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Nicholas Gonzales, owner and founder of Estas Manos coffee
Gio Herrera

Popular SF Pop-Up Estas Manos Embraces the Pandemic-Era Van Life

When its SoMa kiosk closed down, Estas Manos hit the road

Pop-up Estas Manos Coffee Roasters, well-known to SoMa office workers, is a San Francisco coffee company on the rise. Yes, even in 2020.

Estas Manos founder Nicholas Gonzales, a former civil rights and humanitarian law student, says that since he founded the company in 2018, he’s taken an enormous amount of time to develop unique flavors that have earned him a devoted following, like his Colombian Finca El Oasis

Meanwhile, he was expanding partnerships and building the company’s overall brand. All that work finally paid off in 2019, when he was admitted to Off the Grid’s Fort Mason and Salesforce Tower pop-ups, giving him a boost in visibility that led to wholesale contracts with cafes and offices across the city.

“Having that consistent flow of coffee is when we went from a brand doing events around the city to [being] a player in the roasting game,” Gonzales says. Prior to the pandemic, he was “roasting every single week” at Berkeley’s Co-Ro, a collaborative coffee roasting facility that’s also used by local high-profile coffee brands like Nomadic, 319, and Bellwether.

But according to Gonzales, it wasn’t long after San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order first went into effect that his spots at both Off The Grid locations shut down, as did most of his wholesale contracts with cafes and offices.

Gonzales outside his Presidio pop up prior to the pandemic
Gio Herrera

Gonzales applied for, and received, a small PPP loan but has not been accepted for any additional relief funding. “Support from the state and federal government has been disappointing at best,” Gonzales says. Instead, he launched an online store and began selling beans from there, where revenue is about 20 percent of what he was making before the pandemic began.

And then there’s the van.

“The van was donated to the company by a family friend,” Gonzales says. “They have a used car dealership in New Mexico.” When that friend heard “that we were blowing up here in the Bay Area and needed to transport for operations,” the benefactor sent it their way. The vehicle began as a transit van, but once the shelter-in-place kicked in, Gonzales transformed it into a mobile food facility. It has been so popular that it’s become its own business, both as a pop-up coffee shop and as a catering vehicle for occasions like weddings and other events, albeit with all the now-expected rules regarding gathering size and social distancing.

The Estas Manos van, brought into the company and Gonzales’ life from a friend’s dealership in New Mexico, has pivoted from a utility vehicle to a mobile coffee truck during the pandemic.
Leandra Gamboa

“We’ll see what happens with that,” Gonzales says. “I put in the plumbing, electrical, everything myself. It’s come together, somehow.”

The pandemic isn’t the first time Gonzales’s life has taken an unexpected pivot. When he was 18, Gonzales’s first child was born. He says that young fatherhood set him up for business success, as it “forced me at an early age to put my personal agendas and aspirations in the perspective of my son,” Gonzales says.

Gonzales is no longer with the mother of his now-11-year-old child, whom he travels to Phoenix to see. His hope is that Estas Manos will become a part of his son’s life when he’s older.

“He’s a big driving factor in my life,” Gonzales says. “He’s without a doubt why I’m at where I’m at, and how I’ve accomplished what I’ve accomplished. My everything.”

Spurred on by the ongoing national conversations about social and racial equity, Gonzalez feels his focus and goals for the future have only gotten clearer. As someone with both Hispanic and white ancestry, he’s exploring ways to bring his cultural and ethnic identity into his work and the ways he advocates for communities that have been systematically oppressed. “I definitely identify as a person of color,” he says. That identification helped drive him to participate in several Bay Area demonstrations, and has solidified his drive to find ways to make coffee more equitable, one step at a time.

“More than just handing [out] a paycheck,” Gonzales says, “I am able to ensure growth for farmers” by thoughtfully buying beans from farmers who are cultivating shade grown, small lot coffee. This direct purchasing avoids big company supply chains and creates more opportunities for these farmers, Gonzales says.

That concentration on equity also applies to his overall view of the coffee production landscape. Gonzales says that he sees the future of coffee continuing to stratify in an unsustainable way – mass-produced tubs of beans on one end and inaccessible, specialty coffee on the other.

“I think there will always be this divide,” Gonzales says. “There will be consumers who don’t value the ethics behind where their food is sourced,” calling them “Starbucks or 7-11 coffee consumers.” But Gonzales says that “there’ll always be consumers who do care. We can continue to encourage folks to pay attention to where their coffee comes from. And it does make a difference for how much the farmers are getting paid.”

He says the big companies will tell small businesses they can’t succeed because they can’t sustain the bottom line that comes with more equitable practices, but he’s ready to debunk that. “It’s all we, as roasters, can do to prove that [the current] system is unsustainable,” Gonzales says.

“My focus is on the farmers,” Gonzales says. “I’ve made sure to consider how each decision is going to affect farmers’ ability to grow. Establishing real relationships with farmers was an important step.”

Eventually, Gonzales would love to launch a nonprofit arm for Estas Manos, one that will work on site in countries like Mexico and Nicaragua, where the brand’s beans originate. “Making that physical change at the farm level needs to happen sooner,” Gonzales says. “The goal of the nonprofit would be to work side by side with Estas Manos to invest in people’s lives.”

But for now, Gonzales has more modest ambitions, like a permanent, brick-and-mortar space. “Weeks before the shelter in place, we had been in talks to sign a lease,” he says. “I’m glad we didn’t do that. But that’s always been a goal, to serve out of a physical space.”

Next up, he’d like to work with more farmers and spend time on the ground, making a physical difference and building an operation that runs from crop to cup. An effort like that is “how we believe farmers are going to be able to shine,” Gonzales says. “We want to provide them the resources to let them do that.”

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