Mireya Asturias Jones will be the first to tell you her cup runneth over. But that’s because, as the matriarch of Jones Coffee Roasters, she keeps it completely full at all times.
Story by: Cuyler Gibbons Images by: Shannon Cottrell
To say that Mireya Jones has a serious jones for coffee would be both a terribly painful pun, and a wild understatement. Born into a family with deep roots in coffee, the bean has never been too long out of sight or out of mind. But while a future in coffee might have seemed ordained in retrospect, until the actual opportunity presented itself, it wasn’t perfectly clear that coffee was to be her life. Today Mireya Jones is not only a coffee grower, and successful artisanal coffee roaster, but a global champion of economic development opportunities for women as well.
Mireya’s story begins on a far corner of the map, in the high country of western Guatemala. The year was 1870 and isolated up in the so called “cold zone”, was the town of Tejutla. A place where roads were dirt and few. In the town was a small general store. The store’s proprietress, Mireya’s great-grandmother, was owed a debt. In payment she accepted the deed for a property, still well up in the highlands, but far off, closer to the coast. Unfortunately, her husband saw himself as a committed, serious musician and would not suffer his art to go traipsing off on a horse in search of a piece of likely godforsaken land. After several months however, curiosity triumphed, at least among several of the town’s women, (the type of female initiative that has been a theme of Jones’ life) and, along with Mireya’s great grandmother they set off to find the property.
What they discovered was the deeded land, surrounded by acreage busy with Germans planting copious amounts of coffee. For anyone with eyes to see the next step seemed obviously apparent. And as Mireya Jones tells it, offered the industrious Germans as example, her great-grandmother, with the ragtag but willing assistance of her friends “rolled up their sleeves and began planting coffee. That’s how it started,” she says “and to this day the plantation is surrounded by the German owners who were in Guatemala at that time.”
Mireya’s great-grandmother had no sons and four daughters, and the farm blossomed under this female stewardship, while the daughters grew up. Another example of empowered women that informs Mireya Jones’ life even now. And then, one day a young European educated Guatemalan moved onto a nearby farm. He’d gone to Europe at 16, and received a world-class medical education in Vienna. Now, as a bi-lingual doctor, he had returned to serve the German coffee growing community, setting up a clinic in back in his home country. It wasn’t long before romance blossomed along with the coffee, and one of the daughter’s, who would become Jones’ grandmother, fell in love with the young doctor and they were soon married. Eventually the doctor bought out his wife’s sisters, and named the farm Finca Dos Mireyas – The farm of the two Marias—after Mireya’s great grandmother and grandmother.
The couple felt a superior education was vital and determined that their 5 children – four boys and one girl—should be educated in America. So, at age five each child began attending boarding school in California. Travel at that time between Guatemala and the States was by Steamer, and was prohibitively expensive. So this entire generation, which included Jones’ father, lived most of the time in San Francisco, and saw their parents only in the summer. Eventually Jones father went to Berkeley, and, while completing his studies there, he found time to meet and marry a fellow student who became Mireya Jones’ mother. The couple soon took over responsibility for the farm, and Mireya, a child of Guatemala, was born soon after her father and mother took up residence. Jones’ father was a highly educated man however, and interested in things other than farming, so when his older brother returned to Guatemala and the farm with an American wife of his own, Jones’ father applied for and received a position on the Berkeley faculty, bringing Mireya to America when she was 5 years old.
As she grew, her life remained bound up with the life of the farm that she visited each summer. “I did school all year,” she says. “Every summer we’d be down there and their school year is just opposite, so I went to a little school house on the farm. All the grades in one room.” Jones’ father was a hard, stubborn man and had no patience for his daughter’s interest in the life of the coffee farm. Women, he believed belonged in the house. But she found a kindred spirit in her grandfather, whose clinic was a refuge, and who encouraged and nurtured her interest in coffee. She also fell deeply in love with Guatemala. And she learned to cook. Something even her father could not object to.
Though coffee was ever a part of her life it would be some years before the world’s most popular drink took center stage for Jones. While she was still Mireya Asturias, Jones’ attended UC Berkeley and went on to earn her radiation therapy credentials. She also reunited with Larry Jones, who was then in pre-med at the same university. They’d gone to the same high school and were acquaintances, but, as Jones says, “We really began to enjoy each other in college.” More than that they got married. Working as a radiation therapist, Jones lived in San Francisco and Los Angeles while Larry completed med school and his residency. Despite the obviously demanding schedule, the couple managed to have 5 children during this time as well. Almost as soon as the fifth was born, Larry Jones was drafted and the family moved to his station in Stuttgart Germany. As if raising five children in a foreign country weren’t challenging enough, Jones found herself stretching even further. When Armed Forces Network was looking for a “female voice”, and a friend said to her “You like to talk, and you can pronounce foreign words, why don’t you try out?” Jones, fearless as always, took the challenge and won the job.
Jones was not only the first female broadcaster in the network’s history, she was responsible for developing all of her own programming. Today she gracefully minimizes the complex demands of such a busy life. “Life moved so quickly in those years. AFN was when Chuck (their youngest) was a year old…But, we were 30 and had the energy,” She says, looking back with an evident fondness for that time. Despite her modesty she obviously made an impact on the air. Back in California immediately after returning from Germany, Jones was shopping in a Sears, and on hearing her voice, a man insisted on shaking her hand telling her fondly, “I shaved to you every morning!”
