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How a Marine Corps veteran discovered his passion for coffee roasting

Specialty coffee roaster and military veteran Luis Arteaga never thought he would own a coffee shop, let alone roast his own beans. Before taking over Calusa Coffee Roasters—a small-batch, specialty coffee roaster and coffee shop in Oakland Park, Florida—Arteaga served in the Marine Corps for six years. While searching for work after returning home, Arteaga happened to stumble across Calusa. 

“I thought that I was going to take the typical package that you get from getting out of the Marine Corps. You get out of the Marine Corps, you do your 214, and you go into law enforcement. But that wasn’t the case. I came in [to Calusa] out of sheer coincidence because I needed coffee,” he said. Having grown up with parents and siblings in private law enforcement, Arteaga always believed he was destined for the same path. When he first discovered Calusa, the only thing he knew about coffee was that he liked it drenched with sugar and milk, but he didn’t know the first thing about the craft behind coffee roasting. 

Coffee roasting is a science in and of itself, involving the transformation of the chemical and physical properties of green coffee beans into roasted coffee products. Typically, unroasted coffee beans are made up of either the same or slightly higher levels of acids, proteins, and caffeine as roasted coffee beans, but the biggest difference is the taste. Through the roasting process, a chemical reaction occurs that causes the green coffee bean to change in taste, which produces the characteristic coffee flavor. 

Applying this unique science, Calusa distributes its roasted coffee products through two primary channels: retail and wholesale. It serves consumers directly at its brick-and-mortar location and also provides wholesale 100% arabica coffees to local restaurants, cafés, and catering companies. 

Calusa’s founder, coffee roaster Steven Hodel, was seeing great success on both sides of the business. But he also found himself overloaded managing the café portion of the business and dealing with roasting, so he took Arteaga under his wing, letting him manage the café portion of the business as a barista. 

Arteaga soon fell in love with the coffee industry, admiring its craft and especially the opportunity to get to know his community and help fellow small business owners. We sat down with Arteaga to talk about how he took over Calusa and found his purpose in the coffee business after life in the Marine Corps.

Photo of Calusa Coffee Roasters from Patrick M. on Yelp

After you left the Marine Corps, how did you discover Calusa?

When I got out, I was doing a bunch of odd jobs here and there. At one point, I was helping my girlfriend with her business, which is making body scrubs. At the time, coffee scrubs were really popular, so I was going around trying to find a good source for coffee. I happened to find the shop because it was across from me, and I came in looking for coffee.

I overheard another couple speaking with Steve, the founder of Calusa, asking him when he was going to get some help for the café because he was starting to get more and more popular. Roasting and running the coffee shop… you really can’t do both. Overhearing this, I waited until they left and told Steve I was in between jobs, and I could help him run the coffee shop. 

So I came in one day, and he showed me how to do the coffee, and then I started watching him roast. About three months into it, he told me that he was going to France for his family vacation. I had the option of either closing down the shop or running the shop—by myself. It didn’t make sense to close down just because he wasn’t going to be here. I was more than capable of running the coffee shop. What I wasn’t capable of, at the time, was roasting. So I told him to roast as much coffee as he thought we would go through within those two weeks, and then I would run the shop. 

Now you’re an expert in both managing Calusa and coffee roasting. How did you learn to roast?

That first week, we completely ran out of coffee. I had taken some notes periodically while [Steve] was roasting. So I knew, more or less, the functions of the roaster. I called him on FaceTime, and I told him what was going on. I said, “I know more or less what I have to do. I just don’t know the recipes.” So he said, “All right. Clean the machine, start it up how I’ve done it, and then call me back, and I’ll show you how to roast one specific coffee that we use almost all the time.”

I called him back when it was ready, and I said, “All right, Steve. Here we go.” So I put the first load into the roaster. I was showing him the graph and the roaster, and we were going back and forth. He was telling me, “At this temperature, do this. At this time, do that.” I  was sitting there writing down notes so that I could make sure that I could do it again.

The first batch was horrible, so everything was a complete waste. So we dumped another one in. That one came out a little bit better but still bad. The third one, I told him, “You’re making me nervous. I can’t talk to you.” I hung up on him. I went through the notes. I went through the charts to see what I did wrong. I did a third one by myself. I graphed it. I screenshotted it, and I sent it to Steve. He calls me back and says, “That looks really good. Keep doing what you’re doing with that one until I get back.”

The next day I cupped it, and the coffee was really good, surprisingly. I also cupped the first two. They were God awful. Those ones went straight into the trash. I continued to do that one roast, and everything went well. Everyone loved the coffee. When Steve came back, I told him, “You have to show me how to roast something else.” Slowly but surely, I was learning how to roast. That was only six months into me starting here as a barista. 

Photo of the Diedrich coffee roasting machine from Randix J. on Yelp

How has working behind the scenes of the coffee business influenced your own tastes and preferences as a consumer?

