GRAND RAPIDS — For the family-owned startup Soldadera Coffee LLC, the COVID-19 crisis has brought an unexpected opportunity.
CEO and co-owner Mario Rodriguez had been juggling his full-time engineering job in Auburn Hills with trying to expand the family’s cold brew coffee business in West Michigan.
Since being laid off because of COVID-19, Rodriguez has shifted his focus to Soldadera’s future growth. Some of those goals include seeking out funding for a permanent production facility and café, new labeling and branding, and expanding e-commerce sales.
“The loss of employment could be seen as a positive or negative,” he said. “I plan to focus more on Soldadera to expand our flavors and brand and modify our business plan in order to make this company bigger during this time of great uncertainty.”
Soldadera’s main product is a unique-tasting cold-brew coffee inspired by the family matriarch, Grandmother Cristina, a social activist in Mexico who stood up for people’s rights, especially injustices against women. Rodriguez and his wife Erinna Espinosa, sister Gabby Rodriguez and their father Cesar Rodriguez launched the business a few years ago after winning several pitch contests, including Start Garden’s 5x5 Night and its 100 Ideas competition in 2018, which garnered $20,000.
Soldadera is sold in Hispanic stores and restaurants in West Michigan. The family also secured shelf space at Meijer Inc.’s Bridge Street Market and a deal with SpartanNash to get the cold brew into several Family Fare and D&W stores in West Michigan. Prior to COVID-19, they spent many weekends offering samples at area grocery stores and community events.
“Now we’re looking at subscriptions and evolving based on the limitations that have been put on us due to the virus and now that I have more time,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes, you pivot to a new idea and new way of doing things — any good business person has to pivot and modify to keep the business going.”
Raul Alvarez, owner of GTSD Group, has helped the Rodriguez family tell their story and expand their reach into area grocery stores. The next step is to secure longer term funding to increase production and support sustainable growth.
“It’s been a lot of fun watching them grow,” Alvarez said. “Just the fact they were able to see that growth and to work with a larger organization like SpartanNash, for example, is a testament to the story they have.”
Alvarez supports other Hispanic and Latina businesses as a board member on the West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He said many business owners lack the technical knowhow to apply for federal pandemic relief and feel challenged by the language barrier.
The Hispanic Chamber started hosting weekly Zoom meetings for Hispanic and Latina business owners to share ideas and offer guidance and support.
“With everything going on, they feel at a loss; they are not connecting with each other, and they are not connecting with their customers,” Alvarez said. “Beyond the camaraderie, it’s a really good way for them to ask questions and connect them with resources.”
Soldadera’s grocery sales have slowed down since the pandemic hit, prompting the Rodriguez family to look for new ways to grow, including selling coffee online. A subscription service is still in the works, but members would receive the cold brew, a home brew kit with coffee beans, and additional goodies such as a cap or T-shirt, along with stories about Soldadera’s social responsibility and causes the business supports.
“My goal and hope have always been to focus 100 percent on our mission and our coffee and bringing the diversity of this coffee to the community,” Rodriguez said. “We are there in Grand Rapids and still supporting the community.”
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