When Manolo Betancur was in the Navy he visited the famed La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba. It is a celebrity hot spot and although it is disputed, there are claims that it was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite writing spots.
However, what stood out to Betancur was the graffiti. Every inch of La Bodeguita del Medio’s interior is covered in signatures, doodles, inspirational quotes and tributes. It is a way for people to feel connected to the bar.
When Betancur purchased Mama’s Coffee House in March 2015, he knew that he wanted his customers to feel the same kind of connection to his establishment. Patrons are encouraged to write on walls, tables, chairs, ceilings, floors, couches and even the piano. Betancur is torn between painting over it to make room for new customers and leaving it as is so that when people leave they know that there is a piece of them left behind.
Mama’s sits back off of Main Street between the quaint shops of downtown Pineville, near options for finding cheap gas and liquor right across the South Carolina border. It would be easy to miss if it weren’t for the garden of brightly decorated doors that line the side yard. The doors are painted by local artists who meet once a year to decide on a theme.
Promoting local artists is very important to Betancur, as is his passion for coffee and Latin American heritage. He strives for everyone to feel welcome at Mama’s, but he said that given the current political climate he especially wants it to be a safe haven for immigrants like him.
Betancur grew up in Colombia where coffee is a way of life. His determination to find the best coffee in Charlotte spurred him to create the smooth and bold Manolo’s Blend, made up of some of his favorite Colombian coffees. He said, “I am Colombian, we drink coffee like Americans eat pie.”
Betancur knows a thing or two about pies as well. He also owns Las Delicias Bakery on Central Avenue. One of the reasons that he was first interested in opening Mama’s was to have a place to sell his pastries on the other end of Charlotte. He said his next major goals for the coffee house are to update the equipment and to get a proper display for his pastries.
On the first rainy day that Charlotte had seen in forever in November, I headed to Mama’s. After ordering a croissant (trust me, splurge on the croissant) and a large cup of Manolo’s Blend, I made my way to my favorite corner table. It’s the one adorned by my daughter’s signature and her drawing of “crazy dog.” She loves coming here because in addition to getting to draw on the walls, there are board games and large clumps of clay for her to play with.
I listened as patrons wandered in. Some were in and out, others lounged on the couches engaging in good natured ribbing about their favorite college teams. An older woman with a lilting Southern drawl ordered a coffee to go but quickly realized that she had left her wallet in her car. She told Tyler, the friendly barista wearing a backward University of Michigan hat, that she would be right back. Before she had even taken a step the young woman behind her said, “I got you.”
And, as I was packing up a charismatic regular ordered his “usual” before he sat down and pounded out a couple of numbers on the piano. What he lacked in skill he made up for in enthusiasm. He received a spontaneous ovation when he finished. Just a typical rainy Tuesday.
Mama’s may not be the biggest or the sleekest coffee shop in the Charlotte area. It may be a little out of the way, but it is worth the drive. Where else can you get great coffee, play Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robot and listen to a lively rendition of Heart and Soul played on a graffiti covered piano?
Mama’s Coffee House: 716 Main St., Pineville
This story first appeared on Charlottefive.com.