U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal visited J.René Coffee Roasters in West Hartford Tuesday, after the shop was named SBA Connecticut’s Minority-Owned Business of the Year.
By Ronni Newton
Jose Rene Martinez had the opportunity to show U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal exactly what goes into roasting coffee Tuesday, and a chance to share his expertise and what he has done to earn the Connecticut Small Business Association (SBA) Minority-Owned Business of the Year Award that was presented in March.
Martinez, who was born in the South Bronx where his family lived in a housing project, spent some of his childhood and college years in Puerto Rico before moving to the Hartford area to attend UConn Law School.
He was hired to work in the state Judicial Branch after graduating from UConn Law in 1992 and still works for the state as an attorney in the Attorney General’s Office, but roasting coffee, and using his business to make a positive impact on the community, is his passion, Martinez said.
Martinez began roasting coffee in 2006, and since 2012 has co-owned J.René Coffee Roasters at 320 Park Rd. in West Hartford with Marie Englewood, who manages the shop while he does the roasting.
Martinez explained the workings of the roaster itself, where all of the beans are roasted on-site, and provided Blumenthal with a behind-the-scenes tour of the shop, including where the beans are stored in preparation for the roasting. Six bags of green coffee beans – about four week’s worth – were recently delivered, Martinez said, and there are bins of soon-to-be-roasted beans from seven countries in Africa, Indonesia, Central America, and South America.
J.René is not just a coffee shop, Martinez said. And he is not just a coffee roaster and shop owner.
“This is an artisanal gathering place,” he said. And to become a roaster at the level he has reached, Martinez said he had to pass 22 exams. He’s a “Q Grader,” certified through the Coffee Quality Institute as what is essentially a coffee sommelier.
“No one taught me, I just started taking lessons,” said Martinez of his initial interest.
For the past 13 years, Martinez told Blumenthal, he’s also been meeting directly with farmers throughout the world. “Our coffees are fairly traded, be we go further than that; we have personal relationships,” he said.
“If we’re doing meaningful work here, we need to do it on the other end,” he said of his relationships with the farmers.
Through J.René Coffee Roasters, Martinez has supported internships and social enterprise programs, collaborating with Capital Workforce Partners, Center for Latino Progress, Blue Hills Civic Association, and the Hartford School System.
While coffee alone won’t save humanity, Martinez said, in addition to developing the J.René brand and the coffee shop, he roasts beans under the label of “Victus Coffee,” and donates a portion of the revenue from that brand to support nonprofit organizations that promote wellness, advocacy, and social justice through endurance sports. He said he was inspired by the movie “Rising from Ashes,” a documentary about Rwanda’s first national cycling team.
A self-proclaimed “wannabe cyclist,” Martinez said he is also training 10-11 hours per week with hopes of participating in the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb.
Taste is the most important quality in coffee, Martinez said. And drinking coffee is about more than getting a caffeine fix.
“We try to actually educate consumers that coffee is meant to be a social experience,” said Martinez. J.René doesn’t have wifi, and that’s intentional, as are the long, communal tables which are intended to encourage social interaction. He believes coffee shops in the U.S. are beginning to evolve into an experience like one might find in Europe.
“It creates innovation, using coffee to create community interaction,” Martinez said. “Despite our ability to connect throughout the world, what we’ve lost is human connection.” At J.René, he and Englewood have created a forum, really what a coffee shop should be, he said, because the “social experience is equally important as the coffee we serve.”
“I say all the time, ‘Let’s get a cup of coffee,'” Blumenthal said, in agreement. “What I really mean is: ‘Let’s have a conversation’ … It’s not just to drink the coffee, but to have a conversation.” He said it never fails to astonish him how two people can be sitting together but both be on their phones.
“Nothing at all against wifi, and coffee places that have wifi,” Blumenthal added.
Martinez also showed Blumenthal the siphon pot used to make coffee at J.René – a device that many consider the best way to make coffee that was common in the early 1960s, and which uses a spring-loaded filter invented and patented by a West Hartford resident about 100 years ago.
Before Blumenthal departed, he and Martinez sat down for a conversation over with local business owners like John Doyle from New Park Brewing, Mallary Kohlmeyer from Craftbird Food Truck, Ryan Keating from Keating Agency Insurance, SBA Connecticut District Director Anne Hunt, and representatives of some of the organizations that benefit from the Victus brand, including Joseph Dickerson, a project manager with BiCi Co, which has a program of the Center for Latino Progress.
While J.René Coffee Roasters currently just has one location, Martinez said, they are working on two more collaborative partnerships. One will be with BiCi Co., which recently announced plans to open a bike shop at the West Hartford Housing Authority’s mixed-use development at 616 New Park.
“We chose to be here, chose not to go to another state,” said Martinez. “This is a diverse community, and we have the ability to innovate.”
“This, to me, is the American dream,” Blumenthal said.
“I’m blessed,” said Martinez, noting that this is the first time he has received an award. He expressed his thanks to the SBA, and noted that “thinking outside the box and innovation happens at mom and pop businesses, too.”
For more information about J.René Coffee Roasters, visit their website.
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