An Interview with Carolina Meurkens and Ron Collins by Monique Murad
Photography by Mariah Miranda
Café Cino, a Black, queer owned coffee & tea pop-up, is much more than just another city spot to get your morning boost. Born as a love story, the café is an intentional space to gather, to experiment, to come as you are. Founded in 2022, Carolina Meurkens (Mixed Mag’s own editor-in-chief) and Ron Collins, as partners, lovers, creatives, coffee drinkers, and conveners, crafted this specialty café as an inclusive space to cultivate community, and as an incubator for their own creative experiments – both in coffee and beyond. Currently you can find them nestled inside PLNTR, a boutique plant shop in the heart of Washington D.C.
In an intimate conversation with the founders, we chatted about what led them to coffee in the first place, the parallels between their own values and those they bring to the café, and their vision for the future.
Tell me a little bit about yourselves, what parts of your life led you to coffee:
Ron: Coffee came to me around 2014, that’s when I really got into pour overs – they got me off the Starbucks and into something different. In 2018, I started work at a local coffee shop. It was such a new company and it was really fun. It got me for the first time ever, thinking about coffee as a business. It was a really transformative introduction to specialty coffee.
For me, I am a perfectionist, I like to see things through. I’m a bit of a control freak, and this does well in hospitality, you have to pay attention to everything to see things through for a guest and client. I’ve been doing this my whole life. I’m an only child and my space has always been for others to come in and to leave – I work for longevity. As a kid, I wanted my space to be a place for memories. Fast forward, it’s the same thing, bringing folks to my spot, facilitating the vibe. That’s what led me to hospitality, taking care of people.
Carolina: As a creative, I tend to facilitate spaces where I bring people together in different mediums. We have Mixed Mag online, and the work I’ve done professionally is a lot of community engagement. In 2018, when I started working at the local café where we met, I was juggling a lot of jobs. I had been working in the food and beverage world for a bit, but had never been a barista.
What led me to coffee?… Our family. I love bringing people together in different ways and coffee naturally does that. Like wine and beer, it’s a way for people to celebrate each other, and make memories. I grew up in a culture of coffee…my dad’s thing is afternoon coffee with cake. I never thought about it as a career, I think coming to coffee is more about our story, and what we both bring to the business, and my side is more bringing people together, building the brand, and event creation.
How did you two meet?
Carolina: In 2018, I had just graduated college, I was juggling a lot of different jobs. I was teaching creative writing in the afternoons, so I needed something early in the morning, so I said, “let’s try and be a barista.” I was at the convention center in D.C, it was my 2nd or 3rd week of work, I was very new to the whole thing, and Ron walked in to fix a broken steam wand. Yeah. That’s kind of it.
Ron: It sounds almost like some made up fairytale, but it’s so real.
Carolina: We were fumbling next to each other, and then we started hanging out a lot, and two years later we had a kid, and two years after that we started Café Cino. A lot of our first dates and interactions revolved around coffee. I would come visit him at the local café and we would sit around with friends, Whenever we’d travel, we’d plan out the coffee spaces we could visit. It’s always been a through-line. When we were talking about kids, we were like, they would look like a little latte, or a little espresso, a little “cino” so we named our first, Cino, after the cappuccino.
Ron: I remember being at a bar together, just looking at the menu, thinking about a child together, and we weren’t even dating that long. It was playful, but it was sort of like, “are you serious”? We were looking at how the other would respond to the playful suggestion. We were laughing.
Carolina: He really put himself out there, I had never experienced that quite in that way. We were on our second date maybe, and he said he could really see us having a family one day and I was like, “what is going on.” I felt like I was living in a parallel universe. It was a little overwhelming, but it was more like, “I am going to take this all in and then I will make a judgment call as I keep going.” His forwardness didn’t freak me out.
When you would go and visit coffee shops, what would draw you in? What intrigued you about the shops you connected with the most?
Carolina: I think for me, it wasn’t even always about the coffee. But it was more so… the space’s ability to bring people together. We went to Portugal and there is such a different coffee culture there that was more about outdoor, “sitting in the plaza” coffee culture. We went to Charlottesville and it was a very up and coming, kind of trendy, modern coffee house culture. The way it looked so different in different spaces, that was really cool, but there was this through-line, that it’s a place where people gather.
Ron: In terms of coffee shops, I was just paying attention to the vibes, how different coffee shops catered to their community, their local surroundings. Of course, I’m looking at the beans, how they are dialing in, I am tasting the experience. It’s amazing, baristas that love what they are doing, you can almost tell from the barista before you have the drink if it’s going to be a good drink. The ones that don’t, you already know it’s 50/50 that it’s probably not going to be that good. It made me more curious about the coffee they were using, the equipment, I would dive into the setup to learn… not copy but try to figure out what people are doing.
Carolina: It was really cool to see cafés through Ron’s eyes because I have always been a café girl. I grew up going to them with my mom in New York City, sitting there reading a book, and I like coffee, but had never quite looked at it through the eyes of craftsmanship. As we were falling in love and being all romantic, we would envision the future together and be like, “wow, what would this be like if we went all in…. if we did this and became each other’s people and started a family.” It was the same with coffee. It almost felt inevitable, it was just about timing. We knew we had what it took to bring people together, both as artists and musicians. With the art of coffee, Ron is definitely an artist, the way he curates it, makes the brew, almost obsessively, similar to the way we connected about music. We were both classical music kids in high school, I play violin, he plays trumpet, there was that connection of “you get what it’s like to be really dedicated to something.”
