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From Maricao, Puerto Rico to New York City: A Conversation with Sam Sepulveda, Co-Founder of 787 Coffee

Michael Carusillo | 03 June, 2024

            From Maricao, Puerto Rico to New York City: A Conversation with Sam Sepulveda, Co-Founder of 787 Coffee

Sam Sepulveda, Puerto Rican native and co-founder of Hacienda Iluminada and 787 Coffee, a farm-to-cup coffee company, began a socio-economic project to uplift the Puerto Rican community in Maricao and the coffee industry, with his business and life partner Brandon Ivan Peña in 2014.

In honor of the upcoming 2024 Puerto Rican Day Parade, Sepulveda shared with us the journey of 787 Coffee – their extensive coffee roasting education, the impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017, the dedication of their farmers, and prioritizing connection through coffee and cultural pride. 787 Coffee thrived through it all, now with 25 coffee shops across Puerto Rico, New York City, and El Paso, Texas.

His responses have been edited for length and clarity. Check out the short video clip from the interview on Instagram and TikTok by clicking the hyperlinks.

Purchase the only print signed by the owner to support a worthy cause. In celebration of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, we are donating 100% of the proceeds of the signed print benefit the National Puerto Rican Day Parade Scholarship Fund.

Back in 2014, you and Brandon made the bold move of purchasing Hacienda Iluminada, your coffee farm in Maricao, aiming to revive both the land and the community. What inspired you to make this decision and how did it shape your journey to establishing your shops here in New York City?

SepulvedaI am Puerto Rican. I am very proud of my people and my island. What better place to start this project than on my own island, right? I was familiar with the island and the law, when it came to agriculture. Even though it was a bold move, we were so excited that we just jumped in. 

It was a socio-economic project. Maricao is mostly an agricultural town, located in the center of the island in the West. It’s about 3000 feet above sea. Maricao has huge financial needs. It was becoming a ghost town. That's when we decided we were going to jump in and buy the farm - gorgeous view, gorgeous microclimate that produces the best coffee.

We opened the first 787 Coffee shop at a bed and breakfast in Maricao, Puerto Rico. That was back in January 2017. In the summer of that same year, we opened  four more locations in New York City. 

Did you have any prior knowledge of how to open up a coffee business?

SepulvedaActually, I'm an airline pilot for United. At the time, Brandon, co-founder and my life partner, had a marketing agency. He said, “If you can produce amazing coffee,  I'm gonna make sure we sell that amazing coffee.” 

I did not have any experience when it came to agriculture or coffee. I would make my coffee at home every morning, but that was it. I always had a passion for agriculture. I would drive by a farm and salivate, wishing I was there. We started researching and found out that Puerto Rico produced amazing coffee back in the day. Last century, Puerto Rican coffee used to be called “the Coffee of the King and the Pope.” The coffee will go from Maricao down to the port of Guánica in Puerto Rico. From there, it would go over to the kings in Spain and over to the Vatican City in Italy.

Puerto Rico was the sixth top producer of coffee in the world. Unfortunately, new generations of professionals within the coffee industry don't even know that Puerto Rico produces coffee. That's why we're there. That's part of the project – to put Puerto Rican coffee back on the map. And we're doing so, for sure.

How has your coffee roasting knowledge expanded?

SepulvedaWhen we got the farm in 2014, it was an abandoned coffee farm. We had zero knowledge about coffee. The learning curve was completely pointed to the sky. Two years before we got the farm, we started researching coffee. We visited pretty much every single coffee origin in the world, taking courses, getting certifications, and becoming knowledgeable people in the coffee industry. All the way from Asia, Africa, the Americas, you name it – from the agricultural side of coffee production, to processing coffee, roasting coffee, storing coffee, the preservation of the coffee and serving the coffee. We became professionals on the whole chain of coffee, but there’s still a lot more to learn. 

Can you share some insight into the unique process of cultivating coffee beans in the highest mountains of Maricao, Puerto Rico? What’s special about authentic Puerto Rican coffee?

SepulvedaWith Puerto Rican coffee, I always recommend a medium roast. A dark roast would eliminate the distinctive notes. At our farm, our notes are blood orange citrus, buttery, dark chocolate, and a lot of caramel. That's our profile. If you do a dark roast, you make those notes evaporate. There are a lot of volatile essential oils in the coffee bean. When you go on a dark roast, the coffee bean opens up and there goes all those amazing essential oils that have the compounds that give you those notes. 

You have to treat coffee with a lot of love and care, especially after the farmers worked so hard to produce it. You will not believe the hard work that they put in until you go to the farm and see them work. The picking is selective picking. From a whole branch of coffee, if it's got a beautiful burgundy color, it's ready to harvest. If it’s not-so red, green, or yellowish, you cannot take those. You only take the ones that are beautiful red burgundy in color. People talk a lot about wine. Coffee is on the same line, but it's way harder than winemaking because of the labor involved.

