A 22-year-old Anchorage entrepreneur is bringing the flavors of Mexico to the city’s crowded coffee scene at an East Anchorage strip mall.
Estrella Elizabeth Rodriguez-Northcutt opened Cafecito Bonito just a month ago, and is finding success serving a variety of beverages — from cappuccinos to Horchata lattes, cafe de olla, and Agua de Jamaica, a hibiscus tea. Rodriguez-Northcutt says she’s already converted a few customers who used to order black coffee.
“It throws me off too because some customers I’ve had for a long time and they’ve always gotten the same thing. And now that they have different drinks — like this is a game-changer,” she said.
Rodriguez-Northcutt’s mother came to her grand opening, lugging a suitcase filled with dried hibiscus, cinnamon sticks, and piloncillo, an unprocessed cane sugar used in cafe de olla.
Rodriguez-Northcutt grew up between Yuma, in Southern Arizona and Sonora, in Northern Mexico in a tight-knit Mexican American family. She brought the aesthetic of her youth to her cafe, decorating the walls with terracotta tiles imported from Mexico, draping colorful textiles on tables, and setting trinkets from her childhood along the shelves.
She moved to Anchorage to study agronomy at UAA on a whim and worked at cafes and bars throughout her academic career. Coffee has been part of Rodriguez-Northcutt’s life since she was a teenager.
“I got my first barista job when I was 15. It was the only shop in Yuma,” she said. That led her to get a job a few years ago at Uncle Leroy’s Coffee, an Anchorage shop that originated as a coffee cart.
The owners of Leroy’s purchased two storefronts, but during the pandemic, they realized it was too much and decided to sell one. They pestered Rodriguez-Northcutt for most of the year, but she hadn’t given it too much thought after spending the first part of the pandemic caring for her grandmother who contracted COVID.
“It wasn’t until maybe like a month ago, she asked me one more time. She’s like, ‘I have another buyer.’ And I said, ‘OK’” she said.
Rodriguez-Northcutt knows coffee well, and found a knack for making friends and customers feel comfortable at the shop.
“When I can tell they speak Spanish. They won’t directly speak Spanish to me, which is very interesting. But as soon as I speak Spanish back, it’s like this sigh of relief. And they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you understand me?’” she said.
East Anchorage is one of the most diverse parts of town. And the strip mall where Rodriguez-Northcutt’s cafe sits is filled with culture from countries all around the world, including the Domincan Republic, the Philippines, Somalia and the Samoan Islands.
While she mainly serves coffee, Rodriguez-Northcutt also offers other drinks, like Red Bull in order to serve her diverse clientele.
“I know this is a coffee shop. But you know you have to – I want to cater to everybody,” she said.
Owning a coffee shop on her own is hard work. Rodriguez-Northcutt is the only employee, though she hopes to be able to hire others. She works six days a week, coming in at 6 a.m. to bake scones in her two small toaster ovens, which fit just four scones at a time.
“We’re a small business. You got to start small in order to go big. It’s definitely crunched,” she said.
While her kitchen is tight, the cafe itself is spacious and well-lit with natural light. There’s a nook with board games in the back corner, her record collection in front, and a wall where customers can post polaroid photos of themselves that she calls the “familia wall.”
And one of the best parts about finally owning her own shop: she can say ‘yes’ to anything she wants. Whether it’s a musical set or a drag show during brunch – she can set up a time.
“It’s like best of both worlds. It’s like working, but also you get to have your friends come visit. Come sit at the bar. It’s like a little family,” she said.