Okay, dear readers of Tucson Foodie, I’m going to need you to open your “History of Tucson” textbooks to page one.
A man by the name of Hugh O’Connor, hailing from Dublin, Ireland, was a military governor of Northern Mexico who would eventually go on to be the founder of Tucson. He was called Hugo Oconór by his Spanish-speaking constituents along with the nickname "Red Captain" due to his swath of a red beard. He is also credited with bringing coffee to the arid desert climate, a commodity and crop most were unfamiliar with at the time. There are busts and plaques honoring O’Connor/Oconór all over Tucson and its immediate borders for his contributions.
Now, you’re about to get schooled about a fine coffee cart on Stone Avenue that brandishes O'Connor's nickname.
Red Captain Coffee owner, operator, and founder Ramses Trujillo worked for Avenue Coffee, which eventually became Cartel Roasters Co., for years before going to the dark side of sales at a local car dealership. Before Avenue Coffee and Cartel, Trujillo briefly worked for a global coffee conglomerate. Now, we won’t divulge the name of the company, but it does rhyme with Barstucks.
It was during this time that his love for all things associated with caffeinated bean water took hold.
During his employment with the car dealership, Trujillo began brewing his own cold brew coffee using specialty coffee beans from Tucson producers such as Presta Coffee Roasters and, yep, Cartel. He would then bottle it and bring it into the dealership so he and his coworkers could have a tasty pick-me-up.
“They loved it so much that they started putting in orders,” said Trujillo. “I would get so many orders at one point that I sold out long before even making the cold brew. That expanded into making it for my buddies, which had the same response.”
With some savings he had from wheeling and dealing the four-wheel deal, he left the car dealership in 2019 to bottle and sell his cold brew coffee full-time. Some of his clients ranged from spas, markets, and car dealerships, of course. With the help of local history buff friends and even college professors, Trujillo became acquainted with Hugh/Hugo O’Connor/Oconór and settled on the man’s nickname as the title to his newfound business.
Well, we all know what happened in 2020. In fact, it was March of that year when Red Captain Coffee launched — the month and year the world changed. According to Trujillo, the pandemic did very little to hurt his newly opened coffee cart. In fact, when Red Captain Coffee basically sold out when it had its soft opening.
He was lucky to attain the truck through his family. They owned a fleet of mobile taquerias. The original design was one resembling a fishbowl so Trujillo completely renovated it from top to bottom, from the engine to the exhaust pipe. With the truck being in tip-top shape, along with the success of the opening, Red Captain Coffee expanded its tasty gamut by parking near the airport once planes were able to move passengers again. He also found a very welcoming spot on the lot right next to our beloved Taqueria El Cheke on First and River Road.
“Thing is, when everything started calming down, the property owner raised the rent by more than half,” said Trujillo. “So, we had to find a new place to park.”
It didn’t take long for someone to reach out. The owners of Hem and Her Bridal on Stone Avenue near Roger were longtime fans of Red Captain Coffee’s delicious, caffeinated concoctions and offered a spot right out front.
People almost immediately began lining up for Red Captain’s iced teas and tonics, a personal favorite being their triple berry lavender; an extremely refreshing note of flavors during the midafternoon reminder that the sun is definitely in charge. The Mexican-inspired lattes, along with mochas, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and cortados are always crowd pleasers.
Red Captain Coffee was one of the first to team up with Houlden’s Rise Above and still offers the vegan pastries today. Trujillo said that he is in talks with the Bubbe’s Bagels folks about possibly carrying them on his red raft afloat on a sea of coolers, coffees, and confections. Let us hope that comes to much applauded bagel-y fruition.
In the past year, Trujillo began serving breakfast burritos for both vegans and those who eat anything with either soyrizo or chorizo. Both choices are a phenomenal way to start the morning or afternoon if you’re into that sort of thing. Whether you are an early riser or one that greets the day at the crack of noon, Red Captain Coffee’s drinks, treats, and expanded patio are all something to appreciate.
However, they do pander to the on-the-go bunch if you need a quick bite and craft coffee potation while your boss is texting you.
Take it all in now because the area of Hem and Her Bridal is set to become a new annex of small businesses, eateries, stands, and a possible taproom — much in the signal light of downtown’s MSA Annex. Trujillo hinted towards a hopeful groundbreaking for this project by early 2023 as he and the property owners have partnered in a restoration of the area. The midtown mercantile annex would bring in a new breath to a corner somewhat slighted with the potential to be a must-see Tucson destination.
Big thanks to the original Red Captain for doing all he did. You know, bringing coffee to the desert and, oh yeah, founding Tucson. And much gratitude to Trujillo and his Red Captain Coffee for continuing that legacy and making our town an even further delicious and distinctive city. Slightly more jittery, too.
Red Captain Coffee is located at 4004 N. Stone Ave. For more information, follow Red Captain Coffee on Instagram and Facebook.
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Mark Whittaker began his journalism career in San Francisco around 1997. It was for a small Northern California music magazine that segued into contributing to numerous magazines, websites, newspapers and weeklies throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Mark interviewed bands,...