Can you share a story about the early days of opening your first shop in New York City? How did the community welcome you? How did it differ from your first shop back on the island?

SepulvedaThis particular location (East Village) is very special. We had about 50,000 coffee trees that we planted when we got the farm in 2014. It takes three years to produce coffee, so from 2014 to 2017, we gave a lot of love to those trees that we had planted. In 2017, we got hit by Hurricane Maria. It changed everything. At the time, we thought we had lost it all because we had put every single penny we had there. In a few hours, the wind took 97% of the plantation down. We had five coffee shops – one in Puerto Rico and four in New York City. Since our mission is to serve the coffee that we grow at the farm, we had no coffee, and had to permanently close down all five of our shops. 

Even though I was living in NYC, I decided to stay in Puerto Rico because I wanted to be close to the farm when the hurricane was over. I stayed with my father in Bayamón. What usually takes me two hours from Bayamón to Maricao, took me two days. When I got to the West Coast, they were still under hurricane conditions, but my adrenaline was really high. I wanted to be one of the first ones to be there. That first day I made it to theparador. I got there with a flat tire and the following day, I was able to get to the farm. 

When I got to the farm, to my surprise, the farmers were there. I had already talked to Brandon. He was in New York and he saw it on the news. We knew the farm was going to be devastated. When I got there and saw them, they had a smile. My perspective changed immediately because I had to remember what was the purpose of us being there. It was a social economic project to help the people of Maricao and change their life. I spoke to Brandon and said, “You know, we're staying.”

I was very fortunate that I had a job and Brandon had his marketing agency. It will pass, we will be successful, we'll continue, we're here to stay, and so we did. Puerto Rico took a few years to recover from Hurricane Maria. It was a big hit on Puerto Rico’s economy and people. 

By the end of 2018, we had enough coffee from what Maria had left, plus the new crop, so we decided to jump in the coffee shop business again. We found this amazing location here in the East Village. Little did we know, this area, back in the day, was a Puerto Rican area here in New York City. The universe conspired and put us here. Post Hurricane Maria, this was the first location, 131 East 7th Street between Avenue A and First Avenue. It used to be a bar and everything was black inside, but we saw the potential.

When we opened up in Maricao, that coffee shop was a huge hit. We would get people that really could not afford a cup of coffee, but they would go to the coffee shop on Sundays, well-dressed, to drink our coffee. That was amazing. We had these humble people going over to drink our coffee and they felt so special. In New York City, the people are different, but people loved us since day one, for sure. 

What role do you believe coffee plays in fostering community connections and cultural pride?

SepulvedaOur coffee is amazing, but it's just an excuse for people to connect. All the way from the farm, our customers have connected with us. We’re currently in New York City, El Paso, Texas and Puerto Rico, but we go way beyond that. 787 Coffee has reached the whole world. It's amazing and we feel very proud about that. 

People come here, yeah, they have a cup of coffee, but they come here because they want to have a meeting with their friend, to meet their possible future partner, to study, to work. When that happens, we want to make sure we’re showing visuals on our TVs where we put stories of our farmers or baristas, so they know who makes the coffee. We tell our baristas, “Hey, we need to connect with the customer.” We’ve had some baristas that are actors, by connecting with customers they meet a producer, and oops, the connection was made. Whose fault was it? Oh, it was coffee. It's amazing how coffee connects people and changes the world for good.

As someone deeply connected to Puerto Rican culture, what message or sentiment do you hope the Puerto Rican Day Parade conveys to the broader community in New York City?

SepulvedaI grew up in Puerto Rico and lived there full time, up until I was in my early 30s. I moved to New York because of my job with the airlines. I usually go to Puerto Rico every other week. So, home is New York, home is Puerto Rico, and that should stay that way forever. I love my islands. In both places, I recharge and reconnect.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, I would always watch the parade on TV. I always thought that one day I was going to be there. I felt so proud of the celebration of Puerto Ricans in New York City… the best city in the world, you know. When I moved here, I finally had the opportunity to go to the parade and it was just amazing. 

The parade conveys a message of unity. We are very resilient, no matter what happens. Even after the hurricane, people were cleaning the roads with music, celebration, and dancing. Even though they had no roof, no potable water, no food. 

The parade gives many Puerto Ricans hope. This is a tiny island but with so much power. We're loud. It gives us that sense of pride. 

787 Coffee (Shop #1) is located at 131 East 7th St. and is currently open every day from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. (646) 649-2774

Click the photo above for more information on the 787 Coffee signed print for the NPRDP Scholarship Fund.