Redefining Success through Coffee Culture
By Lindsey Tabor
A steaming, ebony cup of coffee is a universal symbol of person-to-person connection, and the nectar of intimate conversations —and at Unlocked Coffee, it is the beginning of a welcoming communal space. Colombian couple Andres Camargo and Rocio Salazar have staked their future on building a thriving community around their rich “coffee culture” at Unlocked Coffee Roasters, their specialty coffee shop in the West End Village of Greenville. It is an adventure they have prepared for their entire lives. We spoke as their entrepreneurial journey took off in 2019, and followed them to the edge of the 2020 holiday season—the tipping point of their battle with the Covid-19 downturn.
Andres came to the US in 1999, painstakingly working his way through business school while excelling at his full-time job in insurance. Rocio ran a successful marketing firm in Colombia, and after meeting Andres embarked on a new, audacious adventure. She joined him in Greenville to launch Unlocked in 2018, and by the fall of 2019, the newlyweds were roasting specialty imported beans in-house and had established their online retail store. They made fast friendships in the neighborhood, as they anticipated opening their first brick-and-mortar shop at the new Poe Mill development. “I feel this is as close as I could possibly get to my country,” Carlos shares. Greenville, they said, truly evoked the warmth and community they had left behind. They shared a clear vision to empower the neighborhood by providing skill-building for employees, raising the profile of local Hispanic entrepreneurs and creating an inclusive space where diversity is honored. “The business model is intentional—a way of blessing people,” said Andres. Rocio adds, “The vision of the company is to build on that universal language of coffee. We want to show how strong coffee culture can be when Hispanics are behind it!”
Fast forward to March 2020: the week before their shop opened, Covid-19 blindsided Greenville, grinding the local food industry to a halt. “We were really discouraged. We had been working for almost two years for this moment,” recalls Rocio. Because they had not yet hired employees by this critical date, Unlocked was not eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program, and their only CARES Act support landed in October. “All our projections in revenue for our first month simply were not there,” Andres says. They immediately embraced all DHEC regulations: online ordering with curbside take-out, a socially distanced interior, targeted digital marketing and promotional giveaways. They were fighting an uphill battle against fear, continuing to hold out the comfort of coffee to a fractured society.
Yet this crisis proved that their trust in the strength of the Greenville community had been well founded. The businesses of the West End Village banded together to support each other, making purchases for the sake of their neighbor rather than out of need. “We went to other coffee shops to buy their coffee!” Rocio explains. They also credited their extensive network of friends and businesses, built through Hispanic Alliance where they volunteer, who have been buying gift cards and bulk orders of coffee.
Though still struggling, Andres and Rocio focus on the stories of their new employees. They hired a young man through Mill Village Farms Youth Ally Partnership, which places youth with local businesses to learn job skills. Their baristas also include a competitive runner, a tattoo artist/photographer building her own business, and a professional cyclist from Colombia who reached out for a job while he was stuck in Trinidad and Tobago early in the pandemic. “They bring more flavor to Unlocked!” Rocio adds.
They relish the many nationalities that have visited their shop in its first months, which they decorated with nods to multiple cultures. Three local high school girls are regulars who literally attend online school in the shop. “This is the place you can meet to have coffee with a friend you haven’t seen in three months,” says Andres.
Rocio shares a Hispanic saying, “es la paga para el corazón”, which translates as “payment for the heart,” an emotional contentment from values rather than money. Based on this currency, they have already made leaps toward cultivating their community, just as they envisioned in 2019. They are using the power of coffee as a new beginning for employees, and to help their customers heal from the pain, isolation and loss of this year.
They keep the lessons of growing up in Latin America nearby as they enter a vital time for Unlocked sales. Rocio succeeded in business in a country notorious for policies that discourage entrepreneurs. “You have to be a fighter in a country where everything is stolen from you,” she says. They bring that Latin tenacity, and overwhelming warmth and passion to their coffee and their beloved Greenville community. “Quitting is not part of our business plan,” says Andres. “You may go to bed with frustration, but the next day you get up, get a shower, have a cup of coffee,” he chuckles, “and continue moving!”
Lindsey Tabor is communications and PR manager for the Hispanic Alliance.