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ET Rivera: No politics in coffee and pastries

ET Rivera, owner of Tres Leches, stands in front of a mural he painted in his coffee shop. (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)

ET Rivera, owner of Tres Leches, stands in front of a mural in his coffee shop. (Photo by Dillon Rosenblatt/Arizona Capitol Times)

Within a mile radius from the Arizona Capitol there is just one cafe that politicos and other capitol dwellers frequent and it is commonly referred to as “the Mexican Starbucks.”

Tres Leches Cafe might seem relatively unknown to those not able to walk over to its location on 17th Avenue and Van Buren Street, but according to the owner, ET Rivera, business is booming. It began as a coffee cart at Rivera’s home in 2015 and has been in three locations since, and Rivera says his business has doubled every year – something he expects to continue next year.

Rivera says he might own the largest cafe in the Valley now in terms of square footage, and they still reach full capacity on the weekends and it’s packed at night.

What started as just Mexican dessert coffees – and other drinks – has escalated into a 16-tray bakery where they now sell more pastries than coffee.

It’s 2,500 square feet full of photogenic art wall-to-wall all created by Rivera himself. On a recent Wednesday afternoon the cafe was half-filled, employees were decorating the place with Halloween decor (which will be the third-year anniversary of its first brick-and-mortar location) and Rivera sits at a table twirling his mustache reminiscing on how his coffee dream began not too long ago.

Why coffee?

I was a big coffee snob when I first started. I spent a lot of money on coffee chains. I was spending like $300 to $400 a month at Dutch Bros and was like “Jesus Christ. Man, I gotta figure out how to make coffee at home because that’s a lot of money.” My sister then bought me a K-Cup machine for Christmas and I wanted to figure out how to make a perfect caramel latte. How many shots of espresso for a 16 ounce cup, how much caramel, how much milk and once I knew that I was able to start creating other flavors. Now, we still serve the same drinks we started with when I was making them at the house. So then I thought if I was spending 300 to 400 bucks on coffee a month I can’t be the only one. There’s those who go to the same place every day. People every other day, twice a week, once a week and once a month. So if I add up all those numbers I knew that people like me are going to be able to sufficiently fund another coffee business.

When I created my menu it was to be able to grab people away from Starbucks and Dutch Bros because if I was serving the same thing they were or something similar, I would have to do something so special to have them come my way. Dutch Bros’ big success is customer service if that wasn’t there it wouldn’t be so successful. Starbucks is Starbucks – they will always be successful. When Starbucks opened near the last location we didn’t see any drop in business. We kept growing. I’m not their competition. We have a different customer base … Hearing customers say they are no longer going to go to Starbucks because of Tres Leches is great because it means my dream – my plan – is working.

You’re practically the only cafe within reasonable walking distance to the Arizona Capitol, was that a reason for you to move into this location?

That just happened by coincidence. We came across this location from an owner who was a longtime fan of the cafe. They reached out to us when they knew we were moving and they needed a new renter. It worked out perfectly.

Do you see a lot of politicians that come in here?

I do. I actually work with them quite a bit. We just have to be careful about how we do that too. We make it open to everybody. We don’t discriminate to some politicians and allow others to come in. This cafe in a sense belongs to everyone as long as they are respectful. We have some who do campaign events here a lot and rent out the room or come when they know it will be slow. But some will come in a lot just for coffee and for meetings and such.

Are any of them regulars who come in often?

A lot of them are and now I see them and recognize them. [Rep] Raquel Terán comes here all the time. She’s the only one who I know comes here a lot because she always makes an effort to say hi and for us to know who she is. She brings so many people here all the time too and has meetings here with other politicians. 

How much do you keep up with local politics? 

Unfortunately I do not. I don’t know anything or anybody and it’s actually funny because when we were in the little house when Greg Stanton was mayor I had no idea he was the mayor. And the first time he came in, there was a couple of guys who came in before him in suits, but with police badges. They just walked around and didn’t buy anything and then left. So we went outside and saw an SUV sitting there and we were confused like ‘are they waiting for somebody?’ Then all of a sudden like 30-45 minutes later here come the two guys again and the mayor and someone said “dude that’s the mayor” and I was like ‘oh my God I didn’t know that, lets say hi.’ And he was a regular at the old location even when he was no longer in office. It’s just a funny story, but yeah I don’t really understand anything about politics or politicians.

Do you have any other fun stories of people coming in here?

There was a guy who came in here, he’s a former astronaut running for something…

Mark Kelly

Yes! He’s had two campaign events here. The first time I took pictures with him and said hello and people told me he was an astronaut and he was on the moon or something and I was like ‘no way’ so I looked him up and saw it. I think that’s it, I can’t think of anything else. But at one point Sheriff [Paul] Penzone came in and was asking to take pictures and asked us to post it so he could repost it and we got so much heat for it. Because a lot of our customer base are Mexicans so they were just so mad like ‘what are you taking pictures with the police for?’ I was like ‘relax, man, it’s not a good or bad thing,’ we should be neutral to our customers and showing hospitality. It’s not like Arpaio came in here .. that would be completely different. 

What’s your ultimate dream for Tres Leches?

My ultimate goal when I first started was to be a big chain like Starbucks or Dutch Bros. I would like to be the third biggest. I would love to be right behind Starbucks or on top and be able to deliver a whole different coffee drinking experience, even with our pastries now, which wasn’t part of the dream before. People used to refer to us as the Mexican Starbucks, but now I’m starting to see us as the Mexican Dunkin’ Donuts. The fact that we do specialty drinks like Starbucks and we deliver pastries on a different level than most coffee shops would. Ultimate goal is to have Tres Leches Cafes conveniently located throughout the Valley, the southwest and then nationwide.

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