A Taste of Home
Growing up in countryside Cieba de Madera, San Victor, Moca in the Dominican Republic, Lebanon resident Yaniris McLenithan, or Yani as her friends call her, recalls the importance of staying connected to her family, her community, and the fertile farmland her parents once managed in the mountains above the city. The many crops produced from the healthy farm soils of Yani’s homeland are a source of pride among locals in the Espaillat province. Yani describes the farming scene. “These were sustainable family farms, between 200-500 acres, providing everything a family needs on a daily basis, including tobacco, bananas, plantain, and all kinds of fruit that was either consumed or sold at regional markets.” It is said that the region’s yuca root (also known as cassava root and not to be confused with yucca, the ornamental plant) is the best around because of the rich soils that are cultivated in the lush hills above Moca. Yani has even met fellow Dominican Republic residents in the US who confirm the region’s flavorful yuca reputation.
The same holds true for the production of high-quality coffee beans, says Dan, Yani’s husband and partner in a new business venture, Hato Viejo Coffee. “In the mountain regions of the north, you get the high altitudes that produce sweet coffee.” Yani echoes this sentiment. “There’s nothing like a fresh cup of my mother’s home-brewed Domican Republic coffee! Growing up, we learned to pay attention to the needs of our family, our friends, and our community. We regularly met for coffee in the afternoon to socialize, and we were very active in our church and community activities.”
Researching further, one learns that coffee production is the standard in the Dominican Republic, and nearly everyone starts their day with a cup of the sweet, aromatic brew. This distinctive flavor, which many say is unique to the Dominican Republic, is why Hato Viejo Coffee has come to source its special brand of coffee from a particular producer, Belarminio Ramirez & Sons certified organic coffee farm in the town of Jarabacoa (“land of water resources”) in the La Vega province of the Dominican Republic. Jarabacoa is also known in the eco-tourism industry as ‘the Dominican Alps’ with its massive waterfalls, challenging mountain hikes, abundant farmlands, and a rich art and cultural history.
The Ramirez estate, founded in 1943, employs over 400 people, and the company is committed to practicing a high level of social responsibility. Wages are much higher than Fair Trade minimums and the company devotes a portion of their profits to environmental, educational, and social causes. Yani researched many coffee farms across the Dominican Republic before settling on Ramirez. “We buy the beans from a coffee cooperative which has 7,500 farmers selling into the cooperative, then roast and package the beans here. The Ramirez company offers no interest loans to local farmers, and the owners care about environmental sustainability.”
Back in Moca, Yani’s extended family of 30-40 siblings, nieces, and nephews have a community support network that rivals an international microloan program in its organization and impact. Dan credits Yani’s sister with keeping the family network humming along. “In a place where there’s not as much money and wealth, there is always somebody who has a need for food, supplies, clothing, shoes.” Yani stays in touch and supports her family and community with time and knowledge from her home in Lebanon as much as she can. “We recently did a fundraiser to build a church, and the son of someone in the church needed recording equipment for his musical practice. I told him to pay it forward and help someone else in the community.” As Dan notes, “You could lend someone $20 and it would circulate for 2 years with the pay it forward ethic. It feels good to invest in somebody who is bright, who wants to do something meaningful, who has a plan. It’s the priority for the giving culture in the country.”
Yani is the first member of her family to come to the U.S., and she journeyed north after earning a degree in manufacturing engineering in college. She was considering her next steps just as the manufacturing economy was declining worldwide, and was drawn to this country in 2008, settling in Virginia to work in the hospitality industry at Colonial Williamsburg. Yani gradually worked her way up the East coast to the Mt. Washington Hotel, eventually joining a friend who was working at Elixir in White River Junction 11 years ago, where she met Dan. “At first I thought living here would be temporary, but I consider myself an Upper Valley person now.” Dan concurs. “In all the years I’ve known Yani, she has never complained about the cold. Even though we’ve had opportunities to move away from New Hampshire, she was committed to staying in the Upper Valley because it’s a great place to raise a family.”
Hato Viejo Coffee is named for the memories Yani has of swimming in the Hato Viejo river near the family farm. “When I was growing up, we would ride horses up the mountain to bring lunch for the farmers and coffee pickers. We ate mangos from the tree, and enjoyed swimming in the river. I chose the name Hato Viejo to preserve its history and the connection to the small coffee farm that defined our family. I want the name remembered by my nephews and my children so they will always know where they came from.”
Today, Yani is learning many business lessons as Hato Viejo Coffee evolves toward her vision of becoming the primary source of Dominican Republic coffee in the U.S. As Yani reports in her blog, “…adversity, setbacks, and disappointment are part of the process. I have to wonder if I’d be so satisfied with what has come about if they hadn’t.” To be sure, starting a business during a pandemic can prove challenging, but Yani had the gift of time to invest in the start-up process, and her entrepreneurial spirit, perseverance, and seemingly boundless energy have helped the business thrive in its early stages. Yani handles the logistics of sourcing, supplier relationships, and distribution, and Dan handles advertising and website development. “You have to believe in yourself. I like to say ‘you have to jump in the water if you want to learn how to swim.”
For his part, Dan likes the cultural diversity that he’s seen develop over his 21 years in the Upper Valley. “The Upper Valley has grown and changed in a delightful way; it’s more diverse here and I think that’s good.” Along with selling their coffee from the website and delivering locally. Hato Viejo Coffee can be purchased at Dan & Whits, Elixir, Lebanon Farmers’ Market, and a new coffee subscription program is gaining ground. Ever the entrepreneur, Yani is also participating in a weekly radio show educating Latin Americans about fresh roasted coffees.
Dan knew the couple would find a way to make the business work, despite the unusual economic conditions of the pandemic. “I knew that we could figure it out, because relationships and connections were the key to getting the business started, and Yani is great at building connections.” And for Yani, bringing the flavors of her beloved Dominican Republic to the Upper Valley helps her stay connected to the community and family heritage that shaped her to become one of Lebanon’s newest entrepreneurs.