Reforming Coffee with Angel Medina
Angel Medina’s path to starting his businesses Reforma Roasters, La Perlita, and República is winding and poetic.
Put a pin in that first sip of black coffee his grandmother gifted him at age eight, attach a thread to that anchor, and follow its twists and turns to the tapestry Medina and his team have created in celebration of Mexican coffee, food, drink, art, music...and heart. You can quite literally taste the dedication that has gone into the roasted beans that fill Reforma’s colorful bags, the True Mexican Mocha at La Perlita, and each handmade tortilla by Doña Chapis at República.
That thread is still unraveling, pulsating with more life to come, and we encourage you to follow along.
Let’s take it back a bit...what are some of your first coffee-centric memories?
I was introduced to coffee at the age of eight by my grandmother, she believed that if I drank it before school (black) I would stay sharp throughout the day. She wasn't terribly wrong about it all. In fact, at the age of 12 when my family moved back to this country, the first place I walked into was a 7-11 in Santa Ana. By far the greatests cup of black coffee I've ever had in my life...then.
You are now the founder of two coffee businesses, and one restaurant. What were you doing before these businesses came to fruition?
In the summer of 2019, I walked away from coffee in Portland (retail and roasting). I moved to Mexico City in hopes of being closer to coffee producers, and learning as much as I could about this industry at that level. Within a few months of being there, I was contacted by a group that was interested in shooting a TV series on coffee. I began writing it in September, and when I finished it in October, the production company picked it up and set a scheduled shoot date for February 2020, in hopes of matching up with harvest season throughout most of Mexico.
In the meantime, I took a few consulting gigs in between, and stayed busy all the way until March 13th, 2020. On that day, I lost the two consulting jobs, and the show was put on hold three weeks after we began shooting. It was tough... but as always, I got over it.
Roasting! What gave you the itch to start roasting your own beans, and how has that grown into what is now Reforma Roasters?
I started roasting coffee out of love and curiosity. For a long time I did not share any of what I roasted, mostly because I didn't think it was as good as the coffee from the roasters I loved. It took me nearly two years to share my first roast!
Soon after that, I began roasting coffee as a way to raise awareness and funds for "United We Dream", a youth-led not profit organization for "Dreamers", children who were brought to this country by their families at a young age and lived most of their childhood (and adulthood) undocumented.
The goal was always to do more for my community. To this day, that principal is still my purpose and mission.
We’d love to talk about your first cafe, Kiosko, and how that experience led you to La Perlita and República?
Kiosko was magical. It was truly the foundation of everything that has shaped our values and beliefs here. We knew we were building something special there from day one, simply because there were truly no cafes in Portland, or much of the country for that matter, that were similar to what we had, in any way. We were brown-owned with brown employees, with a menu that was entirely in Spanish, and a vibe that could not be replicated by anyone in this city.
As of today, I have 52 employees, 49 of them are BIPOC, 21 of them speak more than one language -- something that is truly unheard of in this town. Kiosko set us on the right path from the go. I didn't realize it at the time, but as of today, there is no other place in this town that speaks to more brown folks than La Perlita and República.
You left Portland in 2019 for Los Angeles, followed by Mexico. Can you tell us more about that journey, what you learned about yourself and your ambitions along the way, and your return to Portland?
Honestly, the idea was to spend time with my family in SoCal before eventually making my way down to Mexico. I lasted all of four days there because I felt so unaccomplished when I left this city (Portland). I didn't know it then, but I was really struggling with the way things had ended here. When I arrived in Mexico, I learned that I wasn't as "Mexican" as I thought I was. If you are Mexican-American like I am, it will do that to you. Being there alone provided me with certain solitude that I didn't know I needed. There was a point where I would just take the bus to any small coffee producing town on a Monday and comeback 2-3 days later like "f*&%, I know everything about coffee now!" ... I was wrong. The more time I spent around the people that produced coffee, the more I realized how little is known about this industry and how bad it needed to change. In that same process I realized that I needed to change, at least if I truly ever wanted to make real and genuine contributions to our industry. And so I "Reformed.”
Starting a business during a pandemic is no joke. What motivations helped your forge ahead in creating República, and how has your team helped bring it to life?
After coming back from Mexico everything around me that was a poor interpretation of my culture was magnified. Mexican Cuisine in Portland was atrocious before we opened our doors. I know people will take offense, but to be fair, I've felt that way about 99 percent of the Mexican food in this country. And so with the help and trust of my partners, we began to create a one year plan as to how we would get Portland to trust that whatever we fed them was going to be better than anything they've ever had in the history of this town.
