J.René Coffee Roasters and Victus Coffee Principal Owner José René Martínez (pictured in the Limu region of Ethiopia) discussed his entrepreneurial experience with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price and shared about the ways his two businesses make an impact both locally and internationally.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. When and why did you open a coffee shop?
JOSÉ RENÉ MARTÍNEZ: I started J.René Coffee 14 years ago, when I first started roasting. I’ve always enjoyed the cultural aspects of coffee. I’m from Puerto Rico and lived there for 13 years, so I have a cultural background with coffee. Also, my father was a farmer, so there was this coffee connection in many ways.
I’ve been blessed to have visited most coffee-producing countries all over the world. It’s helped me understand the true magnitude of the coffee message, which inspired the evolution of the second brand, which was Victus Coffee.
NAN: How are the two brands different?
JOSÉ: The biggest distinction between J.René Coffee Roasters and Victus Coffee is that we give a portion of the proceeds from our Victus Coffee sales back to local and global organizations that promote wellness.
It was important to me to separate the brands. With J.René Coffee, we had grown and teamed up with great baristas and professionals who also had a passion for coffee. They’ve helped develop a brand that follows the ethos of providing great specialty-grade coffee.
With Victus Coffee, the focus was to give back. I felt I’d reached a point in my professional career and I believe that you give because you believe. I believe that you sacrifice because there’s something important.
Victus Coffee was born from our love of coffee and endurance sports. I’m an avid cyclist. The idea to create an athlete-inspired global outreach program came to me about five years ago, when I was on my stationary bike training for a race and was watching a documentary about how the Rwanda national cycling team was formed. I came up with the idea, but it’s a collective effort from so many people doing so much great work.
The goal is to provide great coffee and fuel great causes. If you want to be a part of the movement, that’s awesome. If you just love the coffee, you’re going to accomplishing two purposes: You’ll enjoy a great cup of coffee and you’ll be helping organizations such as the CT Cycling Advancement Program (CCAP), Team Africa Rising, and Foodshare.
Giving back is important to me because I grew up with very little and learned a lot from my parents. My mother was resilient. She got her master’s degree in education at age 61 and retired from teaching at age 82, My father showed me how difficult agriculture was and how challenging it is to be a coffee farmer around the world.
I’ve visited many farms all over the world and been welcomed into those farmers’ homes. I know what poverty tastes, smells, and looks like.
NAN: Let’s talk about location. J.René has been a mainstay on Park Road in West Hartford for years.
JOSÉ: We love our Park Road location. It’s a great neighborhood that reminds me of where I grew up in the Bronx, NY. Everything you need is in walking distance. I’m at that shop every morning. I’ve seen people on their first dates end up married and watched them strolling in with their first child. Those relationships happen because it’s more than just selling a product.
NAN: It’s building a community.
JOSÉ: It definitely is. And with that comes a sense of responsibility. I could have easily branded out my products and gone the wholesale route. That’s not what we want to do. I would much rather be a David in a valley of Goliaths. We accomplish that by having meaningful relationships with our customers and partners.
NAN: J.René opened a second location in collaboration with Cookshop Plus in February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic. How has that affected business?
JOSÉ: It comes back to relationship-building. Cookshop Plus Co-Owner Terry Ryan understood exactly what we were going through. These conversations are based on not only mutual survival, but a willingness to help each other.
In many ways, COVID-19 has been a big blessing despite all the pain it’s caused the world. It really shows that during moments of adversity and pain people really help each other out.
The amount of community support we’ve received is just amazing. People understand that the shops are takeout only right now. They’ve accommodated their new lifestyles to still make J.René a part of their lives. Early in the pandemic, we recognized many people didn’t feel safe venturing out of their homes and into restaurants and coffee shops. So, we created a subscription model so they could continue to enjoy our roasted coffee.
I can’t begin to thank so many people on so many different levels who were riding that first wave with us, when we were all lost and scared and figuring out what we needed to do. The support was great and it reinforced our commitment to Victus Coffee.
NAN: In terms of entrepreneurship. What’ your biggest takeaway?
JOSÉ: The beauty of entrepreneurship is the flexibility. This year, if we want to go in a different direction, we can. There’s nothing that binds us and it opens these new opportunities. The next generation of people dreaming about owning their own business shouldn’t feel compelled to mortgage their houses. You shouldn’t always have to finance your dreams. There are opportunities for people to innovate and find different ways to realize their dreams.