Honduran Couple Bring Law Firm and Gourmet Cafe to St. Paul

After graduating from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in 2016, Inti Martínez-Alemán knew he didn’t want to work at someone else’s firm.

“I didn’t want to have a boss. I wanted to work for myself,” Martínez-Alemán said. “I wanted to have the freedom to choose my clients, my fees and my schedule.”

After passing the bar exam, Martínez-Alemán, 37, signed on to an incubator program called LegalWise, which provided him with office space, administrative support, software and a pipeline for clients. and professional mentors in exchange for a small fee.

With this, Martínez-Alemán launched the law firm Ceiba Fôrte the same year he graduated. The ceiba is a towering tree of the tropics and is considered sacred by the Mayan people, while fôrte means “strong” in Spanish. The operation is aimed primarily at Spanish-speaking clients in civil matters related to business, real estate and employment.

“I was the only lunatic in my class who opened a law firm straight out of law school,” Martínez-Alemán said.

Diploma from Inti Martínez-Alemán’s mother. He practiced law alongside his mother in Honduras until she was murdered in 2011. It is not uncommon for lawyers to be killed in Honduras. Credit: Mike Mosedale | Sahan Diary

Martínez-Alemán was also probably the only one in his class who had ever run his own cabinet. Before graduating from Minnesota, Martínez-Alemán had already worked as a lawyer for five years in his native Honduras. There he often practiced alongside his mother, Judith Aleman Banegas.

This ended in 2011 when Aleman Banegas, along with his bodyguard and secretary, were ambushed and murdered by masked men. Such attacks on lawyers in Honduras are not uncommon. According to the Honduran Human Rights Commission, 130 lawyers in the country were killed between 2010 and 2018.

Hiring a hitman is cheaper than going to court. What better way to scare your opponent than to kill his lawyer?

Martínez-Alemán, lawyer

“Hiring a hitman is cheaper than going to court. What better way to scare your opponent than to kill his lawyer?” said Martínez-Alemán.

Initially, Martínez-Alemán wanted to stay in Honduras, but after a while he changed his mind.

“Economically, I was doing well. Professionally, I was fine. But I didn’t want to be a statistic and I didn’t want to die,” he said. “I guess I saw the light.”

He landed in Minnesota after earning a full scholarship to Mitchell Hamline. Soon after, Ofelia Ponce, high school sweetheart turned Martínez-Alemán’s wife and practicing lawyer in Honduras, joined him. Ponce later earned a master’s degree in law from Mitchell Hamline.

A few years after Martínez-Alemán launched Ceiba Fôrte, he began to dabble in real estate. On the daily commute from his condo in Little Canada to his rented office space in the St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, he noticed a sign for sale on a modest two-story building in the St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood. In 2019, the couple purchased the building as a permanent residence for Ceiba Fôrte, located at 1053 Dale Street North.

For Ponce, 34, the new space was an opportunity to pursue his own entrepreneurial vision.

“I always dreamed of owning my own little cafe,” Ponce recalls. “When the pandemic hit, I was driving Inti to work and having a cup of coffee. Then in 2020, the cafe I used to go to every day closed. I thought, ‘Maybe my dream isn’t so crazy?’ ”

Ponce also did her due diligence. For anyone who loves gourmet coffee, she observed, options in Como Park were limited. And the couple’s new office building on busy Dale Street was busy, with more than 15,000 cars passing by each day.

A month ago, after an extensive remodeling of the property, Ponce realized his vision and opened Abogados Café, an espresso bar that offers a range of gourmet coffees, desserts and snacks. The cafe’s name (Abogados means lawyer in Spanish) and its specialty coffee drinks refer to the couple’s legal background: drinks include the “Fearless Lawtee”, “Motion Granted” and “Sua Sponte”.

The cafe is currently take-out only, but Ponce and Martínez-Alemán are working on plans for indoor seating and a mini market. There is additional space to accommodate an expansion on the ground floor, where the cafe is located. The law office occupies the second floor.

So far, Ponce said, business has been good.

“The Como Park neighborhood has been amazing – very, very supportive,” she added.

Ponce spends the mornings working in the cafe and the afternoons helping with the administrative side of practicing law. When he has time, Martínez-Alemán sets foot in the café.

Sahan Journal sat down with Martínez-Alemán and Ponce to talk about their two ventures. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Abogados Café and the law firm Ceiba Fôrte are located in the same building in the St. Paul's Como Park area.
Abogados Café and the law firm Ceiba Fôrte are located in the same building in the St. Paul’s Como Park area. Credit: Mike Mosedale | Sahan Diary

When you start your business, identify the need. “When I was in law school, I did market research,” Martínez-Alemán said. “I asked a group of practitioners serving the Hispanic population, ‘What areas of law Latinos can’t find a lawyer for?’ I always heard the same things: contracts, real estate, business, employment. So I started working in those areas.

And when you start, find mentors. “It’s essential,” Martínez-Alemán said. “If you don’t have good mentorship, you’re going to fail because law school doesn’t prepare you for the business part of running a law firm. I always consult a group of lawyers all the time. I get help without the baggage or overhead of partners or associates. »

Turns out opening a cafe is harder than opening a law firm.. “All you need is a cell phone, a computer and your license to practice law and you can practice law anywhere. You can do whatever you want,” Martínez-Alemán said. “With a café, you are dealing with contractors, subcontractors. Red tape with the Ministry of Health. Administrative hassles with the city. Red tape with the county. Red tape with the Metropolitan Council.

“I think we had 17 different inspections just for the plumbing,” Ponce said of the cafe.

About “Making It in Minnesota”: This ongoing series from Sahan Journal highlights the experiences, challenges and successes of immigrant business owners, in their own words. We would also like to share your company’s story.

If you are an immigrant business owner or contractor, please contact us at [email protected]. (Feel free to suggest a favorite company we should write about as well.) Please use the subject line “Making It in Minnesota”.

Do you want to develop a business? Network! “Unfortunately, there is no secret sauce,” Martínez-Alemán said. “It all starts with relationships – becoming friends with business owners, becoming friends with members of chambers of commerce. Attend lots of networking events, not to chat, but to become friends.

“Bring them to your house. Take a cup of coffee. Have fun in a non-professional setting. These relationships become customers. And those customers bring other customers. Eighty percent of business is by word of mouth.

Denise W. Whigham