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‘From the Farms to the Cup’

Tough love helps coffee business owner bring vision to life

By Stephen Sellner | Citizens Bank Staff

FRAMINGHAM, Ma. — Cristian Barragan is more than happy to tell his story. He pulls up a chair to one of his tables at Saxonville Mills Café & Roastery, his very own coffee shop.

Every table at the café is made from scratch. Cristian estimates that 90% of what you see inside was built by him or a family member. This might seem like a small detail in a larger story, but after talking to Cristian, you quickly realize it’s not.

It is the story.

Cristian, 37, came to the United States in 2001 from his native country of Colombia. He was 19 years old at the time, settling in Framingham, a city located 23 miles west of Boston. Upon arriving in his new country, Cristian started working regular jobs. But before long, he was dreaming bigger.

“I started the idea to create a company,” he explains. “I started to work with coffee.”

Coffee cup on top of table.

Every table at Cristian’s café is made from scratch.

Cristian started his coffee business in Framingham’s Saxonville Mills, a property that's home to more than 70 small businesses. In the beginning, Cristian was traveling back to Colombia, importing the coffee grown on his family’s farm to the United States, and selling it to smaller companies with the help of a distribution company.

Then came the ecommerce boom in 2012.

“We grew very fast,” Cristian says.

He worked with online distributors to send his product nationwide. Soon, Cristian’s family coffee was popping up in places like California, Puerto Rico, and Alaska. He had become more than a coffee business; he was a Colombian coffee importation and distribution business, Andina Distributors

The business was working, Cristian says. Little by little.

But with that growth came more challenges. Cristian needed someone in his corner to steer him and his business in the right direction.

What he needed was Omar.

♦ ♦ ♦

When Cristian was transitioning into a coffee distribution business, Omar was going through a transition of his own. He had recently become a Relationship Manager at Citizens Bank after working in the retail space in Framingham for 12 years. Omar knew the area well, so he’d heard of Cristian’s Colombian coffee distribution business. 

Omar was also born in Colombia.

“He had a really good thing going,” Omar says of Cristian’s business. However, Cristian wasn’t using any of the banking resources and tools that could take his business to the next level.

And so, Omar and Cristian began their working relationship. It didn’t take long for Cristian to realize what he’d been missing before.

“He helped me point my business straight,” Cristian says of Omar.

Omar and Cristian chat about the coffee business.

Omar (left) is Cristian’s Citizens Bank Relationship Manager.

Omar started by helping Cristian with wire transfers and improving the business’ cash flow. Then came another important lesson: what rules and regulations are required of U.S. businesses.

The relationship wasn’t smooth sailing at first. For starters, Cristian didn’t like paying the relationship fees, so Omar had to prove to him that he was getting something in return. That return? A more efficient business.

Then came another hiccup: Cristian kept overdrafting his accounts, triggering fees. That became Omar’s next order of business.

“There was some tough love,” Omar remembers. Cristian, relieved that those days are behind him, laughs from his seat.

Cristian continued to reap the benefits of Omar’s input. Andina Distributors grew nationally and internationally. Just like before, that growth brought on new complications for Cristian. But this time, Cristian could tackle them with Omar’s help.

Was Cristian satisfied? No. The coffee distribution business was succeeding, but that didn’t fulfill his true vision for his coffee business. So when the landlord at the Saxonville Mills approached Cristian about resigning his lease for the distribution company’s space, Cristian spoke up.

“I’m looking for an additional space,” he told the landlord. He was no longer satisfied with just distributing his coffee; he wanted to sell it himself. Directly to the community.

He wanted to open a café in the Mills.

♦ ♦ ♦

The landlord liked the idea of a coffee shop in the Mills, and therefore agreed to lease an additional space to Cristian. The space — a former computer store — was on the outside corner of the Mills. 

Cristian remembers how much work needed to be done before he could even think about opening. “Nothing was built for a restaurant,” Cristian admits.

It took eight months to get all the demolition done and to comply with all the building regulations. Cristian built most everything in the café from scratch — the tables and floors, just to name a few.

“He knew exactly what he wanted to do with this,” Omar says. “Like a good entrepreneur, he had his vision painted. I was able to see it as well.”

And so, in August 2018, Saxonville Mills Café & Roastery opened for business. 

It didn’t take long for investors to see its potential. They noticed how different it was from the chain coffee shops, so they wanted to buy in early, hoping to get in for cheap.

The prospect of selling was tempting to Cristian. After all, he wanted to recoup the investment he made into his business. But there was someone standing in the way. That someone was Omar. 

As Omar tells it, he practically had to beg Cristian not to sell. Not yet, at least.

“As part of my experience, I knew it was going to happen,” Omar says of the investor interest. “I was sort of his coach, rubbing his shoulders, working his mind.

“I said, ‘Look, as soon as you open, you’re going to have a few offers because this business is different,’” he continues.

He helped point my business straight.

Omar’s message was simple: Don’t sell now. Finish and execute what you started, he told Cristian, and the value of your business will grow once your traffic and sales increase.

Waiting was no easy task for Cristian. “It was difficult because somebody wanted to offer me money for this and I want to make money,” he explains. “But Omar said, ‘No, you’re going to grow. You’re going to have more money.’”

Omar estimates that the two talked four times a day during that time. Omar had to plead with Cristian’s wife, Raysa, to keep him from selling.

“But I need to get my money back,” Cristian had told Omar. Omar replied by saying, “Wait and you’re going to get it double.”

Omar brought in one of his other customers who went through a similar situation to mentor Cristian through the difficult decision. Finally, Cristian relented. He agreed not to sell.

And thank goodness he did.

♦ ♦ ♦

Today, Cristian’s vision for his café has come to fruition. A few months ago, he made a large investment by purchasing a coffee roaster for the café. The roaster had always been Cristian’s crown jewel. Now, he can import his coffee from the family farm in Colombia, roast it himself, and serve it directly to the public.

“From the farms to the cup,” Cristian says. “Directly. No middle man.”

Cristian and his wife stand next to the coffee roaster.

Cristian and his wife, Raysa, stand next to the coffee roaster.

And those potential investors? They haven’t gone anywhere. In fact, one of the initial investors who showed interest in Cristian’s business has since come back with a higher offer. The investor has visions of opening a second café outside of Framingham. 

A second coffee shop is great, but to Cristian, nothing beats the connection his café has with the Framingham people and his fellow business owners in the close-knit Saxonville Mills.

“When you own a business, you really feel how the community supports you,” he says. “You become a part of the community and they wish you success, so you’re working harder and harder because you want the community to see you grow. And to stay right here.

“I want to stay,” he adds.

Now, Cristian sees local politicians holding their meetings at Saxonville Mills Café & Roastery. He notices out-of-towners stopping by to try his product. “They can go to any corner to find coffee,” he explains, “but they make a trip here.”

Cristian and his business have come a long way, far from the days of incurring needless overdraft fees. Those are a thing of the past, according to Omar.

As for the present? Omar is quick to call Cristian a friend.

“I’m very proud of him,” Omar says. “It’s the greatest commission — more than money — to see how your customers grow.”

And Cristian? He knows how lucky he was to have met Omar.

“To establish a business in a different country is very difficult,” Cristian says. “It’s good to have people like Omar who work with you and make you understand everything.

“He’s always there for me,” Cristian continues. “He’s a good guy and it’s good to have people like him around you because he makes everything easy.”

With that, Omar turns to Cristian and offers a smile.

More information

Want to learn how a Citizens Bank Relationship Manager could help your business? Please call 1-800-4BUSINESS or stop by your nearest Citizens Bank branch today.

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