On school days the coffee cart has a long queue of students waiting to get a drink, food or both. Alex Malo, who is behind the counter, is quick on his feet preparing drinks and filling orders.
Malo is owner and operator of Amalo Brew, the coffee cart outside the library, is a long way away from his days as a real estate attorney in Tijuana, but he is happier than he has ever been. Working the cart for the past four years has given Malo more time to spend with his wife and daughters and has allowed him to become part of the fabric of the community.
Malo has his routine on weekdays. He drops off and picks up his daughter, first grader Alexandria, on his bike, the same bike he rides to and from work with a cart in front filled with products he sells.
On a recent Friday, Malo arrived on his bike full of goodies. In this case it was sodas and boxes of muffins. He quickly opened his coffee cart at 11:30 a.m. and by the time he unloaded his bike and opened the four flaps of the cart he had a line of customers.
The crowd starts when the high school lets out for lunch and students head over to the library in groups to Amalo Brew to get a sandwich, a salad, snack or drink. They then gather together at the tables for the break. After lunch, the crowd thins out and eventually students go back to class.
By the time 2:50 p.m. rolls around, Malo closes the cart and puts up a sign that reads “Be back in 10 minutes.” He jumps on his bike and heads over to the elementary school to pick up his daughter. Malo is back in time for the after school crowd. Usually he closes by 4 p.m.
His wife Gloria often stops by and drops off their 4-year-old. “My girls have been coming here from day one. They go in the library, read a book,” he said.
When Malo first opened he thought his customers would be made up of an older crowd. He offered coffee and pastries, but with time he noticed his customer base was kids and he started adding more items geared to their taste.
“Sometimes people are mad at me. ‘I came five times and you were never open’ they tell me,” he recalls.
Amalo brew hours are geared around the school schedule. “It turns out my business is kid oriented, it’s a hangout,a non- judgmental place. Everything I was focused on, love of coffee and making money is different now. I realized it’s not about the money, but about the community. There’s plenty of anger, bad moods… I try to make this a happier place for kids,” explained Malo.
In the four years he has been in business, Malo has seen kids grow up and go to high school. “I’ve made friends with their parents and they tell me to keep an eye on their kids. I’m the unofficial babysitter,” he said.
Malo remembers his school days and wants the cart to be a relaxed place. “They come from school and are constantly told what to do. Here they can be free as long as they don’t disturb others,” he said.
Some of his young customers have tabs at Amalo Brew. Malo has met his parents and made arrangements. The students pay in a variety of ways like Apple Pay, Android Pay or just cash. He accepts any kind of currency, literally. Malo laughs when he recalls that tourists have paid for their drinks with foreign currency too.
Over time Malo has taken on a role as an adult who listens and understands. Some kids tell him they like someone at school, others have divorced parents and share their problems with Malo or other times he hears some tell him that nobody likes them. Sometimes the kids are not there to buy anything but stop by anyway to say hello. “I try to make everyone laugh,” he said.
Malo has an upbeat personality and likes to bring a smile to everybody’s face. Malo considers himself the city concierge. Tourists often stop to ask him questions about the town.
Malo serves Café Virtuoso Organic Coffee and Tea, a local coffee company located in Barrio Logan. He always had a love for coffee and he and his wife were already drinking Café Virtuoso at home, so Malo decided to make it his signature coffee. Malo was trained by a barista judge with 30 year experience. He explained that his coffee does not cause heartburn and is lighter compared to others.
Malo can often be seen at events where he has donated coffee. Amalo Brew is the smallest business that donates the most in Coronado. Anytime someone asks Malo for a coffee and pastry donation he always says yes.
Regular customer Tony Perri enjoys talking to Malo when he stops by. “It’s a great location, you wouldn’t expect great coffee right outside the library,” he said
But how did a lawyer end up with a coffee cart? When Malo was still working as a lawyer in Tijuana specializing in real estate law, he hoped to work in the U.S. but there were not many opportunities on this side of the border. When he heard about a coffee cart opportunity inside the University of Phoenix campus open at night, he bid for it and operated it while still working his day job. Then Malo saw the bid for the cart at the library in Coronado and thought it would work out better for him since he already lived here. He had been a lawyer for 20 years and this was an opportunity to make a change.
“When this bid came through I was so happy. I miss the money, but money does not buy happiness. I’m much happier here,” he said.
Tenth grader Liz Butcher was eating a salad purchased from Malo at one of the tables outside the library. “I’ve been coming here since he opened. He has stuff everyone wants. He is nice. He is a good person,” she said of Malo.
Butcher goes to the cart everyday for lunch with a group of friends. “I don’t come here just for food. I come here to talk,” she said.