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18-Year-Old Entrepreneur Brings Lazy Buffalo Coffee/Food Truck to Northern New Mexico College with Help of Northern’s Small Business Development Center

Melissa De La Cruz’s collaboration with NNMC is helping her hone her business skills and providing more food options for the Northern community

ESPAÑOLA, N.M. —The Lazy Buffalo Trading Company LLC mobile coffee/food truck started out as a discussion in the family living room. 18-year-old Melissa De La Cruz had been taking business classes as part of her home-schooling curriculum and was very intrigued by the opportunities it presented.

“I like the idea of working for myself, of being able to start something and make it grow, having something that’s my own,” Melissa said.

With the growing popularity of food trucks redefining the dining experience, Melissa saw a unique niche she could fill in this field: a truck featuring coffee grown by her grandfather, Mario Tovar, in Huila, Columbia.

“Columbian coffee has always been my craving. It’s always been my love. I thought, what if he could send beans here? We can roast them, grind them and make coffees,” De La Cruz said. “It’s authentic, it’s delicious, it’s natural coffee. I want to bring something unique to my community. I want to give back something that’s special.”

On March 5, 2024, the Lazy Buffalo began selling unique coffee drinks and comfort food at the Center for the Arts parking lot on Northern’s Española campus from 7:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. Tuesdays, receiving guidance on business practices and regulations from Julianna Barbee, director of the Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) Small Business Development Center (SBDC). The food truck – which stands out with a bright mural by Santa Fe artist Sebastian Vela – is also at Presbyterian Española Hospital Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“Melissa De La Cruz, the innovative mind behind the Lazy Buffalo Coffee Truck, is a young and skilled entrepreneur who has reaped the rewards of a significant collaboration with the college,” said Dr. Denise Montoya, NNMC Vice President for Finance and Administration. “Julianna Barbee has brought invaluable expertise to guide us through the intricacies of launching a new venture that caters specialty food and beverages to students, faculty, staff and the local community. Together, we capitalized on the opportunity to align with one of President Hector Balderas' key priorities: addressing the need for diverse and accessible food options on campus, thereby combating the prevalent food desert in our local area.”

“This exciting opportunity is part of Northern's strategic plan to give students and our community more food choices, while providing opportunities for small businesses to grow and contribute to the local economy,” Balderas said. “There will be more initiatives like this coming to our campuses as we continue to transform the student experience at Northern.”

Melissa’s parents, Andrea and Richard De La Cruz, who own the food truck, have guided her in every aspect of the business.

“Without the help of my parents, I could have never begun this venture,” Melissa said. “We’ve stayed up countless nights figuring out permit paperwork, startup expenses, they've built contacts, they showed me how to make connections. I am truly blessed to have been raised by a family that taught me how to work for what I have. Their constant support has gotten me to where I am today.”

Melissa operates the truck with the help of her 12-year-old sister Mollie, who is an entrepreneur in her own right. It was Mollie who insisted the family should make freeze-dried candy in a large freeze dryer they purchased. The family initially rejected her idea, but when they eventually tested it, they were amazed by how delicious the confections were. Mollie suggested bringing some to elders at their church whose dental issues prevented them from eating candy, and they loved it. Now the freeze-dried candy and ice cream – on sale at the Lazy Buffalo – is Mollie’s own commercial enterprise.

The Lazy Buffalo’s coffee and specialty coffee drinks are exceptional, made with pure Columbian coffee grown at high altitude, which has a deliciously complex flavor and more caffeine kick. (Most “Columbian” coffee sold at coffee shops is blended with beans from other countries.) Melissa’s grandfather roasts most of the coffee, but since Columbians prefer a blond roast, Melissa creates her own dark roast. When she sent her grandfather a sample, he told her, “I don’t want you to burn my coffee ever again,” but her local customers appreciate the stronger flavor.

Starting a business at any age is daunting, much less at 18, but Melissa received help and many tools for success from Northern’s SBDC. Barbee guided her through setting up operations, marketing, sales and innovation. She is also helping Melissa develop a business plan, which will facilitate reaching her short-term goals of operating the food truck full time (she currently works part-time at the Bureau of Land Management Río Grande Gorge Visitor Center) and expanding the freeze-dried enterprise to sell those products at other businesses.  Long-term goals for the De La Cruz family include opening a café and eventually franchising the business into multiple coffee trucks and cafés.

“The thought of a coffee shop has always been my dream,” De La Cruz said. “I’d love to fill it with folks and have people studying and people on coffee shop dates, seeing people enjoying the coffee. I would love that more than anything.”

“There’s no better way to learn something new than by doing it, and 18-year-old Melissa De La Cruz is doing just that,” Barbee said. “Running this coffee truck business is a real-world entrepreneurial opportunity for Melissa. Our business landscape is ever evolving and in today’s world you can truly be whatever you want to be, as long as you are willing to put in the work. Melissa is an inspiration to other young entrepreneurs.  Her determination, passion to learn and genuinely kind respectful way are truly a model to follow.”

“SBDC Director Julianna Barbee has gone above and beyond my greatest expectations in assisting us in our business growth,” De La Cruz said. “Since the very first phone call, she has been by our side to aid us in all our questions, inquiries, structuring and concerns. The help she and the SBDC services have provided our business has been completely life changing. We would not be here serving Northern New Mexico today without the help of our business angel Julianna Barbee. The college has also been so encouraging in our start up, from offering advertising and notifying the college community to finding us a good location.”

Melissa and Mollie will use their experience at Northern to analyze customer demands on the drinks and food offered, gather feedback and continue to create better processes, but their real joy is developing their relationship with their customers, both at Northern and Presbyterian Hospital.

“All students, staff, and faculty have been enthusiastic to support us on campus. Each person who stops by, takes pictures and gives us friendly words does not go unnoticed, we are truly grateful to be here and get to grow and be one within this community,” De La Cruz said. “We are also grateful to the Española Presbyterian Hospital. We appreciate all patients and Hospital staff who have made our dream possible. I simply must thank everyone who has been a part of our journey to be where we are today.”

To learn more about how Northern’s Small Business Development Center can help new businesses and aspiring entrepreneurs, go to https://nnmc.edu/home/community-gateway/small-business-development-center-at-northern/. Follow the Lazy Buffalo Trading Company LLC at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=61556275628955

Northern offers over 50 bachelor's, associate and certificate programs in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math); Nursing and Health Sciences; Liberal Arts and Humanities; Arts, Film & Media; Business Administration; Teacher Education and Technical Trades.
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