By Gabby Bass-Butler
Photos by Morgan Hunt
In the 1930s, two women set out to save the coffee farm that they called home in Guatemala.. Pulling together their dowries and selling their jewelry and cows, they did just that and managed to become the first female coffee farmers in the region at Las Margaritas, a farm that had been in their family since 1895. Fast forward 90 years later, and history is repeating itself as Wendy Madden and her sister Katie Ellis preserve that same family’s legacy with a chain of retail coffee shops that brings their Guatemalan heritage here to the United States. At Santos Coffee, they’re serving not only coffee but also a piece of history in every cup they brew.
Established in 2019, Santos Coffee comes from the sisters’ farms in San Antonio, Santa Margarita and San Nicolaus in Guatemala,, so it’s fitting that the name means “saint” in Spanish.
Wendy has fond memories on the three farms as a child. “It really sparks the passions within you because it’s more than just making money,” she says of her ties to the coffee business. “It’s providing a great place for the community to come in and sit down and enjoy something from our family that we’ve loved.”
In Santos’s coffee shop located off Stadium Trace Parkway, you can see photos and paintings depicting these farms, each with a story behind it. “I have, and [Katie] does too, scars in our knees from when we fell on the coffee drying patios,” says Wendy. “I cannot tell you the amount of coffee beans I’ve had stuck in my ears and my nose because we were jumping in the coffee silos. Christmas is a very special time at Santos, as we always we spent every Christmas at the farm.”
On those farms, the coffee is made using a the harvesting and processing methods Wendy and Katie learned from their grandparents, which allows Santos Coffee to be a part of every stage of the coffee bean’s life, from the moment it’s planted to when it’s brewed into your cup. Wendy’s uncle even owns the dry mill where the coffee is packaged before being imported to America. “So we can do a lot of things differently because our company is what we call a completely vertically integrated coffee concept,” Wendy explains. “That allows us to import coffee that’s a lot fresher and prepared to higher standards than what is common in the industry.”Because Santos is so involved in each stage of that lifecycle, it allows for them to produce coffee that you can only get from Santos. “When we harvest 50 bags of a particular coffee micro lot, we’re only selling it at Santos, that means nobody else in the entire world, or planet can have that coffee but us,” says Wendy.
From frescas to the mint latte to crepes, you are sure to find something fun to eat or drink at Santos. “We’ve tried to embed into our menu a lot of things that are from Guatemala because that’s part of our heritage,” says Wendy.
Crepes are common in Guatemalan coffee shops, and when Wendy moved to the States, she did could not find any that she loved. So she decided to offer them at Santos. The crepes were not first introduced at Santos though, but at Crimson Café, a coffee shop Wendy owned in Tuscaloosa in 1992, when she first moved to Alabama. “A lot of the recipes we have here, like the Mocha Milkshake and the Artichoke Flatbreads, were Crimson Cafe recipes,” she explains.
You can also find an homage to Guatemala in the stylized version of the Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, in their logo and on a mural outside the shop.
Down in Guatamala, Wendy and her family will spend hours upon hours in their coffee cupping lab, tasting and rating the coffee, to make sure only the best is sent to Santos. Though Wendy has sufficient experience and knows how to “cup”, she leaves most of the cupping to the experts.
“My grandfather and my uncles are coffee cuppers,” she says. “It takes 20 years to become a truly experienced one and be able to tell if the coffee you’re cupping was over fermented or if it is green. Was it dried on a patio, or dried in a machine? What are the flavor notes of the coffee?” Noe everyone can tell.
Still, she has fine-tuned the art of making a cup of coffee at home. She recommends making sure you have the right grinder (and if not Santos can grind your coffee beans for you) and storing the coffee away from light in an airtight container. You can buy whole coffee beans from Santos so you can have the taste of the coffee shop in your home. They will even roast small batches of coffee specially for you and at your preferred roast specifications. In Wendy’s opinion, though, the best coffee is however you like it. “Coffee is such a personal thing, whether you like it with sugar or not , with cream, or with flavor or none,” she says.
When it comes to her own cup, Wendy loves using her old Corningware percolator coffee pot because it reminds her of the way she used to drink coffee as a child on the farm. If she’s ever at any coffee shop or interviewing a new barista for Santos, she prefers a plain whole milk latte.
It is fitting that those lattes got their start in Hoover since Wendy has been a resident there since 2004 and also both of her kids went to Hoover High School too.
Since opening the Hoover shop in December 2019, Santos has added two more locations in downtown Birmingham, and a fourth location will be opening at the crossroad of Cahaba River and Acton roads. They will also inaugurate their brand new coffee roastery and coffee lab in February of next year. Wendy is humbled by the acceptance and appreciation of Santos’ customers and hopes to expand to other states soon.
While Wendy oversees these Birmingham shops, her sister Katie is usually in Guatemala, watching over their coffee farms and handling most of the operations there. “[Katie] is also an architect, and design artist, so she does a lot of things from helping us with the logos and website,” says Wendy. If you look at the store, you will see three coffee bean sculptures that Katie made and had them shipped to the US. “I have a business degree and I’m a lawyer, so I do a lot of the legal work and negotiate leases, work on permits and perform other admin duties.”
It’s no surprise that the sisters started drinking coffee young too. “We had an aunt, who used to run a little store, a very small country store, behind the [coffee] processing plant,” says Wendy. “She used to have sweet bread and would teach us how to dunk them in coffee. We were 5 years old, and that’s how we started drinking it.”
Wendy holds moments like those dear in her heart and hopes each customer feels the sacredness of her family’s legacy each time they come to Santos. “I want customers to be able to feel the energy of my great-grandparents and my grandmothers and recognize that this is a family-owned company run by strong and resilient women walking in the shoes of those who came before them” says Wendy. “Also I want our customers to look around our stores and pay attention to every detail around them, because it all has a story.”
Wendy’s mention of female empowerment takes us back to the story that we started this article with. Katie found an armoire with letters between their paternal grandmothers discussing that the farms were going to be mortgaged. The two women did not want to lose the farms, so they set out to rescue it and did just that.
“These were women didn’t have any formal education. It was in the 1930s, where we as women had no opportunities. We couldn’t own properties. It was very difficult,” Wendy says. “And yet, they were able to be successful. My grandmother became a very well-respected coffee farm-owner in Guatemala and that was unheard of. “
Times might have changed in many regards, but not all things have. “Coffee is in our blood,” Wendy says. “I’m sure if you take a blood sample from me, it’ll come out brown because coffee is in there.”
Santos Coffee Hoover location is 1021 Brocks Gap Parkway, Suite 101. You can also find them online at santoscoffee.us and on Instagram @santoscoffee or Facebook @santoscoffee.
Pieces of History
Almost everything in Santos has a story behind it. When you go through Santos drive-thru, it is not hard to notice the milk truck that you order through. It’s an actual Model T Ford truck that was used to deliver milk in its day. What most people don’t know is that that milk truck is an actual prop from the movie Zelda about the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, an Alabama native.
When you walk into Santos, a big red coffee grinder sits at the center of the shop. Wendy and her sister saw a grinder at the Louvre in Paris and knew the moment they wanted one for their store. They struggled to find one just like the one in the Louvre, and the few times they stumbled on one it was museum quality and at museum prices. Then one day while shopping for decor for the store, the sisters went into Highway Pickers, a vintage store in Cullman County, and as soon as they walked in, they saw a grinder just like they wanted at a price that worked for them.