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Veteran says he was forced to close N.J. coffee shop because of COVID losses

Family and veteran-owned N.J. coffee shop closed due to COVID

Santiago Cuellar outside of the Flemington Coffee Shop.Courtesy

When Santiago Cuellar and Maria Cuellar decided to purchase a small coffee shop in Hunterdon County in 2018, they both thought: “What could go wrong?”

“We knew how to cook, we knew how to manage it, so we knew we should be OK,” Maria said.

But two years later, the coronavirus pandemic would force the closure of a countless number of businesses across New Jersey, including the Flemington Coffee Shop.

The shop, a staple in Hunterdon County since 1959, closed its doors about two months ago. The closure was announced on the business’s Facebook page in late June.

The motto of the family and veteran-owned business was “mi casa es su casa” or “my home is your home” — a statement that reflects what propelled Santiago and Maria to buy the shop three years ago.

“I was searching on the Internet for opportunities, chains that might be available for purchase. And I came across a gem, a hidden little secret in Flemington. I went there just to check it out, and it just felt like us — what we do,” Santiago said. “I called it an extension of our dining room and living room. There would be young mothers that are out and about and older couples that go to places. And they could come in there and just feel comfortable.”

Maria echoed, “It was a place we could call home. For such a long time, everyone that came to our home, we always welcomed them. And we always had gatherings, and they always loved the food ... So we did it. We bought it and put a lot of effort into it.”

Santiago served in the United States military for 32 years, achieving the rank of master sergeant. Santiago said his passion for serving his community quickly grew to equal his passion for serving his country.

“A lot of customers told me, ‘You really, really look like you like this. Like you’re doing it because you like it, not because you have to,’” Santiago said. “And that was my goal when I retired. I wanted to do something I want to do, not something I have to do.

“Our first two or three months, our cook was like, ‘Wow.’ He hadn’t seen the place this packed on the weekends in years. It was really booming, and it almost became a little bit too much to handle.”

Family and veteran-owned N.J. coffee shop closed due to COVID

Santiago Cuellar and Maria Cuellar.Courtesy

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit — creating an insurmountable labor shortage for the business. For months, it was only kept afloat by the work and dedication of Santiago and Maria, their three children, and Santiago’s mother.

“There’s no motivation in the workforce ... when I lost my original crew when I closed, I went through months and months of just me and family keeping the place going,” he said. “I must have trained at least six or seven dishwashers over the last eight months, and the ones that do a really good job ended up getting a job somewhere else.”

Santiago and Maria attempted to keep the business alive by expanding its takeout services to platforms like GrubHub, UberEats, and DoorDash, as well as widening its menu to include Latin favorites like Cuban sandwiches, empanadas and flan.

A customer and friend of the shop even launched a GoFundMe effort to help support the business.

However, the revenue stream for the restaurant nonetheless declined as the pandemic continued — even when it was able to reopen for more than take-out, Santiago and Maria said.

“Once restaurants were opened by the state, still people wouldn’t come,” Maria said. “And we were just like, ‘This is going to take awhile. It’s not going to take a couple of weeks; it’s not going to take a couple of months. It’s going to take years.’”

Santiago added, “Pre-pandemic, I had no problem paying the rent. But during the pandemic and after the pandemic — I used to fit 70 people for sit-down ... and it just wasn’t happening, and I wasn’t sure when it was going to happen again.”

Funding from the federal government also “never really materialized,” according to Santiago.

“Over the last six, seven months, I got so far behind on bills ... It was $1,000 here, $1,000 there, and $5,000 (from the Payback Protection Program) — and that doesn’t do anything,” Santiago said. “I’ve heard other business entrepreneurs get $50,000 or $100,000 to keep them going, and my overhead costs are astronomical.”

Maria said their financial setbacks and the additional hours they devoted to the restaurant each day were “draining us” — and raising concerns for the wellbeing of Santiago in particular, who is disabled and suffers from various medical ailments.

“I have a couple of issues — back issues from all those years of running around in the military, and mild asthma and stomach issues (diverticulitis)... my blood pressure was going up, which I’ve had way under control for many, many years,” Santiago said. “It’s multiple little things, but in the long run they add up to quite a bit.”

All of these factors led to the family’s “heartbreaking” decision to close the restaurant, Maria said. When asked about what both she and Santiago will miss the most about serving the Flemington community and beyond, they both responded, “the people.”

“We miss the people, and I think the people miss us also,” Santiago said. “So many customers have voiced how sad it is, how depressing it is ... some text me when they’re passing by the coffee shop and say ‘It’s not the same.’”

Family and veteran-owned N.J. coffee shop closed due to COVID

Santiago Cuellar (right) with his grandson Brendan (middle) and his grandson's best friend, Josiah (left).Courtesy

The family is currently meeting with a bankruptcy attorney. However, Santiago already has a vision in mind for what he hopes the spot will become.

“Breakfast places in general, which I love — I love getting up early and getting the bacon on — are just not the same. So I would love to see it the way it used to be. I would love to see it come back to life,” Santiago said.

While the Cuellar family may have been forced to close the doors of their restaurant, they’re not ready to remove their aprons just yet. Maria, Santiago, and their children are currently looking to open a business selling empanadas, a favorite dish of both the family and patrons of the coffee shop.

“We have been making empanadas for so many years, and they grew up on empanadas,” Maria said. “So my kids are working on opening their own kind of business selling empanadas, and we are in the background helping them.”

Santiago added, “It’s looking pretty promising. Hopefully there will be a spinoff with the boys, and we will be moving something forward. But only time will tell.”

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Caroline Fassett may be reached at