Mejía Zamora overcomes coffee industry barriers to grow successful cafe business
Photos and Story by James Hill
The fair trade coffee industry isn’t always fair to small farmers like Hector Mejía Zamora and his family.
The owner of Café Zamora in Southeast Portland has made coffee growing and roasting his life. He grew up working on a small Guatemalan farm — owned by his late father — where he harvested beans and sold them to suppliers. He knows first hand how hard it is for smaller farms like theirs to break into a coffee market, which can result in them being stuck in a cycle of poverty.
Following in the footsteps of his mother and other members of his family who immigrated to the United States for a better life, Mejía Zamora was asked by his family to immigrate as well. The goal was to get an education focused on business and change that cycle by growing the brand. In addition, he could support small coffee farmers and their employees – not only in Guatemala, but throughout the industry.
PCC’s Strategic Plan: Workforce
- The 2020-2025 Strategic Plan prepares the college for the future of higher education. Part of the plan is responding to community and workforce needs by developing a culture of agility. This means growing programs that lead to living wage jobs via industry partnerships and supporting career readiness and resources that include in-program coaching and career-launching support.
To get started on his business path, Mejía Zamora’s oldest brother José recommended that he enroll at Portland Community College after he immigrated to Portland. His brother had studied at a community college when he had moved to the U.S., and enjoyed the wide range of classes and quality of instruction. Mejía Zamora learned from him that a community college is an easy and affordable way for him to transfer to a four-year university.
In 2014, he enrolled at PCC and passed the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) test. This catapulted him into 100-level writing and reading courses, which allowed him to attend business classes with confidence and learn how to create and grow a coffee roasting company.
“It was an interesting experience,” recalled Mejía Zamora, who also learned to not worry about his accent. “It was very diverse, and I got to know people from all over the world. Speaking my mind with no fear of how it sounded to people was very helpful. The college was a door to a new progressive world.”
While at PCC he purchased a bicycle from Goodwill for $15 and fixed it up so he could travel the city and get to his job at a fast food restaurant cooking hamburgers. Nine months later, he transitioned to a job as a washer in an optical lab.
“Soon, I was able to buy a car and started driving for Lyft,” he said. “I met a wonderful lady who, after hearing my story about my dream of distributing my coffee in the U.S., helped me to get in touch with a local roaster who later introduced me to a Guatemalan roaster.”
He used his business training at PCC to make a deal with that Guatemalan roaster to sell green beans from his family farm and eventually to others. This experience eventually led Mejía Zamora to find an opportunity to open a store in Southeast Portland where he could sell his roasted beans, and coffee, locally.
“I then met another passenger, who after hearing my desire of opening a coffee shop, told me that there used to be a coffee shop at a building he owns, and if I was interested in checking it out,” said Mejía Zamora, jumping at the opportunity.
“We went to the building that same day instead of going to his house to drop him off. And while being there I realized that there also was the equipment to open a cafe,” he added.
On May 15, 2019, Cafe Zamora was born. Mejía Zamora is now building the business to accomplish his father’s dream of selling high-quality coffee directly to the final consumer and assisting his fellow small farmers. He credits PCC for opening that door to opportunity to achieve his dream of building his family’s coffee business.
“After a year on business, and while dealing with a pandemic, the foundation of my business is getting stronger,” said Mejía Zamora, who had to shutter his cafe for 40 days due to COVID-19 in March 2020. “Many challenges have come already, and surely, many more will come. The growth has been significant, and the purpose and the vision of what the coffee we serve can be for, has turned out to be more than what I originally imagined.”