weather icon Clear
RJ App
Vegas News, Alerts, ePaper

Mothership owner focuses on community in expanding coffee business

Updated July 2, 2023 - 1:00 pm

Juanny Romero may be the CEO of Mothership Coffee Roasters, but when people ask what she does, she doesn’t immediately mention coffee — instead, she says she’s a creator of community.

“I’ve been scoffed at,” she said. “That’s a pretty consistent one, which is good. It gives me a stronger backbone.”

Not everyone is laughing. Her work in creating community through the company’s four cafe locations and wholesale bean business earned her national recognition as runner-up Small Business Person of the Year and a trip to the White House in May.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal recently sat down with Romero as Mothership prepares to open its fifth location in Downtown Summerlin on July 10 and to get its coffee beans onto Walmart shelves in late July. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Review-Journal: How was your visit to the White House?

Romero: I got chills just thinking about it. It was a complete surprise (to meet Vice President Kamala Harris). They said, we want you to meet a high-level senior executive inside the White House. Then they gave us a tour and we walk into the vice president’s office and my mouth dropped open like a kid in a candy store.

One of the things that they did for the White House video is they cut to the part where I asked the vice president if I could sit next to her. I thought they were going to edit it out, then it became the main component on the video and I was so surprised.

One of the reasons why is that as I sat down, I realized I was seated the farthest from her and I started getting frustrated. It’s my natural tendency. I’m very competitive. And I was like, “Juanny, you made it to the White House. Like, it’s good enough.” But then, I was like, “No, I want to be sitting next to her. I want to breathe her air.”

When she finally asked me a question, I was like, “Do you mind if I sit next to you?” And it was so nice. Everyone politely rearranged. I never thought that I would get to this position. I never thought that young Juanny coming from Queens, New York, young Juanny who’s gone through everything would get to sit next to (Harris) and be validated by the vice president of the United States and it was such a beautiful experience.

COVID had such a big effect on the food and beverage industry and you’re focused on community. How did COVID influence Mothership?

I walked into my cafes and I just felt so lonely. All of a sudden, I forgot how much I needed my commute on a daily basis. We don’t have offices for a reason, because we want to be where the community is. And I just remember feeling that loneliness and then realizing I’m not the only one feeling this way.

Because of that, I had a couple of epiphanies of things I could be doing. I started doing (a) barter program as a way to still have community even though we weren’t technically allowed to congregate together. Another thing we did was every time someone bought a cup of coffee online and had it delivered, we gave them an opportunity to buy a bag for a first responder, other underprivileged people, or someone anonymously. That was a really big hit and a great way to feel like Santa Claus.

How do those lessons apply to your business strategy now?

Post-COVID, I think leadership skills have changed. People want to meet in the middle. I work with a lot of young adults and this is a different generation. They demand things differently and the pandemic has affected them so deeply that they’re not willing to negotiate. They’re not willing to take a second-class seat in their own life.

People are not intrinsically motivated by money, especially the younger generation. What they’re motivated by is more like, “How can I feel purposeful? How can I matter?” and that’s harder. If they’re a minimum-wage or hourly worker that we consider them sort of a subclass citizen, that’s a very unsafe feeling because they’re always a step away from being underemployed.

Tell me a bit about the wholesale business.

My skillset isn’t necessarily being a wholesaler. My skillset is being able to create change in the coffee I have. The best approach for that drove me toward looking at grocery chains as a model. I realized on the shelves, if you look at the metrics, most coffee is owned by white males. There was a dearth of women being represented in coffee. If 75 percent of shoppers are women, how are they being represented? It’s like this bait-and-switch where we say women are equal and yet in the specialty grade coffee — inherently coffee with a purpose, coffee with transparency in the supply chain — it’s not very transparent when we get to the shelf.

So I was like, let’s move forward with identity and we rebranded with our tagline “Drink like a mother.” Because we buy our coffee from women farmers, we’re a woman-owned company and then, who are the people usually buying the coffee?

What resources do you tell new Vegas business owners about?

The SBA (Small Business Administration) is phenomenal. It’s one of the best programs that we have available as a small business person and it really is shocking to me that a lot more people don’t understand how much it could really help them.

I think that most small business owners will agree that there is this pervasive sense of loneliness, confusion and this desire to be the hero of their own story. There’s no, like, rhyme or reason when it comes to business. We’re all just trying to figure it out. We’re wearing 30 different hats all day long. And what the SBA does is be a champion for small businesses. There’s a program called SCORE, which is a mentor program and it’s usually retired executives, retired CEOs, retired small business owners, who come in and volunteer their time to mentor small business owners. And all of this is for free.

McKenna Ross is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Contact her at mross@reviewjournal.com. Follow @mckenna_ross on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.