Héctor Carvajal is a 25-year-old Dominican immigrant with a coffee company in the Bronx. He lives with his mother in a two-bedroom, $543-a-month apartment in the Parkside public housing project along the Bronx River Parkway. In a city of eight million people — roughly nine percent of whom are Dominican, according to the US Census — Don Carvajal Cafe, has only 6,177 Instagram followers, and his coffee itself has a flitting existence at pop-ups, farmers markets, and coffee shops. Yet his brew is consumed and adored by an impressive fan base made up of some of the city’s most powerful people.
“Don’t know where Don Carvajal coffee has been all my life! Tryna stay awake to watch the Brooklyn Nets game and the coffee is coming in clutch,” tweeted Brooklyn borough president Antonio Reynoso. At the Jacob Javits Center’s Coffee Fest this spring, Mayor Eric Adams made a beeline for Carvajal’s booth and ordered an unsweetened almond milk latte. “Nothing says ‘New York City’ like a Dominican cup of coffee made in the Bronx,” the mayor told Eater. “Small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy and Don Carvajal Café gets the city’s heart pumping that much faster.”
Carvajal describes his coffee as “smoother than most, a lighter roast that’s nutty in scent and creamy in taste,” he said. “You can drink it black. Try that at Starbucks. it's so rich. You don’t have to drown it in milk or sugar or syrups in order to enjoy it.”
Former food editor for Esquire Jeff Gordinier gets Don Carvajal’s coffee at a farmers market in Westchester. “It’s very good cold brew, with a balance of smoothness and snap that I’m always looking for. The only problem is that his coffee is so good and Héctor is so damn friendly — he’s as attentive as a maître d’ at Le Bernardin — that now I’m finding myself competing with my neighbors to score the last few bottles of cold brew each Sunday morning,” he said.
While Carvajal is cited as helping build up the Bronx, his company truly is citywide, stocked in coffee shops like Harlem’s Black-owned I Like It Black or Bushwick’s House Party Cafe; the farmers market at the Bronx’s New York Botanical Garden, and grocery stores in Astoria and Staten Island.
Carvajal’s coffee has been part of 500 swag bags to advertisers at Univision, gifts to associates of big-name law firms, and part of International Coffee Day celebrations at the Brazilian consulate. Even a brief pop-up at The Thinkubator in Mott Haven attracted the likes of former Yankees infielder Andrew Velasquez and trustees from The Awesome Foundation. Harlem entrepreneur John Henry Matos, flagged by Fortune as a “hustler-in-chief,” sings praises for support in Carvajal’s Kickstarter campaign. His corporate partnerships have included Nike, TikTok, MasterCard, and Oatly, which gave him $18,000.
This month, Carvajal received a $37,000 investment from Marcus Lemonis, formerly of CNBC’s The Profit, who had pledged to match some of the Kickstarter cash. It came at a time when Carvajal had just $122 in his personal bank account.
Carvajal is about to debut as the official coffee of the Freelancers Hub in Brooklyn’s Industry City, run by the Freelancers Union, whose president, former City Council member Rafael Espinal, says it’s “the strongest cup of coffee in New York City.” (Espinal, who is Dominican himself, is ordering Carvajal’s beans from the Dominican farms of Jarabacoa.)
Despite his successes, Carvajal has been beset by a string of setbacks: His Mount Vernon storage unit flooded during Hurricane Ida, ruining both expensive machinery and beans; his roasting location in Long Island City burned down this spring; the minivan he uses as a delivery truck has been broken into three times; a deal for his first brick-and-mortar location at Hunts Point Peninsula project fell apart; and, of course, he has been held back and held down by systemic racism both in the coffee industry and in the city’s investor class.
“Héctor really knows how to expand the conversation and the audience in a way that’s less about market reach and more about inclusion,” said Amaris Gutierrez-Ray, director of coffee and roasting at Joe Coffee Company’s Long Island City Roastery where Carvajal has been roasting since the fire — as much as 550 pounds a day, enough for roughly 11,200 12-ounce cups.
As to why he hasn’t gotten bigger, faster, “he’s too busy doing representation correctly, doing value-add correctly, doing culture authentically,” Gutierrez-Ray said. “We need people like that in this industry that has so many roasters who are a bunch of white guys who don’t have the cultural fluency to even know how to do the right thing.”
Carvajal immigrated from Las Barias, his rural hometown, in 2004. He was 8 years old and could not fathom a town that didn’t have its electricity cut off every night, as happened in the Dominican Republic. He was so truant in school that he says gym was the only class he was passing. As punishment, his mother banished him back to the Dominican Republic to toil at his uncle’s onion farm for $30 a day. Six months later, he was allowed to return to New York.
On his second attempt at US schooling, he flourished — Tío’s Onion Farm for Wayward Children has that effect. He got scholarships to community college. Then he went to the University of Rochester, where he created his coffee company as part of a mock proposal for a business class. Don Carvajal Café launched in 2019.
As the homeland of one of New York City’s largest immigrant communities, the Dominican Republic is the sixth borough of sorts. That borough president, Luis Abinader, is also keen on Carvajal, having invested almost $800 million in Supérate, a national welfare program aimed at leveling up rural areas like Carvajal’s hometown.
“Every cup of Don Carvajal is a sip of the history of our coffee warriors,” said Arturo Bisono, director of family farming for Supérate.
Informed of his status as a coffee warrior, Carvajal shot back, “How about coffee general? Three stars.” Asked why only three stars, he said, “Oh, does it go higher than that? If it goes higher, that’s what I want. That’s me.”