Despistados: A Café with a Strong Sense of Place

At first glance, the small white adobe building could just be any old residence. Above the entryway, the word “CAFÉ” is small and unimposing, while in curved letters, the name “Despistados” is almost covered with the picturesque vines that creep just below the wavy tin roof. On the ironwork on the wooden door is a small sign with a drawing of a coffee cup that says abierto—“open.”

Despistados is a café located in La Palma, El Salvador, a small artsy town just a few minutes’ drive from the Honduran border. Inside, it is warm and cozy, with fewer than 10 tables, plus a small lounge in the back with a couch, a guitar, and a large chalk mural on a black wall where customers can sign their names and write messages. Most of the furniture is made of wood, while the floors are made of local stone.

22-two-year-old owner Alejandro García Aguillón wants the one-and-a-half-year-old café to use local and regional elements.

“We have a Latin American concept,” he says.

As places modernize, they often take down adobe houses and replace them with cement ones, so Aguillón wanted to make sure the café was in a traditional adobe structure. He found the perfect location in an abandoned house.

The café also pays homage to Latin American cultural figures. A small cartoon drawing of Frida Kahlo hangs framed on the wall, and a large wood carving of the word “MACONDO” hangs in the kitchen area. (Macondo is the fictional town in Colombian author’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s classic, One Hundred Years of Solitude.)

Aguillón credits the opening of Despistados to a program called Generaciones, which helps young people in the Trifinio region, encompassing parts of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, learn about the coffee industry. Thanks to climate change and low coffee prices, many young people do not want to stay in the coffee industry, even though it historically plays an important part of both the region’s economy and culture. The Generaciones program, part of the Hans R. Neumann Stiftung Foundation’s work on coffee and climate change, aims to keep young people in the area and in coffee.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that these young people will become growers: the program offers training in other areas of the coffee industry, from cupping and machine repair to distribution and, in the case of Aguillón, opening a small coffee business.

“The program taught me to believe in my capabilities,” he says.

Most of the participants in Generaciones come from families involved in the coffee industry; often, they are the children of growers. Aguillón was an outlier; he was not involved in coffee before beginning the program. In fact, before participating in Generaciones, he had thought about opening an extreme sports center.

In the Generaciones program, Aguillón learned leadership and entrepreneurial skills, as well as specifics about the business of coffee. As part of the program, Aguillón even had the opportunity to visit Paraguay to share his experiences with the youth there. He also went to Italy last year for a Lavazza conference.

After completing the program, Aguillón won seed money to start the café from CONAMYPE, El Salvador’s National Commission of Small and Micro Business. They gave him $3,000, which he used to renovate the space and buy equipment.

“We started with a small machine that you’d use at home” he says, referring to a now-defunct drip coffee maker that would look more suitable on a kitchen counter. “It died, but it helped us a lot.”

As the business grew, he was able to invest in a Nuova Simonelli espresso maker.

Owner Alejandro García Aguillón pulls a shot of espresso on the café’s espresso machine.

The café now boasts a full coffee menu, with all the staples like espressos, cappuccinos, and lattes, using a mix of beans: some local, such as the Pacamara variety, and some imported from Brazil. They also offer licuados de frutas (fruit smoothies) and frozen coffee drinks. And because El Salvador uses the United States dollar as its currency, the prices on the menu are strikingly low to a tourist’s eye: an espresso will set you back $0.75, while the most expensive coffee drink, a mocha, is $1.25. A panini sandwich goes for $2.00.

Along with sandwiches, wraps, and nachos, Despistados offers homemade pastries like apple pie, cheesecake, and tres leches cake, baked by Aguillón’s girlfriend and collaborator, Maria Feliciana Figueroa.

Figueroa is also responsible for much of the café’s design aesthetic, which includes wooden pallets used for benches, stool tops carved to look like coffee beans, pillows and cushions made out of repurposed coffee sacks, and art and quotes lining the adobe walls. She also creates bracelets and earrings out of coffee beans and beads, which they sell at the café as well.

Now that Despistados is established and doing well, Aguillón is focused on expansion. He recently won seed money to start a mobile coffee business, which is now in progress. And looking forward, he hopes to open more cafés in small towns using parts of each place’s unique local culture.

While the familiar definition of despistados translates to “clueless” or “distracted,” Aguillón sees it as a word for those who are a little lost or unique. He says he chose the name to represent being off the beaten path, or a little different.

“Being different is a quality of ours,” says Aguillón.