Every coffee roasts differently depending on altitude, the bean size. You have to develop your own profile to see what you’re trying to get out of that specific coffee bean in terms of flavor. 

Before, I could never just drink black coffee. I always had to put sugar and milk. If not, it wasn’t coffee. Now, just a regular espresso that’s done right at a medium-type roast is what I prefer versus all the sugars, cinnamons, and milks. That’s something that really surprised me—how many more flavor profiles you can pick out of a medium type of roast than a dark-roast coffee. 

Our best seller is actually Brazil Cerrado. It’s a really good coffee to introduce to coffee drinkers who are used to coladas, the Cuban coffees that are loaded with sugar and milk, or café con leches because Brazil Cerrado has a sweet flavor with dark or milk chocolate chocolates notes. Everyone kind of likes chocolate, and it blends very well with milk. You can drink it black, or you can drink it in a latte, and that just makes it a very versatile coffee. 

When I learned how to roast coffee, I learned everything through Steve. Like everything you do, you develop your own style of roasting, which is what he taught me. Since then I’ve also taken classes. I’ve taken online courses, and I developed my own roasting methods with Steve’s teachings in mind because he made Calusa the way it is now. I just took that and expanded on it. 

What was your experience like rejoining the workforce as a veteran?

I came in here out of sheer coincidence because I needed coffee. Fast forward a year later after starting working here, I was given the opportunity to own a coffee shop, and not only a coffee shop… a coffee roaster, which was another thing that I never thought I would do. 

I didn’t even know how to roast coffee. I didn’t know that you roasted coffee. I literally went from knowing only how to drink coffee to knowing how to roast and brew and run a whole coffee company. 

My family’s all private law enforcement. My father, in Peru, was law enforcement. My sister, she’s actually a firefighter right here in Broward County. My stepfather, he’s a sheriff in Broward County as well. I’ve always been surrounded by the law enforcement personnel, so every so often I get that bug that says, “Why don’t we try again?” But I’m really, really happy in doing what I do. It’s a different way to provide for the community and provide for the people. It’s just a little bit safer. 

How did you end up becoming the full-time owner of Calusa?

At around the 10- or 11-month mark, I asked Steve to help me open up another coffee shop—a Calusa café. Just the café, not the roaster portion. I wanted to do that because I really enjoy this whole coffee experience, meeting new people, and the culture. 

When I brought that up to him, he countered it with, “I’ll sell you the whole company if you’re willing to do that, and then you can either stay here or take it wherever you’re looking to do so.” So after a brief discussion with my girlfriend Maria, we accepted it. That was about two years ago now, and that’s really the story of how I started from being just a barista, to roasting trial by trial, to owning it. Since then we’ve grown the coffee shop a little bit more into a café, and we’re still focusing on the wholesale portion too. 

How has the wholesale side of the business been important for you during the pandemic?

When the first signs of the pandemic hit and we were going to have to potentially close, the initial reaction was panic and stress. Since we are a wholesaler and provide a service to other small businesses to continue to run, we maintained the wholesale portion of the company, even though it still took a drastic downfall. We went to roasting 25-30% of what we were roasting pre-pandemic. 

So we had to find a way to make the café side of the company make up for what we were losing. We turned our parking lot into a pseudo drive-through. People would drive up, and we would walk out and take their order from their car window, come back in here, make their coffee, run back outside, and get them their coffee. So we are able to still provide coffee to our community and help out our wholesale side as well. 

Now that we’re starting to open again, we’re just trying to play catch up, pausing all the projects that we were trying to get going since the beginning of the year. We’re just really working with our restaurants, trying to get them back to where they were prior to the pandemic. A lot of them had to close completely because they weren’t able to afford their rent. By not being able to do that, they had to shut down their restaurants completely. So we’re working with them to get back up and running. 

As a wholesaler, how are you able to help your fellow community of small business owners?

A couple of them I’m not charging right now. We’re giving them coffee just to get them back up and running. We’re basically donating the coffee to get them back and going. Once everything gets back to somewhat normal, we’ll start talking about charging for coffee again. 

By not having to pay for the coffee now, whatever money you’re making from the sale of that, you can put back into your business and either afford to hire your employees back or just put back together a good inventory. You can start going back to selling your products and eventually get back to a somewhat normal financial state. 

We have the ability because we buy the coffee in quantities. I have the ability right now because we were able to make it through the hardest time of this pandemic. The people who say, “Hey, I need a little bit of help here and there,” I can say, “Well here’s this month. I’ll give you the coffee, you don’t have to pay for it, and you get back on your feet. Once the month is up, then we’ll see where you are and how we can start profiting together.” Because if they don’t profit, I don’t profit. They shut down. In the long run, we’d have to suffer the same fate, and that just doesn’t work for anyone. It’s just all small businesses having to take care of each other.

The information above is provided for educational and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice and may not be suitable for your circumstances. Unless stated otherwise, references to third-party links, services, or products do not constitute endorsement by Yelp.

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