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Cuban coffee is served in a small glass cup.
A Cuban coffee from Cortaditos in Union City.
Cortaditos.

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The Cafe Spreading Cuban Coffee Culture

Union City’s Cortaditos replicates the island’s cafe camaraderie in New Jersey

There is a certain amount of risk in opening a Cuban cafe in Union City, the epicenter of an area often called Havana on the Hudson, nicknamed for its enduring ties to the island where coffee is the ultimate symbol of hospitality.

Roughly three miles from Times Square, the town is a working-class world unto itself. Brick apartment buildings and tightly packed single-family homes still squeeze together on the compact grid straddling I-495 into the Lincoln Tunnel and the hectic carnicerias, sneaker shops, and religious bookstores of the town’s main commercial drag, Bergenline Avenue.

The inside of a coffee shop, where a masked customer waits for service.
The interior of Cortaditos in Union City.
Cortaditos.
A cup of coffee in a blue cup with a saucer, with frothy foam.
A coffee from Cortaditos in Union City.
Cortaditos.
The exterior of a coffee shop with open walk-up windows.
The exterior of Cortaditos in Union City, with its multiple walk-up windows.
Cortaditos.

Weak coffee doesn’t cut it here.

Happily for Adam San Miguel and Andres Carrillo, the owners of Cortaditos, one of Union City’s newest and most popular cafes, the bustle inside their storefront on a previously derelict corner just over a year after opening has proven that their espresso offerings stand ready to slake even the most ardent caffeine addiction.

For the faint of heart, the cafe con leche provides a richly flavored and perfectly warmed boost — Starbucks could never — that won’t immediately dilate your pupils.

Beyond Cortaditos’s popular drinks and hot sandwiches, however, the cafe stands for the same thing Union City represented for thousands of Cuban emigres during the 20th century: opportunity anchored in community.

The business grew out of San Miguel and Carrillo’s past collaboration on San Miguel’s award-winning non-profit, the Cuban American Alliance for Leadership and Education. Carrillo, who owned two bakeries in Belleville and North Bergen — businesses he opened after immigrating to the U.S. at 25 years old, with a view towards one day employing his family members still in Cuba — would donate refreshments for the alliance’s events.

“Basically we had an admiration for each other and we formed a partnership,” San Miguel told Eater on a busy Saturday morning at the cafe.

The pair opened the Union City location in November 2021, and later started the process of rebranding Carrillo’s original shops as Cortaditos locations.

When it came time to pick a location for their new joint venture, the pair homed in on Union City, where San Miguel, himself the son of Cuban emigres, lives with his family.

“We did a study and most businesses have failed on this corner,” he said of the location on a humble stretch of Union City’s Park Avenue. “But we thought if we brought a nice design, a sexy look, and a good culture — not a heritage, but a good company culture — that we could make a good business here.”

A year after their grand opening, customers come in waves all day long, with regulars including city workers from Union City and Weehawken, hipsters, young mothers, and folks from farther afield curious to try signature drinks like the Cortadito bon bon, a one-two punch of hand-shaking espresso over condensed milk.

In a stroke of marketing genius that also evokes Cuba’s ventanitas, through which families sell coffee or baked goods, Carrillo and San Miguel installed four sets of motorized windows that open and close with the weather, effectively turning the exterior into one long stretch of high-top seating on warm days and spilling coffee smells and the sound banter in English and Spanish onto the street.

A rich pour of coffee from a paper cup into a plastic shot glass.
A rich pour of coffee from a paper cup into a plastic shot glass.
Cortaditos.

Inside, the menu competes for attention with a wall-sized mosaic of a Havana street scene and a technicolor portrait of musical icon Celia Cruz aptly proclaiming ¡Azucar! behind the pastry counter’s tart pastelitos de guayaba y queso and quesitos.

The empanadas are on the dry side but richly flavored. If the heartstopping coffee alone doesn’t give you enough courage for the morning, Cortaditos’ take on a breakfast sandwich — a fresh butter croissant stuffed with scrambled eggs, a strip of bacon, and salsa — will.

True to its roots, most of the staff at Cortaditos is foreign-born, and employees gushed about the support their employers provide: Language lessons, gym memberships, and, in some cases, support setting up new homes are some of the benefits San Miguel and Carrillo offer employees.

The cafe’s particular mix of heritage and community materializes every afternoon around the 3 p.m. shift change when the baristas perform Cortaditos’s own conga number, composed by the cafe’s original manager, in a ritual that’s part team-building exercise and part customer appreciation. Watching the performance, one imagines this is the sort of joviality the inventor of the Coldstone tip jingle was aiming for.

The next challenge for San Miguel and Carrillo is scalability. On December 17, Cortaditos opened its newest location at the American Dream shopping center, a vision the pair have had since they teamed up, but which faced multiple delays during the pandemic.

As the brand grows to evangelize Cuban coffee culture beyond Union City, San Miguel says Cortaditos’ commitment to and investment in its workers will grow as well.

“Absolutely,” he said. “These are our family.”

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