It all started with a class assignment that asked students to write down what they wanted to do in the future.
“To take over my mom’s cafe,” seventh-grader Imena wrote.
When Aida Villegas found her daughter’s homework assignment while cleaning the house, she immediately called her oldest daughter. “She wants to take over the coffee,” she said.
“What coffee?” Catherine asked.
Since Imena was 2 years old, she’d heard her mother talk about her dream of opening to cafe It didn’t seem to matter that at the time the cafe existed only as a collection of loose leaf papers and plans written in a black notebook.
For 15 years, Villegas had been jotting down ideas, envisioning a small Caribbean restaurant, but wanted to take “baby steps” and open a cafe first to see if she could grow the business.
The 42-year-old had just graduated from the University of Phoenix with a bachelor’s in entrepreneurial and small business operations and the same year, Catalina, her oldest daughter, graduated from high school. She remembers thinking: “When are you going to stop being afraid?”
Up until then, fear had held her back from pursuing the idea, but on that day in 2019, she decided to take the plunge.
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A future for her daughters
Cicter’s Cafe — the name inspired by her daughters’ initials — opened between two auto shops off Miller Road in Buckeye on Juneteenth 2020.
Villegas doesn’t run the business alone; her three daughters of her are always by her side of her. Catalina, 20, runs social media. Imena, 16, does the art. And Carolyn, 10, is the future “CEO.”
“I literally tell them that they’re the boss,” she said, adding that she plans to pass the cafe on to her daughters someday. “No matter how bleak the world is, there’s a future for them.”
She said Juneteenth was a perfect day for the family to hold a grand opening.
“We are an Afro-Latin business.” she said. “We are the dream of what our past families would have wanted.”
What to expect at Cicter’s Cafe?
The small cafe, housed in a former gas station, is decorated with plants potted in Café Bustelo coffee cans, a hopscotch diagram drawn in front by a 10-year-old and a painting of a Puerto Rican flag.
Despite the cheerful décor, their business often gets mistaken for the stereo and tint shop that sits behind it and sometimes people still think it’s a gas station.
“So they’ll come in, and they’ll be like ‘Can I get? Um, what? Where’s the gas,'” Catalina said. “And I’ll be like, ‘It’s not here. We have coffee if you want that kind of fuel.'”
Inside, Villegas, who was raised in Trenton, New Jersey, wears a Puerto Rican flag tattooed on her arm as she serves coquito-inspired coffee drinks in a room filled with paintings by local artists. Some of the pieces were created at an art event held in the back of her shop.
They reflect her vision of bringing the vibrant colors and culture of Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Jamaica to one of the fastest-growing cities in the Valley.
“I was like, ‘Let’s bring something from the islands out here,'” she said. “Let’s bring who we are and show the world.”
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What’s on the menu?
One drink on the menu that speaks to Villegas’ childhood is a nonalcoholic version of coquito. The cinnamon-spiced, coconut-based drink is served around Christmas in Puerto Rico, but since she doesn’t have a liquor license, she played with the recipe to make it complement coffee. Her version of ella is served as a cold brew, latte, chai or on its own.
“It’s similar to a horchata, but it’s thicker because instead of using rice milk, we use coconut milk,” Villegas said.
For the coffee drinks, she uses Dominican Honey Wash beans and sometimes Café Bustelo, which she said is a staple in the Puerto Rican community.
The cafe sells a variety of smoothies in tropical flavors like mojito and passion fruit, and Villegas makes her own version of a Cuban sandwich with ham, pork and Swiss cheese on ciabatta bread.
The menu is constantly evolving as Villegas and her daughters come up with new treats like Jamaican banana bread, rum cake, guava and cheese empanadas, coffee cakes and guava glazed donuts.
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Since opening the cafe, Villegas has hosted a Latin night, an art battle and the United Dance Team holds car washes there. All three of Villegas’ daughters are involved with the team and Villegas serves on the board.
Villegas also recently held a Juneteenth event, which she said was one of the first in Buckeye.
“The culture was really there,” said Shahira McGinty, the president of the United Dance Team. “People were like, ‘We’ve never seen this before in Buckeye.'”
Catalina, her oldest daughter, told her mother that she’s now the inspiration for many of the girls on the dance team. Growing up, Catalina never saw small-business owners who looked like her.
“You did that, mom,” she said. “These little girls see us and they’re like, ‘Wow, they look like me.'”
Cicter’s Cafe is located off north First Street and Miller Road next to West Valley Tires and is open from 7 am to 2:30 pm Monday to Friday and 9 am to 12 pm on Saturdays. The cafe is closed on Sundays.
Details: Cicter’s Cafe, 824 N. First St., Buckeye. 602-607-8010, facebook.com/cicterscafe.
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Reach the reporter at Jonmaesha.Beltran@gannett.com or on Instagram @Jonmaesha.
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