 🙂

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