What is Café Cino to you?
Ron: It’s a place where all coffee drinkers can congregate and confabulate. It’s so down to earth, people are looking at things around the café, or talking about coffee, neighborhood things, people are sharing ideas, maybe even coming up with solutions to problems they didn’t know they had. It’s a great space for that, and I think a lot of that has to do with the coffee. You get different personalities from different coffee drinkers. People that are into light, medium, dark roast, it’s a lot of personality. Even though we do specialty coffee it’s not “snobbery coffee’ – it’s approachable. If you want something extremely rare, something more affordable… we have it, and in terms of the taste, if you want something light and more acidic, or dark and more caramely, we have that too. For me, it’s important to have different opinions around – if you get all the same people that want the same drink you just reinforce the idea that you have the best shit, but I like hearing that someone doesn’t like something I like. It’s a space for everyone, for the coffee drinkers.
Carolina: Beyond the coffee drinkers, now that we have tea, it’s really a place for people to gather. I feel like a broken record, I keep saying that, but I think that there are many different entry points, coffee being the main one. People may come for the coffee and might stay for the vibes, might stay for the plants. We have an incredible opportunity being in collaboration with PLNTR and popping up in their beautiful, dynamic space has presented so many possibilities for what we can do. We have still life sessions, we have our tastings and we have live music. We are in a very experimental phase. We’re experimenting with different ideas and showcasing talented people in our community that are part of our ecosystem of creatives.
Ron: It feels like our little incubator.
Carolina: That goes with PLNTR as well, they have different small businesses that sell out of their store. We are the only ones that are physically there, but there is something special about being invited into that space.
What does Café Cino mean for your family?
Ron: It’s a big deal. I’ve seen everything [in DC] change. To have a business concept in the city, in Adams Morgan, I haven’t really allowed myself to answer the question. It is such a big deal, to be able to do this the way I want.
We are very adventurous, we march to the beat of our own drum. It also really has made us think about the alternatives in different ways of family planning, growth, school, daycare, looking at things with fresh eyes so we are not going down the same familiar path. A lot of times it’s like “there is only one way”, but there isn’t always the resources to discuss other possibilities. Having a small business plays into us having different options.
Carolina: The pop-up format can go so many ways, you can go in so many different directions, with whatever opportunities present themselves.
We could see ourselves with our own brick and mortar location, but also maybe taking Café Cino on the road, getting an RV and spreading the brand and the mission. With coffee itself and sourcing, and being Brazilian myself, we have lofty dreams and visions. If we started roasting and made connections in Brazil, that would offer even more ways the business could expand into different parts of our lives.
We didn’t come into this [the business or having a family] with a lot of generational wealth. We have to commit to being on the same team and being creative about how we were going to make things work. It was never scary for either of us, we were really down for the challenge. That comes from a certain amount of security that our parents were able to give us, and we want to give that to our children, without compromising who we are. This is our attempt at creating a family business that we can pass down to our kids, while doing something that makes us happy.
What are some of the core values you bring to Café Cino?
Carolina: We have a very non-traditional approach to parenting, One of our biggest values is raising our kids in community with other people. And I feel like we center that a lot in how we do things, and there is a parallel to how we do things at the café.
I would say, when I met Ron, I was young, I was still figuring out my values and what I cared about. That’s an ever-evolving process, but something that really struck me was his commitment to the people he loves and the relationships he values. It’s something that I always wanted in a partner, but it’s just rare that people say it and mean it. A lot of times when you get into a serious relationship, people cut themselves off from the other important relationships in their life. As a child of immigrants, I grew up kind of isolated and craved more community around me. I was really enthralled, but also nervous about that… how do you feel secure in these interwoven tapestries of relationships and family? But I think just seeing how committed he [Ron] was to the people in his life and being able to nurture a relationship with me and maintaining those relationships was really beautiful.
Quality over Quantity:
Carolina: We care about what we serve our customers, everything down to the ratio of how many beans, grams per cup, the water we use.
Ron: I only serve a drink in a clear glass. It matters.
Ron: We have nine dollar coffee on the menu and a three dollar drip. But whether they spend three dollars or nine, both are good and that’s intentional so everyone can participate in the experience.
What is your vision for Café Cino?
Ron: For coffee – to change up the culture. It’s a big issue, it’s so unhealthy. Not to judge the person, but the way people treat coffee, they abuse it. No one can enjoy an afternoon coffee because they’ve had five or six cups already. People don’t treat it like a delicacy, they treat it like fuel and get it by any means. We would like to approach it like tea culture. At PLNTR, people are able to chill, there’s no rush. You can just enjoy it at your leisure – this helps the culture. I would like to help someone, if I could, drink less coffee. I know that sounds crazy, but I’d rather you have better quality coffee and less of it, than more of shitty quality.
Carolina: To be known wherever we are as a space where everyone is welcome, where you can meet creative individuals and make memories – a cultural exchange.
Ron: We want everyone to feel welcome. We get folks from all over – be it someone from Alabama, Texas, NYC – put the politics aside, we are human, we do the same things, don’t you like coffee? Don’t you like tea?
About Café Cino: Café Cino is a boutique café brewing specialty coffee, founded by husband and wife team, Ron Collins and Carolina Meurkens. The pair have joined forces, bringing together their talents in hospitality, branding, and coffee, cultivating a vibe for customers who enjoy an exceptional roast and something for our tea lovers too.
Current location: PLNTR, a boutique plant shop in the heart of Washington D.C.