Irazú started out as a dream for Rod Salazar. He had pitched the idea of opening a coffee shop in the Burlington community to his mother Rosario Villalobos in 2004.
“I thought it was a good idea to have a family business. I agreed with him, but it was a lot of work,” Villalobos said in Spanish.
The pair quit their jobs and rented a space on Church Street that required intense renovations. Villalobos said at the time, there were no coffee shops in Burlington, so they were eager to open the shop and fill this need in the community. However, when they opened in 2004, so did the Starbucks on Church Street. Becky Villalobos, Rosario’s daughter and current manager of Irazú, said how this deeply hurt the business.
“That was our main income for our home. The first months were horrible and we weren’t barely even making ends meet,” Becky said.
Also, Becky said two months after the opening of Irazú, Salazar was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis or MS and half of his body became paralyzed. Everyone in the family started pitching in and working long hours at the shop because they could not afford to hire additional workers while Rod began his treatments.
“Now he has a new expense, which was his medication. And it was very scary for a few months, but somehow by the grace of God, we made it happen,” Becky said.
Becky said eventually Elon students came into Irazú and loved the shop. She said some acapella groups would perform there. During this time, Salazar liked the idea of Irazú being on Elon’s campus, but at the time it only seemed like a pipe dream.
“It was always our dream to be here, but nobody, like no independent business, can be here, even if they want to,” Becky said.
In 2009, students chose Irazú to move onto campus instead of Starbucks, according to Becky and Rosario. Now Irazú is finishing its 15th year at Elon.
Becky said the coffee shop on Church Street remained open for the rest of the year, but business there was still slow, so it was eventually closed. Despite this, Rosario said that she couldn’t have asked to work at a better place than here at Elon.
“I like it a lot. I like to work here. I like to interact with the students,” Rosario said. “I feel very fortunate to have this place here.”
Rosario said not only does Irazú strive to have good quality coffee, but it also focuses on making people happy and feel welcomed.
“We call Irazú our family,” Rosario said.
Becky said their main goal is to make people have a cozy and loving experience. She said she tries to emphasize this with her employees.
“A lot of the students are away from home; they don’t get a smile or a hug, make connections with our customers,” Becky said.
Becky also said she specifically tries to make Latinos feel more at home by actions like speaking Spanish. She said Latino students are happy to converse in Spanish when they enter Irazú.
Irazú is named after a volcano in Costa Rica. Rosario said they used the name to show a little bit of their heritage. Becky said being a Costa Rican coffee shop can help contribute to the Latino community on campus and raise awareness about their culture.
“Just bringing a little bit of our culture into this part of the university and good coffee, because that’s what Latinos do,” Becky said.
Rick Earl, Elon’s production manager for cultural and special programs, said he goes to Irazú everyday, where he grabs his coffee that is waiting for him. He said even on busy days Becky will give him a hug.
“You feel like you are a part of the family,” Earl says.
Earl said as Elon continues to grow, he knows there will always be Irazú.
As for the future of Irazú, Becky and Rosario said they hope to continue the coffee shop business for as long as they can. Becky said she also has other dreams for Irazú in mind.
“In my vision, is hoping that we could open other places, like universities, or I want a coffee truck,” Becky said.
Becky said she’s hoping to take the food truck to games and other events but wants to remember the bottom line: this is a family business. Rosario said this is an opportunity where she can spend time with her family.
“Es una oportunidad donde compartimos,” Rosario said, “Porque, ya mis hijos viven separados, y aquí nos venimos a juntar. Aquí pasamos tiempo juntos.”
“It is an opportunity for us to spend time together,” Rosario said. “Because my children live separately, and here we come together. We pass time together.”
Leslie Aviles Mendoza contributed to the translation of Rosario Villalobos’ quotes.