MEXICO CITY – Inside the sky blue and black interiors of Cielito Querido cafés, a uniquely Mexican coffee concept is brewing.
The year-old chain of coffee shops has grown rapidly in the capital, thanks in part to an attention-grabbing "neo-retro" design inspired by local folklore and tradition and increasing coffee consumption in Mexico.
The Cielito Querido cafés – 19 in all so far – serve coffee much as Starbucks does including cappuccinos, lattes, mochas and the like. But the Mexican chain also serves traditional Mexican hot chocolate (made with water or milk) with flavors like cinnamon, pecan and chile. There is horchata on the menu, a refreshingly sweet rice-based drink and café de la olla, or pot coffee sweetened with brown sugar and spiced with cinnamon.
The menu design – the typography and graphic design – finds similar inspiration in nostalgia a la Mexicana, as does the interior design. Hector Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena of Esrawe Diseño created the Cielito Querido design concept as mixture of low-brow and high.
"We focused on talking about tradition, on talking about nostalgia – in evoking situations and moments that in some ways have been lost – and on talking about the neighborhood café," said Esrawe.
The graphic design, drawing from the elaborate typographies typical of Mexico’s Spanish and French colonial eras, "evokes colonial times." Popular Mexican sayings – "our daily bread" or "coffee aids the early riser" – decorate mugs and plates.
The chain's name is also a throwback, a reference to the popular song "Cielito Lindo," composed by the Mexican songwriter Quirino Mendoza y Cortez in 1882.
Cielito Querido is the latest Mexican chain to enter Mexico's growing market for higher end brew. Coffee drinking has long been a habit of residents in frenetic Mexico City, but since Starbucks entered the market a decade ago, Mexican companies have been competing more aggressively.
Italian Coffee – a Puebla-based franchise founded in 1996 that boasts 388 locations nationwide – dominates its hometown market and has popped up in a handful of neighborhoods in Mexico City. Another chain, Café Punta del Cielo, has brewed homegrown gourmet Mexican coffee at company-owned and franchised locations in the capital and around the country since 2004.
Alsea, which operates 337 Starbucks locations in Mexico (as well as the Burger King, Domino's Pizza and Chili's Grill & Bar chains), is currently expanding the coffee company into corporate locations including banks and hospitals.
Coffee demand jumped 13 percent in Mexico in 2011 compared with the prior year, according to a study by the National Association of the Coffee Industry, or ANACAFE.
"There has been an important boom," said Esrawe. "Coffee consumption has grown. Studies also show that doing business outside the office, inside a café, has increased exponentially. The potential for growth is very attractive."
Cielito Querido is betting on those trends and on its flavorful design to capture a share of the expanding market. The design has been garnering publicity. Recently, Mexico Design magazine highlighted the café and Esrawe's ability to transmit "a happy melody of artisanal processes" in the glassware and woodwork and the "daring" use of color.
On a treelined stretch of Michoacán Street in Mexico City's trendy Condesa neighborhood, Starbucks shares a block with Cielito Querido and Café Punta del Cielo. A few blocks down is an Italian Coffee outlet. The cafés are practically piled on top of each other, but, at each one, spare tables are few and far between.
Photos courtesy Esrawe Diseño