When I first saw the “Cof&” sign above the small business on a side street in Sunnyland, it took me a moment to put together what, exactly, was being advertised. It wasn’t until I thought about the Colombian roots of the business that I remembered the “&” is written out as “y” in Spanish-speaking countries, and realized the sign was promising coffee with a Colombian accent.
Cof& owner Oscar Quintero’s mother has lived in Bellingham for the last 25 years, and he’s always made regular trips to visit her. Over the years, he brought his growing family that now includes his wife, Heimy, and their three children. During these visits, they discovered how much they enjoyed the city and the people they met here. Finally, three years ago, Quintero’s family reexamined their annual trips — and their love for Whatcom County.
“I’ve been an electrical engineer in my country for almost 20 years, building electrical systems for companies, Quintero says. “But the pandemic changed the way people look at life, and my family made the decision to do something different. We wanted our kids to have an experience like our experience, we want them to know other kinds of people, other cultures, and speak another language. To meet the whole world, not just our country.”
Part of their plan involved a partnership Quintero had with a friend in the coffee industry, but the coffee business in Colombia is very different from the U.S. Here, a coffeeshop can be a good business model, but in Colombia coffee is such a way of life; rather than finding coffeeshops here and there, every shop everywhere has coffee. Quintero’s partner has a business furnishing shops with coffee machines, so shipping coffee north was an easy expansion.
A New Way of Doing Business
Knowing that people in our part of the U.S. drink more coffee than anywhere else, Quintero moved here with an ace up his sleeve: a direct connection to the best coffee beans in the world. He enjoys the kind of local access to Colombian coffee farms that coffee lovers can only dream of and maintains the kind of personal relationships with coffee growers that large coffee empires can’t manage. As a result, a 50-pound bag of beans arrives at Cof& every three weeks or so that has been fully researched, inspected, and selected by hand, in the place where it was grown.
By offering a quality product to an appreciative public, Quintero has been able to move from that first small shop, opened in late 2021 in Sunnyland, into a much larger location in the heart of downtown Bellingham at 1209 Cornwall — and Quintero has some big ideas to fill his new space.
A Place To Belong
“At first, the idea was as simple as selling coffee. But when you’re an immigrant and time starts to pass, you start to think like a person that is not in your home. You start to think, ‘I miss this thing from my country.’ Or you speak with a person who says, ‘I was in your country, and I found this thing that I Ioved,’” he says. “I wanted to create a place where you can feel Colombia. You feel Colombia when you drink coffee, when you eat something like an arepa, when you speak with a person like me that has a Colombian accent. The idea started as a product, but now we feel we can give a Colombian experience.”
One part of Quintero’s plan is to make a space that will allow Colombians, and others from South America and the Caribbean, to feel like they’ve found a piece of home in a foreign land. But he also wants to help those born and raised in Bellingham step into new worlds, as well as welcome people from other cultures into the conversation.
One of Quintero’s first steps was welcoming artists and their art into the shop. “When you first immigrate to a place, you feel like you are the only one,” says Quintero. “And then you realize there are people from all around the world here; we want to share this place with different cultures.”
Quintero met Deanna Lane, who represents Native artists through Native Arts 360, yet another different kind of community. With a goal of more than just selling art, Cof& hopes to show Bellingham other communities that are here. “One month it was Native artists, and the next month it can be Latin artists,” he says. “That’s the idea.”
In addition to filling the large stretches of open walls with visual art, Quintero also plans to take advantage of the large stage that stands at the back end of his shop.
“I’m looking for musicians at the moment. It’s not easy, because there is not too much Latin music here. For our grand opening we had a Latin group, but I needed to go to Seattle to find them,” he says. “But my idea is not to go to Seattle and bring strangers to Bellingham; my plan is that artists are from here, from Bellingham.” He’s already begun to work with Antonio from Café Rumba to hold Salsa dancing classes to Cof& every Tuesday evening.
Plans for the Future
Next on Quintero’s list is to open the kitchen at his new location. He was initially excited to start serving foods he grew up with in Colombia, but plans have changed a little.
After meeting a man from Republica Dominicana, Quintero realized that all Caribbean countries have similar foods. “I’m not an expert, but for me Caribbean is all the countries that have that tropical kind of weather, that kind of people, and that kind of food that grew up in those waters, so I changed my mind. We’re not going to have Colombian cuisine, because that’s too specific; we’re planning to have a more general experience, the most famous kinds of food.”
A liquor license is also in the works, and Quintero looks forward to introducing a line of cocktails that are centered around the coffee that’s so central to the Colombian lifestyle. In addition to the daytime coffeeshop, he looks forward to Cof& being a destination for people who want to blend dining, drinks, dancing, and good conversation. A place where adults can spend an evening out that is also friendly for families. And above, a venue for multicultural gatherings and the sharing of ideas across borders.
Oscar Quintero invites artists, musicians, and craftspeople of all kinds to contact him through his Instagram page to suggest ways they can help transform the coffeeshop and transport its customers.
1209 Cornwall in downtown Bellingham