With its second United States coffee shop opening this week, Panama-based coffee company Cafe Unido has realized a vision to unite high-quality Panamanian coffee with equally high-quality food and other beverages.
Following the more coffee-centric stall the company opened in 2019 inside the Latin American marketplace La Cosecha in Washington D.C., the new cafe in the Shaw neighborhood is the company’s first full brick-and-mortar spot with a full kitchen in the U.S.
“We wanted to keep the food relevant to our coffee offering,” Cafe Unido Co-Founder Benito Bermudez told Daily Coffee News. “We’re trying in this location to match all the work that producers are doing in Panama with processing and taking care of their crop, and then the roasting, and having our food offering match that level in a way just like our wine offering. We’re buying a lot of organic soil wines that match our coffee offerings from Panama, as well.”
Founded in Panama in 2014 by Bermudez and business partner/chef Mario Castrellón, Cafe Unido runs 10 locations in Panama, plus the beautifully designed stall at La Cosecha.
Roasting in the U.S. occurs on a 15-kilo Loring roaster in a 5,500-square-foot warehouse shared with gelato company Dolcezza. In Panama the company roasts on a 15-kilo Giesen roaster in Panama City and a 10-kilo machine in Boquete.
“When we opened our first shop in Panama in 2014, a lot of people in Panama were not used to drinking specialty coffee,” said Bermudez. “Most of our specialty lots are exported to Asia or other parts of the world, so when we first opened our doors, there was a lot of education, different brewing methods and all that. I feel we’re replicating that same thing here in D.C. Panama produces amazing coffee, but we’re still a pretty small producing country, so a lot of people don’t know about it.”
A “coffee omakase” program debuting at Shaw this week consists of a 45-minute tasting menu that includes a flight of coffees, bites and coffee cocktails. The regular menu includes a mixture of plates for sharing, light bites and other dishes showcasing flavors, ingredients and traditions from Panama.
Breakfast options include zapallo (sweet squash) pancakes with butternut syrup, and eggs benedict with sofrito hollandaise and yucca patties. Lunch and dinner fare include empanadas and hojaldres (flatbreads). Burgers are treated to a coffee rub and topped with cascara ketchup. Chicharrones are slow-braised in cascara and coffee before being crisped to order.
“We incorporate a lot of coffee into our food menu, not only just pairing it but actually using coffee as ingredients,” said Bermudez. “Mario has been getting into it quite a bit lately, like using fresh cherry which you can only get once a year.”
At the 500-square-foot stall in La Cosecha, curvy overhead shelving and a retail display island incorporate natural wood, red brick and festive terrazzo stone surfaces. Under woven rattan pendant lighting, a Fetco batch brewer, a Modbar pourover system and a Slayer Steam LP espresso machine set the stage for celebration of Panamanian coffees.
In Shaw, the company similarly interweaves stone, tile and natural wood elements with a more subdued palette of cream and earth tones throughout a 1,980-square-foot space. Woven rattan panels divide the seating areas.
On the bar, a pair of Marco SP9 brewers speed up the single-cup production for the higher-volume setting alongside a Marco Jet batch brewer and a Slayer Steam LP.
“We do have a couple elements that are the same, like the rattan structures, which are very Panamanian,” Bermudez said of the interiors, which were designed in collaboration with Meghan Dorrien of Young America Creative. “In both locations we tried to keep it clean so the coffee star of the show — a little bit Latin American inspired without it being overly ethnic. At the new location, we wanted to create a space that was comfortable to hang out even after hours… Even if it’s really cold out there, you want to have that Panama vibe.”
Green coffee sourcing for the Panama-based company is practically a matter of visiting neighbors. Bermudez said the company brings staff both D.C. and Panama to witness harvesting and participate in sourcing.
“It’s one of the perks of being Panamanian,” said Bermudez. “Every lot we pick is directly sourced in Panama, most likely tasted and cupped by myself… It’s more than just direct trade. It’s like friendship and family. We go up to a farm, cup all morning, pick some lots, and then we have a handshake and a beer later on.”
In addition to further developing culinary and coffee operations at the new Shaw Cafe, Cafe Unido is currently developing a ready-to-drink (RTD) product expected to launch next year.
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Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.