She provides a common ground between strangers...and the start to a good day.
She provides a common ground between strangers...and the start to a good day.
The fingertips belong to Lucía Ortiz, as does the cherry and all the other cherries on the farm. Las Mercedes thrives under the care of Lucía and her employees, who cycle from harvest to harvest keeping their eyes set on the very shade of red Lucía paints her fingernails. It’s both a mark of her personal style and an easy visual cue to the pickers that this specific shade of red is equivalent to ripeness. In theory, a coffee picker’s work is simple: pluck only the ripest cherries and bring them in to be milled. But their discernment between a slightly too pale and too deep shade of red is the difference between an under and an overripe cherry. Lucía’s approach to instructing her employees on the importance of a specific shade of crimson is closely tied to her self expression. In many ways, it’s tough to detangle Lucía’s influence from Las Mercedes. In many ways, they are one in the same.
She’s more than qualified to manage the operations of a farm of this size. She has a degree in marketing, is multilingual and had part ownership of a travel agency in San Salvador for years. She’s uniquely equipped to communicate with accounts abroad, sometimes having to take a call in the middle of the night to account for a 15-hour time difference. Las Mercedes has a social media presence thanks to Lucía, where she posts updates on the harvests as well as plenty of images of Las Mercedes while it's in bloom. And with a deep geographical knowledge of her country and a passion for hosting, she welcomes prospective coffee buyers into her home and escorts them to the farm to show them all of her hard work manifested.
But even with a wealth of qualifications, managing this farm is no small feat. It spans 168 hectares, which is the equivalent of over 400 football fields stitched together into a patchwork quilt. Ensuring quality control at Las Mercedes requires constant vigilance, which Lucía has in spades. It’s a characteristic she shares with her family, who are collectively committed to always leaving the farm better than they found it when it’s time to pass it down to the next generation. Vigilance is what landed Las Mercedes a winning lot in the Cup of Excellence competition in 2006, one hundred and forty years after its founding. Cup of Excellence is a competition that seeks to highlight the best coffee in every country. At the time of their winning, Las Mercedes’ coffee was the highest scoring coffee that had ever come from eastern El Salvador.
It wasn’t long before news of their win wafted up to southern California where Mike Perry, founder of Klatch Coffee, caught wind of it. Mike had instilled in Klatch the importance of knowing the folks whose coffee-cultivating expertise paves a way for his business as a roaster. When he heard of Las Mercedes’ Cup of Excellence win, he booked a trip down to meet the Ortiz family and see about buying some of their coffee. He bid on the winning auction lot and lost to Japan by a single cent, but gained a long-running relationship with Lucía and her family in the process. Over the last 16 years, Las Mercedes’ has become a beloved household name at Klatch and Klatch’s support of the farm has catalyzed immense growth, especially for Lucía.
Within a year of meeting Mike and the folks from Klatch, she had transitioned from being a stay-at-home-mom to running Las Mercedes. Meeting the Perrys inspired her to explore the specialty side of coffee production, so she took class after class, read up on different coffee varieties and roast profiles, and earned a cupping certification from the Specialty Coffee Association of America. In her first year, she ramped up production to 37 micro-lots of coffee, which astounded her father-in-law. For years, he operated Las Mercedes very efficiently by keeping track of just a handful of varieties and much fewer lots. Certain coffees require certain specifications to thrive. Some prefer higher altitudes, some like a shadier spot; each species is unique in its preferred growing conditions. He couldn’t fathom why Lucía would go to the trouble to cultivate over three dozen different micro-lots, when, to him, all coffee tasted the same.
Las Mercedes certainly had the space to handle a couple experimental lots here and there while still growing enough coffee to fill each of their clients’ orders. Not to mention, Klatch has always encouraged Lucía to take risks with her coffee, to dive headlong into cultivating a new-to-her variety or experiment with a processing method she hadn’t applied to her coffees yet. No matter how the coffees turn out, Klatch will still pay the same amount for her coffees, which gives Lucía the security she needs to get creative with her coffees.
This type of monetary support isn’t uncommon in close-knit direct-trade relationships, especially ones like the Perry and Ortiz families have. Years ago, their relationship surpassed the business-only threshold. Mike’s daughter Heather, who is currently Klatch’s CEO, developed a sisterly relationship with Lucía over years of working with her. Las Mercedes is like a second home to Heather. She and her husband got engaged on this farm, and Lucía traveled up to California for the wedding. Las Mercedes was the first and truest direct-trade relationship Klatch had developed. It opened doors for countless other relationships to form in the future, but there’s something undoubtedly special and nostalgic about the first one.
This money is used to address specific community needs, like funding sports programs for kids in hopes of keeping them out of gangs, which can seem like a viable economic option to a young adult facing a future of poverty. El Salvador’s civil war ended 30 years ago, but left disparaging inequalities and an uptick in gang violence in its wake. Las Mercedes lies on the east side of the country, which was hit harder by the effects of the war. It’s still patrolled by gangs daily. Gang violence may be something Lucia’s community may not be free of in the near future, but she can still provide options for children in her community, like a soccer program, that may divert their paths away from gang membership.
Each year that Klatch grows, the premium they give to Las Mercedes grows in turn. The more coffee they buy from Lucía, the higher the premium piles up, allotting more money for bigger solutions. Premium money jump started construction of a clinic on the farm, where Las Mercedes employees receive all of their healthcare. El Salvador is not known for its encompassing healthcare system, and in a community like Cerro El Tigre, the closest hospital is an hour away. Initial funding for the clinic buildout wasn’t enough to sustain it for the coming years, so Lucía funnels profits from harvests to cover the clinic’s costs. All workers at Las Mercedes as well as their families receive their wellness check-ups, medications, and, within the last year, their COVID vaccines. This all happens at the farm where a nurse is stationed full-time and a doctor visits weekly. It’s imperative to Lucía that her employees' health is cared for. Without them, there would be no Las Mercedes.
Like most coffee producers, Lucía wears many hats. She works many jobs in just one day to ensure that Las Mercedes keeps running at a steady clip––manager, negotiator, instructor, diplomat. But really, she spends her days providing for others. To her family, she provides a legacy of excellence that will pass down to the fifth generation of the Ortiz family. To her employees, she provides healthcare, protection and stability in a country that fails to provide its people with such life-sustaining infrastructures. And to all the coffee lovers in the world, she provides a common ground between strangers, a cup of complex flavors to a discerning palate, and the start to a good day.