Ventanitas of Miami

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In Miami, coffee isn’t bought indoors, it’s bought through a window.

Ventanitas, Spanish for ‘little windows', are walk up windows that typically sell Cuban coffee and pastries. Hundreds of them line the city, offering quick and inexpensive access to what locals believe is the best coffee in the world. But Ventanitas offer so much more. They are a window into Miami. A mix of the United States and Latin America, there’s always time for a cafecito from the thriving and social community of window vendors.

At any Ventanita, customers are greeted with the smell of freshly ground coffee and a warm welcome. Customers form into queues alongside rows of pastries: croquetas, pastelitos and empanadas. The servers - almost always women - welcome customers with “amor” (my love), “mi vida” (my life), “hija/hijo” (daughter/son). Regulars are welcomed by servers who already know their order. For those who do not frequent an establishment, there are four espresso-based options to choose from:

Menu options at the Ventanita window of the Versailles (Photograph by Daniela Perez)

Cafecito/Café Cubano: Cuban espresso served in a thimble-sized cup. Very strong and very sweet.

Colada: A large styrofoam cup of Cuban coffee, served with several thimble-sized cups. 2-3 espressos worth of coffee that is meant for sharing.

Café con Leche: A Cuban latte. Hot steamed milk with cuban espresso.

Cortadito: Cuban espresso with a shot of milk.

If a person is looking for an ordinary 8 ounce pour, they’ll have to be specific. Felipe Valls Jr., owner of Miami’s most iconic Cuban restaurant, Versailles, chuckles: “In Miami, American coffee is called American coffee. Everywhere else it’s just coffee.” Versailles was founded by his father, Felipe Valls Sr., along with over 40 other restaurants. Each of the restaurants within this empire of eateries features a Ventanita.

Ventanitas are an intrinsic part of Miami’s culture, so much so that at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s mayor issued an emergency order restricting socialisation at the walk up windows. A fact that is not surprising when considering many Ventanitas are open until 3 am, with some open for 24 hours. Today, the Ventanitas carry on with reduced hours and social distancing guidelines in place. It’s difficult to imagine the city without them, but these pillars of Floridian coffee culture did not emerge until the 1960’s.

Felipe Valls Sr. fled Fidel Castro’s revolution along with hundreds of thousands of Cuban refugees. They came to Miami and brought Cuban coffee and its culture with them. In Cuba, coffee was commonly sold from open-air kiosks and counters, where locals would trade stories whilst sipping espresso. The Cuban community had a strong desire to continue this communal caffeine consumption, but Felipe Valls faced the challenge of merging the culture with an invention sweeping the south: air conditioning. Restaurants, businesses, and homes were all being transformed by window units that provided cool air to battle the formidable heat and humidity of the southern states. Businesses everywhere were faced with the dilemma of keeping coffee sales up front whilst closing the open-air facades in favour of A/C. At the time, Felipe Valls worked at a hospitality equipment company and proposed installing a single-hung window, otherwise known as a guillotine window, at El Oso Blanco, a supermarket that sold coffee. And thus, the first Ventanita in Miami was born.

Yaima, a server at the Tinta y Café (Photograph by Daniela Perez)

The Ventanitas serve a clear financial purpose. By keeping coffee sales up front, restaurants reserve seated dining for customers who want a full meal with little additional cost. The Ventanitas serve a greater purpose. Though they are meant for quick service, locals will often be found gathering in their vicinity, conversing for hours on end. Employees develop deep connections with customers and traditional ways of serving coffee are preserved. Cost of living has soared in the city, but Ventanitas still serve coffee at under $2, typically less than $1 for a cafecito. This accessibility, combined with the quality of the drinks, ensures that residents of all backgrounds, from construction workers to bankers, visit throughout the day. When asked why he doesn’t raise prices, Felipe Valls says the Cuban community simply won’t allow it: “it’s too much our own. You can’t change something that is so traditional.”

Even the way the coffee is prepared favours human connection. In a coffee culture obsessed with optimisation, the Ventanitas are the antithesis of the Starbucks experience. Coffee is freshly ground, and orders are placed in a way that is informal and uncontrolled. Rather than take an order at once and give the customer a ticket to pick up their order, servers at Ventanitas will take orders and fulfil them as it is placed, first the drink, then some food or anything else that the customer would like to add. At the end, payment is taken in between quick jokes and friendly conversation. A system that is familial, warm, and facilitates connection.

Customers are retained because of the connection formed between themselves and their servers. It is not uncommon to find servers who have been working at their same Ventanita for over 10 years. They become linked to the community, sharing in wedding stories and baby pictures. One woman, Yaima, describes what keeps her tied to the Ventanita: “Conversations happen at the Ventanita that don’t happen inside… you make a lot of friends.” Immediately after, her favourite customer, Eric, chimes in and laughs “the Ventanita is healthier than a bar and cheaper too…it has a different feeling.”

This article, and the photographs that accompany it, are the work of Daniela Perez. A member of the Visual Communications MA at the Royal College of Art, her website can be viewed here.