Coffee roastery and café connect Upstate alum to the community and his country.
BY ELIZABETH ANDERSON
Carlos Andres Camargo, ’18, has seen his dreams deferred more than once in his life.
College wasn’t an option when he arrived in the United States from Colombia at age 19 – it was nearly 20 years later when he earned the degree he had always wanted. When the pandemic shut down his coffee shop just as he was getting ready to officially launch, he worked hard to keep the business going until he could reopen.
Sitting in the comfortable, bright space at Poe West in Greenville that he and his wife have transformed into a welcoming place to enjoy a cup of coffee, Camargo shares other dreams – supporting coffee farm communities back in Colombia, opening additional shops in the Upstate. Like his earlier plans, these, too, may take time to achieve, but Camargo believes deeply in fostering community.
“Making everybody feel welcome, making them feel that everything we prepare is done with care, is a special part of what we do,” he says. “When we serve anything, we want to be sure people are getting our best.”
Unlocked Coffee reflects Camargo’s love of both his native country and adopted one. Camargo grew up in Calí, a city surrounded by lush mountains and rivers and noted for its salsa clubs. But in the 1980s, the city also became synonymous with drug cartels and violence, and Camargo’s family was concerned about their safety. His parents decided the family should immigrate to the United States.
So in 1999, Camargo and his older brother moved to Connecticut, where extended family members lived. Camargo had only recently graduated from high school and had planned to go to college in Colombia, but that had to wait while the brothers established themselves in their new home so their parents could join them.
“It was really hard,” Camargo says. “The first years, I didn’t have the language, and it was very difficult to establish a relationship with the people and the culture.”
Camargo and his brother found jobs at a local plant that polishes implants used in joint replacements. The work was tough – the brothers worked 12-hour days, six days a week, from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m., Camargo says.
He worked at the plant for 10 years, but in 2010, he decided he was ready for a change. He had been to South Carolina a few times to visit a family member, and really loved the state. “I enjoyed the weather, the people, and everything I saw here in South Carolina, especially in Greenville,” he recalls.
The move was not without risks. The country was in the midst of a recession, and jobs were scarce. But, Camargo says, he didn’t feel any special ties to Connecticut. “I never had a chance to feel connected to the culture at all,” he says. “So it was a chance to be in a different place and have different connections.”
After arriving in the Upstate in 2011, he got a job as an insurance agent. It was then he began thinking about college again. “It was always there, my dream of going back to college,” he says. “It’s something that will always have a value in your life and on your family long term.”
His first step was to enroll at Greenville Technical College. “To be honest, I didn’t know what I would like to study or what degree I would like to get,” he says. “But I knew that I had to start at some point.”
Starting off with college prerequisites was helpful, he says, since it allowed him to get up to speed academically without the pressure that enrolling at a four-year university would have brought. Initially, he thought he’d just do a two-year program, but his teachers encouraged him to continue on and get his bachelor’s. So he transferred to USC Upstate to major in business, and “absolutely loved it.”
“I’ve never regretted going to USC Upstate,” Camargo says. “Every class I took, I maximized everything they had to offer, knowing that one day I could apply that to a business.”
Starting his own business had long been a dream of Camargo’s. His initial idea was that he’d work for a company, learn the trade, then look for opportunities to strike out on his own. He also wanted to do something that related back to Colombia. His thoughts naturally led to coffee.
“People in Colombia are really passionate about coffee,” he says. “Everything is around coffee. Even our soccer team is called Los Cafeteros – the coffee people.”
A coffee-related business also fit well with another goal of Camargo’s: connecting with the community. “You can do that in many ways, but I think coffee shops and coffee are a source of great connection with people,” he says. “Coffee shops are the perfect place to have meetings, study, have a date, the perfect place to do anything.”
While still working on his degree at Upstate, Camargo began exploring options to learn more about the coffee business. He discovered Ally Coffee in Greenville, a coffee importer that also offers classes for anyone serious about coffee. Camargo learned about selecting beans, roasting and brewing, while simultaneously working on a business plan.
At the conclusion of his coffee classes, he realized he needed to put his knowledge into practice, so he bought 154 pounds of Colombian coffee and rented a roaster at Ally. He gave the finished product to family and friends to get their feedback, which, he says, was positive. “They really enjoyed the coffee a lot, and started asking if we would sell it,” he says.
In between college courses and his insurance job, Camargo would take a day to roast coffee, deepening his knowledge of all the variables in the process. As graduation neared, he was offered the opportunity to open a shop at Poe West, a former mill in Greenville. It was a bigger step than he’d anticipated taking, but the economy looked good and he wasn’t sure he’d get such a chance again.
Because Camargo had focused on economics at Upstate, he knew coffee was a fairly recession-proof business. Far from hurting business, periods of economic downturn are often good for coffee shops, he says. “When you can’t go out and afford a big dinner, you can still give yourself a good cup of coffee,” he explains. He felt his new business could likely ride out any rough economic times ahead.
But as with many small business owners, Camargo had no way of anticipating the impact of a pandemic. He was just getting ready to officially open the café at Poe West in March when almost everything in the state shut down.
It was devastating, Camargo says. While he fully supports keeping people safe, he says the state rules disproportionately hurt the food industry, which had to rely solely on curbside or delivery service. Big box stores, many of which initially did not require masks, were deemed “essential” and allowed to remain open.
Even when restaurants got the green light to reopen, at 50 percent capacity, it still wasn’t enough, Camargo says, particularly for a new business that hadn’t yet built up a loyal client base. “I’m still adjusting, still trying to figure it out every day,” he says. “We have days when we have good traffic, and we feel like, oh, we’re ready, next week is going to be really busy again. Then next week, no one comes.”
Camargo has instead focused on what he can control, which is making his shop as welcoming and comfortable as possible for people looking to get out of the house and relax. His wife, Rocío Salazar, who is also Colombian, has been critical to that effort, using her marketing expertise to create a website, promote the shop on social media, and design the logo. “The personality of the brand comes from her work,” Camargo says.
In September, Unlocked held a staggered-hours grand opening, complete with coffee giveaways and a latte art throwdown. After so many setbacks, it was good to finally have something to celebrate, Camargo says.
What the coming year holds is uncertain, but Camargo dreams of opening more coffee shops eventually, especially in Upstate cities that may not have many options. It’s important, he says, to have places where people can come together – and maybe learn a little bit about Colombia, too.
“We’re that point of connection between our country and people here,” he says. “It’s like a bridge between two countries, and we’re in the middle facilitating.”
Visit Unlocked Coffee at Poe West, 556 Perry Ave., Suite B116, Greenville, or online at unlockedcoffee.com.