You know the old joke about how eventually there will be a Starbucks on every corner? Luckily, Reno has kept that from happening by fostering a robust local coffee scene.
Star Village Coffee is one of Reno’s newest cafés, opening its doors at 560 Mill St. in early September. Owner Joel Zuniga runs Star Village based the idea of “rezonomics,” a unique model of economic principles and business philosophies that support tribal communities. As proprietor of what is touted as Reno’s first Native American-owned and -operated café, Zuniga aims to not only serve delicious, caffeinated concoctions, but to give back to the tribal community Star Village represents.
A lifelong Renoite, Zuniga grew up in the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. His passion for coffee didn’t start until a decade or so ago when he and his brother took a trip to Costa Rica during the coffee-harvesting season.
“We were able to witness the entire process, and after that, I kind of was hooked there on the ground, watching the process and doing a few tours of some coffee facilities—operations like processing the coffee, and, of course, the whole harvest side of things,” Zuniga said. “Coming back to the States, I bought a few books, and then I bought a small sample roaster shortly after that and started roasting in my garage as a hobby.”
From there, Zuniga and his family eventually opened a roasting facility on tribal land in Verdi and have been roasting coffee for retail locations in the area, through wholesale and online sales. Doing that for the last four years gave Zuniga the means and ambition to open his own coffee shop, expanding the family business and allowing more representation and opportunities for tribal members.
“We try to implement a model that tries to recruit tribal members and, of course, get them interested in all things coffee,” he said. “Then we have our rezonomics model or philosophy. Part of that is circulating some of those dollars back into our underrepresented tribal communities.”
The rezonomics model stresses the importance of tribal values like producing and creating tangible goods, increasing mobility, and sharing prosperity across generations. Access to production is central to the idea of rezonomics. More production opportunities allow for higher mobility, which in turn yields higher prosperity. The rewards can then be given back to the community, including those who are at a disadvantage for whatever reason, be it age, economic status, ability or systemic barriers.
“I want to create an opportunity—especially for younger generations—to encourage that kind of entrepreneurial spirit,” Zuniga said. The idea is if more of these rezonomically-oriented businesses emerge, it will inspire more to do the same, further contributing to the growth of these historically underserved, and underrepresented communities.
But Zuniga’s ethos extends beyond just his immediate community. He is conscientious about where and with whom he conducts his business. To obtain his raw product, he supports farms owned and run by other Indigenous people—and says a large number of those farms are run by women at various levels. He also works closely with other Native American-owned businesses in the area, keeping in line with the rezonomics mantra.
On the retail front, Star Village has what it refers to as its “grows wild” menu, with ingredients that can be sourced locally and readily.
“We try to highlight certain flavor components that are culturally significant. One of those ingredients would be the pine nut; that’s sacred to our people and has sustained us for thousands of years,” Zuniga said. “When we were deciding on a drink menu, we knew we had to include that, for sure.”
One of Star Village’s most popular drinks is the pine nut latte. Pine-nut harvesting season is in full swing right now, and Star Village sources them locally to make pine-nut milk for their menu items.
“We are just trying to highlight these Indigenous ingredients that are in our backyard that are essential to our people,” he said.
Other ingredients you may find on the menu, depending on the season, include choke cherries, local chili-infused honey and the yaupon plant. Relatively unknown, yaupon has been used for thousands of years by tribes across the country as a tea and is the only tea in North America with a significant caffeine content.
But Zuniga does recognize the importance of having a menu with more mass appeal, so customers are welcome to come in and order regular coffees, cappuccinos and espressos. According to Zuniga, customers have received Star Village well so far.
“I think Midtown is spreading beyond its usual limits,” he said. “Not long ago, there was nothing here, so you can really see the gentrification happening.”
Though gentrification often carries negative connotations, he didn’t mean this in a bad way. Part of his philosophy is that if businesses are going to spread into new areas, they should be accessible to everyone in the community. Star Village sits on Mill Street in a mostly residential area, between Wells Avenue and Lake Street. Its proximity to downtown, Midtown and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is sure to attract a diverse patronage.
This may be just the beginning of the next chapter for Zuniga. After the dust settles from this new opening, he hopes to expand the business even more.
“I’d like to eventually turn the production facility into a retail location, and (add) more locations around town after this one,” he said.
It’s the next logical step in the rezonomics model, but Zuniga also possesses a calm, one-thing-at-a-time approach. Right now, he and his brother are content with getting this location established—and sharing their product and wealth with their community.
Star Village Coffee is located at 560 Mill St. For more information, call 775-287-9883, or visit starvillagecoffee.com.