It was October 1993 and Michael Moreno had just opened Zona Rosa Caffe, his Latin American coffeehouse—the first of its kind in Pasadena—in the Playhouse District.
“I needed to get this ball rolling. … I just opened the door and I sat behind the counter waiting for somebody to come in,” says Moreno, whose colorful two-story space celebrates Latin American coffee, art, and music.
Unsurprisingly, business was slow at first, especially considering the unattractiveness of the district at the time, not to mention the dearth of nightlife. “It was pretty much go to the Playhouse and leave,” Moreno says. Yet he was able to stay afloat by carving out a niche—serving organic, fair-trade coffee with beans from the vast Latin American growing region that spans from Mexico to Peru.
“I wanted to have great coffee, I wanted to share my culture, and I wanted to have as part of that, events that no one else was really doing,” says Moreno, who this year will host Zona Rosa’s 25th annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration, one of the café’s staple events, offered free to the public.
Along with quality beans and eye-catching art, another draw is live music. For the past 25 years, from April through November, the unmarked alleyway next to Zona Rosa has come alive with free musical performances on Thursday evenings from 8 to 11 p.m.
“That’s the quiet secret of this place,” Moreno says. “It really shows the beauty of why the music and the art is a significant component of this café.”
The majority of acts come from Southern California, boasting a range of genres, from jazz, blues, and funk to salsa and folk rock. Even Grammy Award winners Quetzal and Ozomatli have jammed for Zona Rosa patrons in that concrete alleyway.
Moreno’s past experience exploring Europe’s renowned café cultures in France, Italy, and Spain, coupled with a deep appreciation for his Mexican heritage, helped shape his vision for Zona Rosa and the relationship he wanted to create with the community.
“I wanted to have that connection to my neighborhood, and then I wanted [to extend] that connection to anybody who wants to come here,” he says. “We do a lot for the community, we give back to the community, back to culture, artists, and musicians. I’m pretty proud of that.”