Friday, May 9, 2014

El Salvador child coffee worker starts specialty coffee roasting business in Washington, DC called Cafe Los Suenos (Coffee of Dreams)

Mary Willson, Communication Intern 

“The civil war was going on because the income inequality. The coffee plantation owners were making so much money and they were paying us only a couple cents.”

Carlos Payes started working for a coffee plantation when he was eight years old in rural El Salvador. In the midst of a violent civil war, he spent his days digging small holes in the harsh sun for twelve hours, making less than three dollars a day.

He reflects on the way of life in El Salvador while sitting with me in the tutoring space of Academy of Hope.. The juxtaposition between the pictures he is painting of his childhood to his modern life is striking.
Carlos demonstrates coffee
roasting at Academy of Hope
 The clean cut man in a collared shirt sitting in front of me explaining his fair trade coffee business came to the United States nine years ago with not a dime in his pocket and not a word of English. He lived as his ancestors did a century ago with little change, in a village of five huts with no running water or electricity.

Escaping harsh conditions in EL Salvador is only the beginning of his story.

He dreamed of starting his own coffee business since he started working at the plantation. It seemed out of reach. “We didn’t have any money, any opportunities, not even a coffee plant other than one we kept in the house.”

 He came to the US looking for a better economic situation. He started his new life in California before he heard of a thriving restaurant scene in DC, he moved and worked as a bus boy.  “From the moment I came here, I started saving money. I thought it was impossible.”

Carlos finished high school in El Salvador, the first one is family to complete the task. His father saved two out of the three dollars he earned a day to make sure his son has a future beyond the coffee fields. Upon moving to the US, he wanted to continue his education and get his college business degree and needed American credentials. For three years, he studied English five days a week at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School,  a school for adult immigrants in DC. The he decided to pursue his GED to give him the credentials he needed to enter college. After completing his GED he found Academy of Hope's Bridge Program which helps adult learners get ready for rigorous college coursework. Carlos is now pursuing his associate's degree in business administration at the University of District Columbia Community College.

He saved enough money to buy 16 acres of land in El Salvador near his family, who planted Arabica trees, a variety of specialty coffee plants.

Café Los Suenos (Coffee of Dreams) was started.

“That is one of my greatest, greatest dreams and accomplishments that I have ever done.”

Carlos and his wife, Elizabeth met while working waiting tables at Busboys and Poets, a popular café restaurant. They jumped into their business plan head first traveling to Boston and NYC for coffee shows, meeting other coffee owners, importers and exporters and researching coffee roasting processes. Carlos became a certified roaster through the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe. “I thought it was simple, but it involves more than that.” The couple hired a coffee roasting teacher to travel from Arizona to train Carlos in the art of roasting specialty coffee. 

While his business is growing in the US, Carlos is most proud of the impact he has on his family back home. With his success, he gives them opportunities. He funded his sister to go to hair school, another family member to open up a snack stand and his parents cottage has been renovated. And, with the land he bought, this family can harvest the coffee beans to sell to local exporters. 

Right now, Carlos sells his roasted beans to friends and family. He is starting to sell at farmers markets this summer.

Even with the small size of Café Los Suenos, Carlos and Elizabeth are already saving 5% of profits, which will go to projects in El Salvador to combat the lack of education, food and income. “We will increase the percentage when we are making more. As long as we have enough to get by, that is all we need.”

I asked Carlos how he persevered through hard times to get his company going.
Carlos posing at Academy of Hope

“Sometimes [your dream] won’t happen the way you plan it, but it is all going towards the same goal in the long run. Even if you work slow but steady, sometime you’re going to get there. ”

Carlos tells me that he was terrified of talking to potential customers at first because his English was new and he had no prior business experience. He felt the same way about started classes at Academy of Hope, fearful of the culture and language. 

“Education is like getting a set of tools. They put you through all the process right in front of you. And it’s up to you to do your part and take it and move on.”

Carlos and his wife hold customer meet-and-greets at their home called “Sunday Salon”. Friends and acquaintances come together to taste coffee, talk and enjoy community.

He reflects on his days back in El Salvador, where everyday sounds like a “Sunday Salon”. “Because I grew up in a community, very small, 5 houses, middle of nowhere, we were family.  It is nice when you know each other and  its even better if you sit down and have a little talk and a little coffee and  share stories.”

For Carlos, his journey to the US has led to a company that connects him right back to home. His dreams, are made of coffee.

To contact Carlos about buying his coffee or finding him at the Georgetown farmers market,   email him at or call him at 202-281-7512.You can also find him on Facebook at

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