Inspired by Indigenous and Latin American culture, the Tonantzin Casa de Café will be the newest coffee spot in town when it opens in the Boulder Public Library next month.
The cafe space, inside the library’s main branch at 1001 Arapahoe Avenue, has seen a handful of vendors since the 1990s — most recently the Seeds Library Cafe, which was owned by the Boulder County Farmers Market. It closed in the aftermath of the pandemic.
None, however, welcomed patrons with the pink, blue and adobe-painted walls, bright decor and specialty pastries — reminiscent of houses throughout Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua — that Tonantzin will offer.
Tonantzin Casa de Café is meant to feel like “you’re going home to get a cup of coffee, especially if you’re Indigenous or Latin American,” Cynthia Diaz, owner of Tonantzin, said.
In October 2021, Diaz opened Tonantzin Casa de Café at Denver’s 910Arts live and work space. The coffee shop sits in the central courtyard of the building, which houses three floors of studio space in one of the city’s art districts with a rich Latino history.
Tonantzin’s Boulder menu will reflect Denver’s, where the most popular drinks include a cinnamon horchata latte and the Tonantzin mocha, made with Mexican chocolate. When it comes to the cafe’s light breakfast and lunch, Diaz recommends Tonantzin’s version of avocado toast, with red onion and lime on a corn tostada shell.
The Boulder Public Library’s Tonantzin location will also offer pre-made, grab-and-go options. Library-goers who want freshly made food and drinks off the menu can order online by scanning the QR codes throughout the building.
Diaz said she heard about the available library cafe space from a friend. Though the library started searching for a vendor through a formal bid process, it moved to word-of-mouth advertising after several months.
“We didn’t get any interested vendors,” the library’s deputy director, Jennifer Phares, said. So the library shifted to what Phares called “our own grassroots process.”
The cafe’s history and how Diaz’s vision aligned with the library’s
In 2009, after 13 years of selling coffee inside the Boulder Public Library off a small cart, Espress-Oh!’s owner, Susanna Block, closed her mobile cafe.
Though the library solicited bids for a cafe to replace Espress-Oh!, all interested vendors were restaurants that needed cooking and counter space the library couldn’t provide.
Lacking the budget to renovate the cafe, the library placed a coffee vending machine on the enclosed walkway that connects its north and south buildings over Boulder Creek.
In 2014, the Boulder Public Library prepared for a renovation, funded by the Capital Improvement Bond, which voters approved in 2011. With $4.9 million and input from patrons, the library expanded children and teen spaces, added more seating, and reconfigured its fiction and media collections, as well as its public computer and checkout areas.
“One of the number one things they wanted the library to have was the cafe again,” Phares said, referring to feedback from library users.
By April 2015, renovations concluded and included a new, permanent cafe counter. The library also chose a new tenant, the Seeds Library Cafe, owned by Boulder County Farmers Market. The cafe sourced chai, salads and pastries from local businesses.
But the pandemic hit the cafe hard. And when the Boulder Public Library reopened fully last summer, Seeds didn’t last long.
“They just weren’t able to staff the space, and there wasn’t enough business to support keeping it open,” Phares said. At the beginning of 2022, the Boulder County Farmers Market board of directors terminated its lease inside the library.
To fill the spot, the library launched a formal bidding process through the city’s portal Bidnet. But no one submitted a proposal.
“I think that was primarily because vendors like restaurants aren’t really connected to that [portal] and wouldn’t really be looking for opportunities there,” Phares said.
After a few months, the library switched gears, instead working with Colorado’s Small Business Development Center and the Latino Chamber of Boulder County to advertise the bidding opportunity to their audiences. Criteria for applicants included vision, experience, menu variety and price points — and whether the interested business was woman- or minority-owned.
That effort turned up 14 bids from the Denver-metro area, including several from established local cafes and entrepreneurs looking to start a cafe or expand from a food truck. Boulder Public Library chose Diaz’s Tonantzin Casa de Café, since her mission to create a space for the Latino community closely aligned with the library’s own vision, Phares said.
“She described her cafe in Denver as ‘your abuelita’s casita,’” Phares said of Diaz who had portrayed Tonantzin as a homey cottage. “One of our values is that the library is there for everybody and is welcoming for everyone.”
‘A space where you can feel safe’
At Tonantzin’s Denver location, Diaz organizes youth pop-up events and other programs for the Latin American community.
In October, she opened an art gallery in the 910Arts building that doubles as a seating area for the cafe. Judy Weaver, a curator in the community, selects the gallery’s work to highlight young Black, Indigenous and Latin American artists.
“What we’re wanting to do is connect with the community by sharing those cultural things and also being a space where you can feel safe,” Diaz said. She hopes the Boulder location will foster a similar role in the community — though it may take time.
Boulder’s Tonantzin Casa de Café is around 80 percent complete, Diaz said. She’s waiting on a dishwasher delivery, sign installation, and is working out Wi-Fi kinks on the bridged seating area over the Boulder Creek. Both Diaz and Phares said Tonantzin will be open before the year’s end.
“Come out and support us,” Diaz said of the cafe’s winter launch. “We’re opening during the slowest time.”
Tonantzin Casa de Café will be open sometime before the end of 2022. You can find the cafe at 1001 Arapahoe Ave. at Boulder Public Library – Main Library.