We started with the best Tortas, we followed it with the best tortillas, and the best guisados. Then we got a liquor license and began stocking our shelves with some of the best wine from Mexico, as well as the rarest Mezcales. Then we created "Guest at a Mexican Household," which allowed us to feed you what we thought you should eat. Once we earned your trust, we were going to switch our evening program to one that would allow us to create a Mexican culinary experience that has never existed on this side of the country. That was our one year plan, which we accomplished in six months.
Call it fate, call it karma.
Describe what it feels like to walk into La Perlita and República. What are the sights, sounds, smells, and energy like? And of course, what should we order?
Oh man...there truly isn't a day where I am not overwhelmed by all the things happening around this building.
Let's start with the day, on a Saturday around 10am, walk in through 9th Avenue entrance and the first thing that will jump out at you is that beautiful "La Perlita" neon sign. As you make your way into the tall atrium you'll notice the skylight above illuminating the room and bringing life to all of the plants. You can count on something in Spanish playing in the background; Enanitos Verdes or Chalino Sanchez...you never know with this crew. To the right of the bar you will find the Matutina pop-up displaying beautiful breads inspired mostly by Mexico; Conchas, Empanadas, Cochinitos... Guava Danishes! If it's your first time, you order a True Mexican Mocha. If you prefer a pour-over, you walk across to the pour-over bar and snag up a bag or two of Reforma.
When you are done, walk a few steps over to República. You will notice Doña Chapis making her famous Quesadillas by hand, or pinching the edges on the thicker masa dough as she makes huraches or memelitas. There is always someone making something in that wide-open kitchen. If you are lucky, it will be chiles being roasted for Salsa Macha or Cochinita Pibil coming out of the ovens and being taken out of the banana-leaf wraps.
Order up something comforting; a bowl of pozole and some fresh tortillas, and sit out on the patio and listen to the birds singing throughout the patio.
We just saw your new coffee bag designs, and República menu concept! What are some of the inspirations behind the new look and menu, and what else can we expect to come down the pipeline this year?
They are statement pieces, every one of them. Our bags are beautiful, but in all honesty they are playing catch up to the quality of our coffee, and not the other way around.
Our evening program is a Manifesto. It's a love letter to the people that support our vision, and a thank you to those that love and respect our culture. On the flipside, it's a statement piece. It's the way we say all of the things without having to actually say them. And that's that.
2022 is loaded for us, from the opening of a Tap Room downtown, another restaurant, another coffee shop, a bakery, and a clothing retail store. You'll hear about it.
What is a day in the life of Angel Medina like? What’s your morning coffee routine?
It's not that exciting really. I have a hard time relaxing if I have a lot of work, so I usually just jump out of bed, into the shower, and run out of the apartment.
Depending on what is keeping me up, sometimes it's 8am, other times it's more like 5 or 6. I go through my day in my head. I think about all the things that need to get done, I panic a little bit, but eventually remember that what is meant to be is meant to be. Yes, after all of these years, all of these books, and all of these life experiences, I am full circle back to that old and dated saying/philosophy.
When I walk in the shop I head straight to the pour-over bar, and request whatever they want to make me. I head inside to Republica, I walk behind to the kitchen, bump elbows with the morning crew, and do my best to turn down something incredible by Doña Chapis...15 lbs later, here I am.
I then go up to my office upstairs, I look at my to-do list, and begin to tackle the easy stuff in hopes of feeding my brain enough dopamine to make it through the afternoon. For about 4-5 hours I take meetings and phone calls. If I see that we are doing well, I run downstairs to help our staff out. Around 3pm, I go home and try to relax for a few minutes before getting dressed and ready for evening service. At 4pm I do my first inspection of the restaurant. I walk over to the reservation screen and see if there are any names I recognize — you never know when Gregory Gourdet is going to come in for dinner (joke, kinda).
At 4:30pm I make the last adjustment to the menu, I print the necessary copies, and have one more briefing with our team to make sure they understand anything that has changed. At 5pm we take our first reservation(s), by 6:30pm we are in the zone. The patio is full, and the room is coming close to being full as well.
We usually serve our last dishes by 9:30pm. By 10:30 the room is usually clear, and by 11:30 we are out of here.
I get home by midnight, I take a warm shower, and lift my legs up to reduce the swelling around my feet.
A few hours later I rinse and repeat.