Universal Coffee brings Mayan experience to Cornelius
Anyone who has walked by the entrance of the Cornelius Public Library since February has likely been drawn in by the rich smell of fresh coffee.
They also might have heard Alex Contreras plucking the strings of a classical guitar and Juan Ruiz keeping the beat with his wooden box drum.
Contreras and Ruiz are the owners of Universal Coffee, a mobile coffee bar that has been serving up traditional drinks that date back to before Spanish explorers and conquistadors arrived in Mexico and Central America.
The bar is based in the Cornelius Public Library. Although the library has been closed to the public since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, the bar has continued to operate and serve customers.
The multitalented duo of Contreras and Ruiz tries to use coffee and music to give customers in an increasingly diverse community an experience with Latin American culture that they can't get anywhere else in the area.
That goal allowed them to be selected for the partnership with the Cornelius government.
"We share our culture with our drinks," Ruiz said. "We want everyone to experience a different taste, new flavors and our culture through our coffee."
Contreras says he has been around coffee all his life, growing up on his father's coffee bean farm in Costa Rica. After coming to the United States, he worked with Oregon State University's Department of Food Science and Technology through a partnership with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center in Costa Rica.
He started Universal Coffee in Albany and ran the shop for about two years before deciding to close and look for new opportunities elsewhere.
People can find the typical coffee drinks they would find in any coffee shop in the area at Universal Coffee, but the coffee bar's staple drink, and the one that sets the shop apart from others, is the champurrado.
The champurrado is an ancient drink originally created by the Mayans using cocoa, which is native to Central America. The basic champurrado at Universal Coffee is made with cocoa, corn flour, brown sugar and cinnamon. Contreras and Ruiz make several different champurrados, including those with espresso, bananas or white chocolate, as well as multiple other pre-Hispanic drinks.
People can also order champurrados cold or vegan.
"It's the most famous drink in Latin American culture," Contreras said. "All Latin people know this drink. Champurrados were made more than 2,000 years ago. It's very important in the culture."
Contreras says he partnered with Ruiz because he recognized Ruiz had the right palate to be able to experiment and develop the right combinations of ingredients to give customers an experience.
Ruiz said he's always experimenting with new flavors and trying to bring new drinks to the menu without using artificial flavors. He gets excited when talking about the perfect grain size on the corn flour used in champurrados.
"These are quality drinks, and we spend a lot of time trying to perfect them," Ruiz said.
Within weeks of Universal Coffee opening, Contreras and Ruiz had to temporarily shut down, like businesses across the country, due to the coronavirus pandemic. They said trying to establish a consistent customer base and introduce people to new drinks during the pandemic has been a constant struggle.
To take advantage of nice weather, the coffee bar sets up shop outside some days.
Universal Coffee is only open three days per week, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, in part because Contreras and Ruiz both work other jobs to pay the bills.
But on slow days, Contreras and Ruiz spend their time trying to add to people's experience with Latin American culture by making music.
Contreras previously studied classical guitar, and the duo frequently posts videos of them playing music to the coffee bar's multiple social media accounts.
People will also find Contreras and Ruiz marketing their business through comedy during these difficult times. For example, their social media pages feature a video of Contreras as the Pink Panther ordering a drink at the coffee bar.
The duo has high hopes for when the conditions of the pandemic improve. They want to be able to continue performing music but live and for more people. They also want to expand elsewhere in Washington County with a brick-and-mortar business similar to the one Contreras used to have in Albany.
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