A new chain of modern-yet-traditional coffee shops in Mexico City are popping up everywhere. (Photo by Cielito Querido)

Watch out Starbucks, Cielito Querido is here

It’s no secret who Cielito Querido—the new kid on the coffeeshop block in Mexico—sees as their biggest competition. One need look no further than their coffee cups.

Aquí le decimos chico, no alto. The bold snub is printed in large retro fonts across the bright blue 12 oz. tall—err, chico—paper to-go cups.

Cielito Querido is a 3-year-old, Mexican-owned cafe popping up on corners and thoroughfares throughout Mexico City. There are currently 26 of them in the metropolitan area, but that number is expected to reach 50 by the end of the year. Starbucks currently operates 368 stores in 49 cities in Mexico. They plan to open about 45 new stores in Mexico per year over the next four years.

After firming their grip on Mexico City, Cielito hopes to set up shops in Puebla, Cancun and Monterrey next year. From there: New York or Los Angeles.

It’s the little local hombre vs. the big green giant, David battling Goliath for the hearts—and pesos—of his own people by trying to offer a more authentic Mexican cafe experience: I see your flan cappuccino and I raise you a chocolate con chile.

While Cielito clearly sees Starbucks as its chief competitor, it’s doubtful Starbucks feels threatened—at least not yet.  “We are proud to have been an important part of Mexico’s world-class coffee culture for the past 10 years and believe there is continued room for robust competition in the country,” a spokesperson responded by email.

Starbucks remains the No. 1 coffeeshop in Mexico with 37 percent of the market share in 2011, according to global market research firm Euromonitor International. Cielito is No. 10—just behind McCafe—with only 1 percent of the market.

Inside the Cielito Querido cafes, dark woods mix with splashy brights—think turquoise and pink—with traditional tiles, a a chaotic mix of fonts, and pewter mugs and teapots scattered about. The result is a retro-chic aesthetic that earned them the Interior and Graphic Design awards in the Iberoamerican Biennale in 2010.

The goal, says Cielito’s industrial designer Héctor Esrawe, “is to reflect our reality as a Mexican culture and also as a Latin culture. There’s an order in this chaos. It’s something that is attractive to many people from all over—they enjoy the idea of not having a perfect city, a perfect country. It’s completely honest.”

Walk through a cafe and you’ll stumble upon national sayings. A Valentine’s Day promotion featured the popular mexicanismo “Barriga llena, corazón contento” (full belly, content heart) to advertise a 2-for-1 drink special.

The menu is similarly nationalistic, with items including cafe de olla (hot coffee blended with cinnamon and piloncillo), molletes and the popular panque de elote, or Mexican cornbread.

“There’s a lot of tradition and pride with Mexican products form different parts of the country,” says Cielito Querido CEO Diego Landa. “We went to Oaxaca and looked for coffee, for chocolate, for recipes like horchata. They were differential products and very hard for an American or an Italian competitor to have them in their offering.”

Despite the controlled chaos of the design and the exotic menu offerings, there’s something very familiar to any American who walks into a Cielito cafe—the friendly baristas; the shelves lined with beans, mugs and other merchandise; the small packaged snacks by the register for the impulse-prone. Sure it might be a packet of chile-flavored pumpkin seeds instead of a granola bar, but Cielito has clearly taken a few pages from the Starbucks manual.

Landa admits that Cielito Querido—owned by parent company Grupo ADO—hoped to replicate many of Starbucks’ strengths, like efficiency and customer service. “The customer now expects a spirit of attending him they learned from Starbucks,” he says. “So we had to take a lot of things in their operations.”

One thing they didn’t take, however, was the Starbucks language.

“I  sat in a Starbucks for hours looking at the communication between the barista and the customer and they speak different languages,” Landa says. “The customer asks for a small cappuccino and the barista says, ‘You want an alto latte?'”

“We talk to Latinos the way Latinos talk,” Esrawe agrees.

But not everyone is hearing the sermon just yet.

“I’ve never seen it before,” says housing developer Jose Vazquez, 36, sitting outside a Starbucks on the restaurant-lined Avenida Michoacan, eying the bright blue Cielito marquee just a block away. He says he chooses Starbucks because it’s closer to his office and “it’s well known so it’s easy to say we are meeting at Starbucks.”

Working inside on her laptop, 26-year-old restaurant manager Norma Garcia says she’s familiar with Cielito Querido but prefers Starbucks because “they are nicer, it’s quieter and I like their products more like the latte, tea or the ice caramel macchiato.”

Over at Cielito, Marcelo Master, a 56-year old yoga instructor originally from Brazil, has a fresh espresso and copy of Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth” in front of him. “I don’t like Starbucks,” he says. “I don’t like how they make their coffee. And [Cielito Querido] is a big Mexican chain.” Also, he adds, Starbucks is “too busy and with a lot of people with ties.”

Bernardo Esquivel Perez, a 79-year-old retired lawyer, doesn’t care if Cielito is a Mexican company. For him, it’s all about the espresso.

“I am worldly,” he says. “I take coffee from wherever as long as it’s good.”

Watch out Starbucks, Cielito Querido is here  kate kilpatrick headshot food NBC Latino News

Kate Kilpatrick is a freelance journalist currently based in Mexico City.

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