Renee Valdez and Sofia Esmeralda are a microcosm of Milwaukee hospitality, swirled with a starry magic that is bright-eyed and inviting. They are the owners of Ellas Café, a pop-up coffee shop that has recently been making its way around the city.
Renee and Sofia deliver coffee and make drinks, which are concocted by both of them. The drinks are born in the mind of Renee, who is a 10-year veteran of Colectivo, where she and Sofia first met years ago. They had a dream of creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ people of color, where they could enjoy their coffee without getting strange looks from others, and where they could feel truly at ease. “Ella” means “she” or “her,” the pronouns that Renee and Sofia use.
“We grew up in a time when it wasn’t safe or cool to say you were gay, and that creates a lot of sadness and fear for kids who realize they are LGBTQ at a young age,” Sofia says. “Our aim is to have a space where they can come be themselves. They don’t even have to have a coffee. They can bring a board game or just vibe out on their headphones.”
Vibes, or energy, are something Sofia and Renee bring with them when serving their drinks. Sofia is a self-professed and certified bruja, dealing with spirits and stars, her tarot deck in tow wherever she goes. “I don’t charge anyone to read their cards if they don’t have money,” she says. “It’s important to me that someone gets whatever they are looking for from a reading. It is essential that the energy is felt and the presence is strong.”
Renee is the chemist of the two, working hard to create new flavors that can be added to their menu. “Working at Colectivo made me realize you can really change someone’s day with a cup of coffee. It can be either for the better or for the worse. You make a good one and someone has a good day—that’s usually what I will try to do,” she laughs.
Being a former barista at Colectivo has afforded Renne the opportunity to create and experiment with syrups. The beans, meanwhile, are sourced from a farm that is owned by the family of Liz Calderon, who roasts the beans in South Carolina and then ships them to Ellas. The bags of coffee are emblazoned with images of Mujeres Xingonas, dressed with bandoliers and flowing dresses, to project what Ellas is trying to promote: a strong, vibrant, robust, and unfuck-with-able exuberance.
Ella’s Café, is strictly a pop-up right now, but Renee and Sofia have something on the horizon for their own location. “The business part is something we struggle with a little bit. We understand how to get everything, but it is such a long and drawn-out process,” Sofia says. Adds Renee: “Our concern is simply to provide an experience instead of making money.”
That concern is usually what makes an endeavor thrive. The owners of Ellas Café know what they are doing. Maybe they are guided by the stars.