While much of her adult life has focused on issues of women’s empowerment, her first real taste of movement politics was not auspicious. Based on her broadcasting experience in Germany Jones had been invited to speak at a Women in Media conference, sponsored by CBS Radio. Most of what she found in the agendas on display horrified her. Having spent the last 3 years in Germany she’d missed some of the debate and discord at play in America. Although she certainly believed that women were every bit men’s equal, and considered herself a feminist, she was a bit mystified as to what wisdom the radicalized conference organizers hoped she could provide. “They wanted to know what I thought they should do. So I told them ‘I think I’d go back home, put my bra back on and pick up a book!’” she says.
Eventually the family settled in San Marino when her husband began working in Pasadena. Jones’ uncle had been running the farm when he suddenly died in his 50s. Her aunt had become a nun, another uncle was disabled, and the other had never returned to Guatemala once he’d left. So responsibility for the farm fell to Jones’ father. About her father Jones’ minces no words. “He was a real male chauvinist pig. He didn’t want women anywhere near the coffee processing. My place was in the house doing what the other women were doing. He thought he was being very European. But of course he wasn’t.”
While Jones’ heart was never far from the family farm in Guatemala, back in the states she turned her considerable talent and focus to other things. Including launching a PR and marketing company that drew national clients like CBS Cable, Finlandia Vodka, and USA Today, all while serving on various boards including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Pacific Clinics, CARES, and the American Symphony Orchestra League among others. At the same time because, well because it takes a LOT of “coffee” to fill Mireya Jones’ cup, she launched an import business Colecion Mireya—a business she ran for 10 years successfully importing fabrics for interiors, woven by Guatemalan craftspeople.
Throughout this period the coffee business was beginning to change, in no small part due to the influence of Starbucks. You might think that an independent grower/roaster like Jones would have little positive to say about a corporate giant like Starbucks. But Jones gives credit where it’s due. “Starbucks worked very hard and did a great job bringing visibility to the specialty market. Before that, it was all commercial. So on one hand people are going ‘Oh boo, Starbucks’ but on the other hand they did something for the entire industry that you can’t replace.” While breaking open the market helped everyone’s business, Jones is equally appreciative of efforts to create a set of café standards – best practices for land use, safety and labor policies—that Starbucks worked for in Guatemala and throughout the coffee growing world.
Since its inception over 150 years ago most Finca Dos Mireya coffee had been sold to the European market by way of Hamburg, Germany. That market had grown increasingly difficult since the late 80s and, whether it was the fact that Jones now had two grown boys with an interest in the coffee business, or that her father saw a desperate writing on the wall, his attitude miraculously changed. Perhaps it had something to do with the smell of early morning coffee. By the start of the ‘90s the European coffee market was depressed, and the US was just seeing the rise of specialty roasts. Connecting the dots, Jones’ father looked around a saw a daughter with serious marketing and promotion credentials in the United States, along with an honest love of coffee. Jones herself puts it in typically more modest fashion. “I was just the first one on the corner,” she says. Be that as it may, one day her father her called and asked “Do you think maybe you could sell a container of coffee in the US?”. “I went ‘Holy S***’ where did that come from!”, but within short order Jones, says Jones “imported our first container, 38,000 pounds, almost 400, 100 pound bags.” She pauses at some length then finishes, “and then it’s sitting here. And we have no market.” There was nothing for it then, but to try and make one. So Jones and her two sons, Larry and Chuck, began cold calling, beginning in the morning with small east coast roasters.
But these beans needed to be sold and roasted within a month and it didn’t look like that was going to happen. A problem for most is an opportunity for Mireya Jones. As a board member of the L.A. Philharmonic Jones knew it was the orchestra’s 75th anniversary so she found a local roaster, and produced, and packaged a Symphony 75th Anniversary Roast to be distributed through the orchestra’s extensive volunteer network. The business survived. And it continued, sometimes with Chuck and Larry and another buddy driving around with a trunk full of beans visiting small roasters door to door. “Everybody got a hoot out of that,” says Mireya, “but it wasn’t very funny. It was very nerve-wracking!”
Within three years, however, Jones and her boys owned their own roaster. “Once we had that roaster, we were home free,” she says. “Of course we didn’t have any money and we needed to figure out how to market the hell out it.” What they did was personalize their farmers, making them recognizable individuals. And they stressed the family aspect of the operation. “We really pushed the family thing, and people loved it,” says Mireya. Actually what I think, after listening to her passion, warmth, and wit is, if you don’t buy whatever it is Mireya Jones is selling, then you’re just not paying attention. Jones, herself however, brews it down to something more basic. “They liked the coffee,” she concludes. “I think if the coffee wasn’t any good it would not have taken off, but the coffee was good.” Indeed it is. So good that several additional new roasters and a handful of moves later Jones Coffee Roasters, with two cafe locations, is now celebrating 23 years in California. That’s great news for all of us who live here. That Mireya Jones will continue spreading the gospel of quality coffee, and working to empower the women who grow it, is good news no matter where you live.