Brewing connection in Dayton, Kentucky

Growing up in her native Honduras, Alejandra Flores, the owner of Unataza Coffee in Dayton, Ky., developed a passion for coffee. Although she grew up in urban surroundings in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital, with a father who was a civil engineer, developing a passion for joe was as natural as a native Texan becoming a football fan. Coffee’s status as a Honduran economic, social, and cultural staple is as indelible as the rings filled mugs leave on hardwood tables.

“If you have land in Honduras, you grow coffee,” Alejandra said. “My grandfather, who had retired from the Honduras military, had farmland in a rural area, where he grew coffee. It’s such a central part of Honduran life. I started drinking coffee when I was five, which is considered normal there.”

She earned a degree in finance from National University of Honduras, and eventually moved with her now-former husband from Tegucigalpa to San Antonio in 2010. Alejandra embarked on a career in mortgage and financial services, which she continued following a move to Cincinnati in 2016. Alejandra spent three years working for Vantiv and Western & Southern Financial Group, but she maintained her passion for coffee. She returned home annually to visit her family, and often brought friends and enthusiastically introduced them to Honduran coffee, food, and culture.

As with wine, terroir and climate play a significant role in honing a coffee bean’s flavor profile.

“Coffee in Central America has a faint sweetness, with notes of chocolate and almonds, which reflects the regular rainfall and higher altitude,” she said. “People have become a lot more passionate about the coffee they drink. It’s not just something they drink for an energy boost. They’re looking for flavor and an experience.”

In 2019, Alejandra decided to follow her bliss and opened Unataza Coffee on Sixth Avenue on Dayton’s main drag. The small riverfront town of approximately 5,600 residents seems an apropos place for an upstart coffee shop. Bellevue, its neighbor and longtime rival burg to its immediate west, has been transformed through the proliferation of charming shops and restaurants along Fairfield Avenue. Development has emerged a bit more slowly in Dayton, but the signs of economic growth are palpable, and a unique coffeehouse with a vibrant international flair provides a fitting catalyst for revitalization.

Like every other enterprise, Unataza endured the challenge of COVID-19’s shutdown. However, Alejandra said the shop withstood the pandemic relatively well because its former location had an alley with enough space to facilitate outside service. Also, Dayton’s close-knit character spurred residents to walk through their community and support its local businesses.

“The support of the community was very touching,” she said. “We had one individual leave our staff a $100 tip. It was a stressful time, and we couldn’t have made it without the support of our very loyal customers.”

This antique coffee grinder on display at Unataza reflects the shop's handsome decor and devotion to quality coffee.
In fall 2022, Alejandra moved into its current location, which offers more square footage. Its vibrant yellow exterior stands out amid Dayton’s relatively understated downtown. Inside, its décor charmingly combines the local and the global, and the rustic and the contemporary. An antique coffee grinder adorns a wall-mounted showcase, and an artistically rendered photograph captures a barren Northern Kentucky winterscape. The photo was taken and stylized by a Venezuelan immigrant who now lives in Newport; the immigrant’s family, which is spread across the U.S. and Europe, provides Unataza’s artwork.

In addition to the traditional coffeehouse beverage and food choices (yes, avocado toast is available), Alejandra offers a bill of fare with a distinctive Latin flavor. Horchata, a concoction made from rice milk, toasted marro, pepitas and cinnamon, is a deliciously refreshing drink, chimichurri-seasoned plantains provide a delicious snack, and taquitos and balleada con todo (a flour tortilla filled with refritos, eggs, sour cream, queso fresco and cilantro) are writer-approved, bona fide palate pleasers.

Alejandra maintains strong roots with her homeland. Unataza offers high-quality joe from Honduran suppliers, and she prioritizes roasters who treat their workers well.
“In a lot of the villages where coffee plantations exist, 70 to 80% of the people who live there will be working on the plantation,” she said. “An ethical supplier will make sure the kids are able to attend school, families dealing with illness are able to care for loved ones, and that plantation doesn’t harm its employees.

Alejandra has visited and inspected the suppliers to verify that they meet fair-trade standards. However, small coffee suppliers such as Kata, her primary vendor, find it financially prohibitive to pursue formal Fair Trade certification.

“For a small business, paying $20,000 to earn a [fair-trade certification] label isn’t a good use of resources,” Alejandra said. “It’s a better investment to provide onsite schools for workers’ children and ensure a safe, supportive work environment.”

Unlike coffee production in more populous countries, most Honduran plantations are small operations with an emphasis on quality rather than quantity. As such, a pound of green coffee beans from Honduras costs $3.85 per pound, whereas mass-produced Brazilian beans typically cost around $0.80 per pound, But, Alejandra notes that you can taste the difference (my palate agrees).

She further demonstrates her dedication to her native nation through ongoing charitable collections of schools and art supplies for the children of workers at Kata and other Honduran coffee farms. The program, which is called Taller de Arte para Niños (Art Workshop for Children), provides a safe place where volunteer teachers provide art education for six-to-10-year olds. These facilities are located in seven different parts of Honduras, but all of the centers are strategically located close to coffee farms. Alejandra asks patrons to bring notebooks, coloring books, pencils, and other basic supplies.

She complements her coffee and Honduran cuisine with foods made by local providers, such as breads and pastries from Baudry French Pastries in Lockland and Laura’s Healthy Delights in Montgomery plus gluten-free doughnuts from Charnee's, a Northern Kentucky-based commercial bakery. Unataza has built a loyal community following, so Alejandra has grown her team to a full-time staff of three employees and is appreciative that their hard work has allowed her more time to focus on growing the business.

After her four-year stint as an entrepreneur, Alejandra reflects that her challenges those many small business owners face: balancing the needs of the shop with those of her 11-month-old son, Aldo, allocating time and funds to invest in marketing, and navigating the byzantine procedures and regulations for SBA loans and other small-business funding sources.

Going forward, she hopes to resume annual trips with Unataza customers and patrons, and to host Spanish language lessons, salsa dancing and other opportunities to expose customers to Honduran culture. She also plans to increase engagement with Covington’s Esperanza Latino Center, a BLOC Ministries-affiliated organization that provides a broad range of services for Northern Kentucky’s rapidly growing Latino community.

Alejandra describes Unataza’s mission as “connecting two homes, one cup at a time.” She’s fulfilling that directive admirably. It bears noting that small businesses such as hers connect many homes, serving as touchstones for sustenance, inspiration, and connection.

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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.