Hot & Cold

July 29, 2010

At first glance you may not think that coffee and Popsicles are a natural pair. But imagine for a moment the taste of sweet buttery caramel mingled with rich dark coffee and suddenly the two seem like old soul mates.

Bongo Java and Las Paletas are connected not only by the complimentary nature of their products, but also through the marriage of their owners and a similar creative passion and devotion to the community that drives their success. For the Popsicles, as much seasonal produce as possible is sourced from local farmers. On the coffee side of things, farmers are paid well above Fair Trade prices and as a consumer, you can feel confident that with each dollar you spend at either business, you are making a positive impact. Over the years this focus on the big picture has created a community of local artists, adults, children and vendors who all play a key role in this vision.

“We have the best customers in the world,” Irma Paz tells me, co-owner of Las Paletas,. “They have totally embraced us from day one.” Irma and her sister Norma started this gourmet Popsicle business almost nine years ago and from the first day their doors opened, they have relied entirely on customer satsifaction for their advertising. A paleta is a traditional Mexican Popsicle made with fresh fruits and vegetables, but over the years these two sisters have added international flair such as wasabi or tamarind, and turned the American version on its head. Kids today have choices like hibiscus or corn or avocado flavored Popsicles instead of the purple ones from my childhood that tasted, well, purple.

“We shouldn’t be eating food that doesn’t taste like what it is,” Irma tells me. “Things should taste like what they are.” Which is why at Las Paletas if you get a lime Popsicle, it will taste exactly like lime. At any given time you can walk into their shop on 12th Avenue South and choose from over 30 different flavors, although they have more than 100. Flavors change daily and range from Cucumber Chili to Strawberry Coconut to Chocolate Banana, with a whole slew of delicious concoctions in between. A smaller selection is also available at Fido, Bongo Java and the West Nashville Farmers Market.

It is a simple business in the sense that, as a customer, the only thing you have to decide is what flavor you’re in the mood for. Although in all honesty, making that decision can be tough given all the tantalizing options. “I think people like simplicity,” Irma says. “I always tell my customers that outside of this door, life is complicated.” Las Paletas is a respite from the seemingly non-stop world around us, a place to allow yourself to enjoy a simple pleasure.

Words hardly do justice to describe the passion that exudes from Irma when she talks about the community that has evolved since Las Paletas opened. She truly loves what she does, loves her customers, her family, the farmers who supply ingredients for the Popsicles. Everyone and everything. “I always tell young people to find out what you’re passionate about and what’s going to work for you. It’s the thing you’re going to wake up to in the morning and want to go pursue and to be creative and to sell. You’re selling a part of yourself, you know. It represents you.”

It’s these same values that propelled Bob Bernstein, owner of the Bongo World businesses and Irma’s husband, to start roasting and selling coffee more than 10 years ago. Inspired by a Habitat For Humanity trip, he and six other people started a coffee importing cooperative that has now grown to include 23 companies across the United States and Canada.

Together, they import from only coffee cooperatives; either a group of people who all own their own land and have banded together to cover the costs of processing, or a group of people who own a common plot of land together. This as opposed to buying from estates which are generally owned by one person who pays people to work the land. There is less job security when you’re working on an estate.

“Part of the point of our organization is to better the lives of farmers and for us, part of that is about ownership,” Tio Pistilli, assistant manager at Bongo Java Roasting Co., explains. In countries with so much chaos, “Whatever kind of security they can give themselves, be it ownership of land or self-organization, we want to encourage.” That is why they have also set a minimum price which is about 45 cents higher than the Fair Trade minimum. On top of that, there is a tracking number on the bottom of every bag of coffee that can be traced back to its cooperative. “The whole goal is to have as much transparency as possible.”

Back home, in an effort to support local artists as well as to find a way to reduce the use of disposable coffee bags, Bongo Java has started canning some of their coffee. Bob comes up with a broad idea and then commissions various artists to design labels for the coffee can. Depending on how many sell, the artist gets a cut of the profits and the customer gets a discount when they refill the can at any of the coffee shop locations. They are also great collectors items as each one is its own work of art.

Sometime between mid-August and mid-September, the latest addition to Bongo World will open next door to Fido. The focus will be primarily on Popsicles and coffee and it will be called, naturally, Hot and Cold. The idea for a place like this has been brewing ever since Bob met Irma a few weeks after Las Paletas opened. Enjoy a cup of coffee or a Popsicle on its own, or put the two together, like a Mexican caramel paleta dipped in a shot of espresso. The whole enterprise can be summed up in a few simple words, according to Irma, “It’s brilliant. He’s brilliant. I’ve inspired him to be brilliant.”

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