On the seacoast of New Hampshire in a hamlet called Rye, La Mulita, a Colombian specialty coffee shop, has been flourishing. It’s the story of an immigrant named Max Pruna who settled in New Hampshire, and after a series of job changes, opened a 1,000-square-foot coffee bar in September 2019.
Raised in Medellin, Colombia, Pruna and his wife earned master’s degrees at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H. in 1998. Settling there, he and his wife worked in market research for technology companies, before switching into real-estate, but managed to get their green cards and become citizens.
But the success of La Mulita reveals that specialty coffee shops can attract an audience, even in small towns, with a strong product and a niche taste.
Pruna attributes its popularity to the “strong Colombia coffee” served. It offers “high caffeine, is darker and bolder than other coffees, and gives you a smack in the face,” he says.
Honing in on one country’s coffee, which few coffee bars do, provides a competitive edge, he says. But he adds that the hospitality and ambiance contribute to its success.
In 2015 he was invited to a lecture given by George Howell, a legendary figure in the U.S. Specialty Coffee World, which changed the course of Pruna’s life. Howell introduced Finca La Esmeralda, a Colombian coffee, which Pruna found “sweet and fruity, nothing like anything I had ever tasted before.”
Pruna plunged into reading about Colombian coffee, visited coffee farms in his native Colombia, attended coffee festivals, connected with owners, and launched an Instagram account about roasting coffee. He searched for a year for a space to open a coffee shop in trendy Portsmouth, couldn’t find one, and when driving his children to middle school in Rye, he passed a “for lease” sign and rented it.
He named it La Mulita, which means little mule in Spanish. Pruna noted that “The mule has always been used by the coffee farmers in Colombia to help transport the heavy burlap bags filled with coffee cherries from the high elevated mountains down to the mills or towns.”
Almost all of the Arabica coffee served in La Mulita is sourced from local, small Colombian farms of two to five acres.
In Rye, a town of about 5,400 residents and nearby New Castle, it attracts a loyal crowd. “Our regular customers are folks that love to make connections and relate to others; they are coffee lovers who want a daily quality cup of coffee,” he explains.
It partners with a bevy of local companies such as sourdough bagels from Rose Foods in Portland, gluten-free donuts from Love Birds in Kittery, and scones from Kate’s Bakery in Kittery.
It was forced to close in March of 2020 when the pandemic escalated. “We had to pivot our business to pick-up and delivery of coffee bags,” he says. But as people stayed home, “they craved a good cup of coffee,” and business began to bounce back.
During the height of Covid, it relied on 100% delivery and shipping coffee wholesale to restaurants. “Once we reopened, people started feeling comfortable coming out again,” he asserts.
To augment revenue, it sells a line of merchandise including La Mulita sweatshirts, shirts, beanies, huts and mugs. Its website also sells coffee beans that can be shipped.
Its revenue derives 70% from retail and 30% from wholesale and online orders including the merchandise.
All of its beans are roasted in-house. It thrives with a staff of two time-baristas, Stuart Young and Heather Buchanan, and seats about 10 people inside and has a patio where 15 customers can seat in the warmer months.
Its hours are quite abbreviated, opening at 7:30 a.m. and closing at 1:30 p.m. Why? “Our space is really small and we don’t have enough space in the kitchen to fit a prep sink or equipment to expand the menu to include lunch and late snacks. So, we focus on coffee and to-go food breakfast options,” Pruna explains.
Many Yelp customers were enthusiastic. One customer from Southern California, visiting his daughter at the University of New Hampshire, wrote that his “Americano was pulled perfectly with hot water to espresso balance with a beautiful layer of crème on top.”
But La Mulina could be expanding its footprint next year. Its landlord is developing a larger commercial site on its current property and is making available to buy a 1,600 square feet spot for the coffee bar and 1,000 square feet for an adjoining roastery.
To finance acquiring the building, Pruna would need to obtain an SBA loan. Then he’d envision a second spot in Medellin, Colombia, and next could be nearby Portsmouth or Miami.
In the future, Pruna envisions boosting his online sales nationwide via ramping up social media and marketing and increasing its wholesale sales in Boston.
How does it survive winters in frosty New Hampshire? “No matter if it’s 90 degrees or 20 degrees below zero, our regular customers come by to see us for good coffee, to get out of their homes and for connecting with others,” he says.
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