By Stephen Vargha
“I need a place for expats and Cuencanos to meet,” said Rosana Malo. The owner of a rather unique place was trying to explain why she opened Flora Caffe, on the northwest corner Plaza del Otorongo. “This is a place for all of us to get together. My vision is to provide a special place for people of all backgrounds to meet.”
Malo’s vision has come a long way from what her great-grandfather started in 1910. He started a dairy farm in the Burgay community, in northern Azuay Province.
Along with the farm products, her great-grandfather went to Europe three or four times a year to sell Panama hats. That was quite the journey back then as the only way to get there was by steamship. During those long journeys, he left the farm to his wife and 19 children.
“We are a very traditional family. That included having breakfast, lunch, and dinner together,” said Malo. “My grandmother made all of the decisions, and she took care of the family.”
Today, there are 850 offspring from that family, and on those 180 acres, his herd has become 350 cows. Along with milk, cheese and yogurt were produced on the lush valley land in near the Cañar Province border.
About twenty years ago, the dairy farm focused just on milk. On a slow day, about 1,200 liters (317 gallons) are produced. When all of the cows are milked, 2,000 liters (528 gallons) are trucked to Toni’s facility in Guayas Province.
Diversification came about when Malo and her husband, Juan Carlos Velez, were getting their MBAs at INCAE Business School, in Costa Rica. While at the school, her husband exclaimed, “Let’s do something different!”
At that time, Cuenca was a small city. It only had about 150,000 people. Her husband’s idea was to go beyond the borders of the city and country.
“Let’s export roses,” said her husband. Her first thought was that it was a “crazy project” and her father was not initially receptive to it either.
“We knew nothing about roses. And, Colombia was the number-one producer of roses and flowers,” said Malo. But the recent MBA graduate crunched the numbers and showed them to her father that it could be done. He agreed after seeing the data.
Her father gave them five acres though only two were asked for. At 9,676 feet above sea level, the roses grow very strong with thick stems, sometimes reaching a height of five feet.
Today, they have 30 acres with 18 greenhouses. There are 700,000 rose plants growing on the farm, producing nine million flowers. Helping out on the farm are people from 150 indigenous families.
Originally, their export market was Russia. Malo says that because of the harsh weather in Russia, roses are big part of their culture. The roses were so good that they ended up in flower shows in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In 2009, the Russian economy stagnated, so Malo and her family had to look for a new market.
In 2016, Malo created a new company: Ecuador Direct Roses (EDR). The idea was to cut out the middleman, which benefits everyone. By doing this, fresh roses can be delivered to all fifty states for a much cheaper price. And they are certainly going to last longer as less hands are touching them.
“Using a wholesaler takes ten days,” says Malo. “I guarantee that our organic roses will last at least 15 days!”
Once an order is placed, the roses are cut and put into a cooler. The very next day, they are trucked to the airport in Quito, where they are flown to Miami. Malo says that their product has to be perfect otherwise it gets held up in Miami.
The cold weather at night helps the roses stay healthy. No chemicals are used as Malo says they give the plants everything they need. “It is not easy to be organic, but everyone in Ecuador is working to be chemical-free,” Malo said. She adds that because of her farm’s expertise, they are helping other farms in Ecuador to grow fresh cut flowers.
Her generosity goes beyond fellow farmers. Malo is active with local charities, including the Hearts of Gold Foundation and the Cuenca Soup Kitchen.
“Let’s help the Venezuelans. We started feeding just ten people per day, but now it is up to 180 people Monday through Friday,” Malo said. On top of that, volunteers cook baby food to give out on the weekends to the needy.
Though her roses business is extremely successful, the beginning of the pandemic closed down the world’s markets. No one was buying roses. While many companies could not afford to pay their employees, Malo worked out an arrangement to help her family of workers.
“We needed to work together as a family. Income was cut for the first two months,” said Malo. “We paid 50 percent of their salary for the next two months before EDR came to the rescue.” This year has been an excellent year for the roses business.
Malo also wants to give back to the expats community. “I want expats to know that I appreciate you being here,” said Malo. “It is amazing that you sold your homes and properties to move to Cuenca. I am honored an impressed that you chose Cuenca over Italy, France, and Europe.”
This is how Flora Caffe came about on July 15 with its grand opening. Malo wanted to have a place where all could experience the five senses. That includes hearing the live music by Albert Omaña with his guitar. It could be eating one of the delicious desserts that Susy Malo helped prepare. Smelling the fresh aromatic coffee from her husband’s family farm in the Yunguilla Valley is a pleasant experience. Of course, the fresh foods and desserts are wonderful to partake. People say it is difficult to choose between the pecan pie, lemon pie, and the “Brookie.”
There is a lot to take in. It starts immediately when you enter Flora Caffe as there are fresh, brilliant flowers everywhere. There may be fresh ginger flowers beckoning or tropical flowers that day. Of course, there will be roses.
Then there is the colorful artwork everywhere in the two-story 80-year-old adobe farmhouse, built when the current Otorongo Plaza was on the outskirts of Cuenca. That includes PaintourArt Galería upstairs. There are masked musicians by Miguel Illescas. A huge, gorgeous replica of the New Cathedral sits in the middle of floor. Of course, you have your choices of hummingbirds.
The goal is to make the second floor an artist’s retreat. “We want to start painting classes upstairs,” said Malo. “Cuenca is known as an arts capital, and I think this is a great way to contribute to the community.”
On top of all that, there is a way for both Malo and you to give back to the community. She has an old wooden trunk full of new blankets. Buy one, and Malo will donate a second one to people in need in Cuenca.
“You have time to contribute, and we are thrilled you want to help,” Malo said with a big smile.
Flora Caffe, Benigno Palacios 15-23 y Av. 3 de Noviembre (Plaza del Otorongo), Cuenca, 099-976-4947, https://www.facebook.com/floracaffecuencaa, Open: Tuesday-Friday, 10:00am-6:30pm, Saturday, 10:00am-3:00pm
Ecuador Direct Roses, https://ecuadordirectroses.com