Business

This Phoenix Cafe Owner Visited The Vice President's House

José "ET" Rivera pulls on his signature mustache during a photo op with Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff.
José "ET" Rivera pulls on his signature mustache during a photo op with Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Douglas Emhoff. The White House
It's not every day that one receives an email from the White House inviting them to a soiree at the vice president's house. But for José "ET" Rivera, the owner of Tres Leches Café in Phoenix, that's exactly what happened in late September.

Rivera runs the popular Mexican coffee shop with life and business partner Magaly Martinez Saenz. Earlier this fall, he opened the email and read through its almost unbelievable contents: the Small Business Administration was hosting an event in conjunction with the White House and Vice President Kamala Harris at the vice president's official residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. He was invited.

The event, held during National Hispanic Heritage Month, would honor small Latino-owned businesses around the country that survived the pandemic, Rivera says the email explained. He was elated at the opportunity to be a part of it.

"Of course, I was excited when I read the email. But I had to figure out logistics before doing anything else. Could I actually take the time off work? Who would drive the kids to school? Those types of things," Rivera says.

Balancing life, work and his time at the cafe has been Rivera's priority since he opened the coffee business in 2014 and added a second drive-thru-only south Phoenix cafe in February 2020.

During the pandemic, Rivera and Martinez Saenz struggled to keep the coffee shops afloat, closing for long periods of time while they navigated the crisis.

But they made it through with the help of an Economic Injury Disaster Loan provided by the SBA. That loan put them on the radar for the event at Harris' house. 

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Rivera and Martinez Saenz inside Tres Leches Café at 17th Avenue and Van Buren Street.
Magaly Martinez Saenz
Rivera booked a trip to Washington with Martinez Saenz and five of their daughters who range in age from 6 months to 15 years old. He was happy to share the experience with his family, though he was the only one invited to the event.

"My seven-year-old daughter is named Camila, so we playfully call her Camila Harris all the time. The girls know who the vice president is, and it's an honor to be invited to something of that scale," Rivera says.

The event took place on October 5. After arriving in Washington, testing negative for COVID, and donning his Sunday best, Rivera was dropped off at Number One Observatory Circle, unsure of what to expect, he says.

"There were multiple security checkpoints where I had to empty the contents of my pockets and go through metal detectors," he says. "Then, I walked down a long walkway surrounded by lush green grass, kind of like the one in the bridal shower scene from the movie Bridesmaids. It was surreal."

Rivera arrived at an outdoor area where Harris gave a speech honoring about 25 small business owners for their hard work and ability to survive such difficult circumstances, he says. And then it was time for a photo with the vice president inside of a clubhouse area.

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Rivera at the South Phoenix Tres Leches drive-thru, which made it through the pandemic despite closing for over a year.
Magaly Martinez Saenz
"It was a quick thing, similar to taking photos with Santa Claus. I introduced myself and my business and went to give the vice president a side hug. She pulled my hand down, saying that we couldn't touch due to COVID. I was so embarrassed," Rivera says. "But she and her husband were very gracious about it, and before I knew it, the whole thing was over."

As the photo was being taken, Rivera pulled on his mustache, he says, garnering laughs from the vice president and onlookers, as most of the photos with other attendees had been strictly formal. Rivera's infamous 'stache is part of theTres Leches logo, where a character with a handlebar mustache sips coffee from a mug labeled "3LC."

The two-hour event ended quickly, open bar, hors d'oeuvres, vice president, and all. And though it took place around a month ago, Rivera is still processing it, he says.

"I wish I would have had more face time with the vice president," Rivera says. "Once I received the photo, it actually hit me. It's something we plan to keep in our family for a very long time. Not many people can say that they met with the Vice President. And no matter what your political views, I consider it a high point. Surviving the pandemic as a small business owner and meeting with Vice President Harris, it's the achievement of a lifetime."
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Natasha Yee is a dining reporter who loves to explore the Valley’s culinary gems. She has covered cannabis for the New Times, politics for Rolling Stone, and health and border issues for Cronkite News in conjunction with Arizona PBS, where she was one of the voices of the podcast CN2Go.
Contact: Natasha Yee

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