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Weekly Q&A: Sambalatte’s Luiz Oliveira on the growth of a local coffee favorite

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Luiz Oliveira takes pains to focus on quality ingredients to serve at his coffee shop, Sambalatte.
Photo: Sam Morris

Even before he opened his first Sambalatte coffee shop in the popular Boca Park shopping center, Luiz Oliveira was thinking about expansion ... and he always had his eyes on the Strip. This month, his caffeine-fueled mission touches down at Monte Carlo, where a 3,300-square-foot (plus a sizable patio) Sambalatte opens right on Las Vegas Boulevard.

The Brazilian-born former Hyatt Hotels exec took time away from roasting, pouring, building and branding to talk to the Weekly about his passion for the coffee biz and how a beloved neighborhood hangout can turn into something bigger.

What will Sambalatte look like on the Strip? This project is going to look amazing. People are going to be wowed. All the elements are really coming together to create an incredible vibe. The outside patio is maybe 1,500 square feet, so there will be room for maybe 100 people to sit down facing the boulevard. We’re also going to have our roasters encapsulated in glass so people can see us roasting in there. It’s very exciting.

The original Sambalatte is a place where people tend to linger, enjoying their drinks and hanging out for a while. Will the Strip store be more fast-paced? You know, when we started talking about this project and designing the store, there were many people involved, and I was the only one who opposed the idea to bring our environment, our “Sip, Savor and Socialize,” to [the Strip]. But they convinced me to create that environment on the Strip because it needed that, and it would be unique to have that where everything caters to the tourist. We believe there will be a foundation guest, those who live at Panorama Towers or Veer Towers or Mandarin Oriental or the Planet Hollywood [Hilton] tower, people who stay for weeks at a time but don’t live here full-time, and they will come here for this kind of coffee experience. I know some people who live at Mandarin and say they only rent a car so they can come to Sambalatte in Boca Park and have coffee. And lots of hotel executives from different companies have come here over the years and asked about doing something on the Strip.

Do you take pride in the fact that your business is a rare example of a homegrown Las Vegas concept moving from the suburbs to the Strip? I do. We always were looking at the Strip because the exposure is just so big. I tell people all the time: There are two mind-sets for small business. There are those who want to do it for their way of living, maybe they don’t want to have a boss, they just want to make their money and be content. Steady income and you’re good. Or, you have a mind for growth. If you are just content at your level, you forget that this is a competitive world and you have to constantly innovate and think about new ideas, how you can raise the bar. The idea for Sambalatte was always to take this business from local to regional to national and maybe international, you never know.

Why coffee? I grew up in Brazil and my great, great grandfather had a coffee farm. My mother grew up on the farm and used to tell me lots of stories. I’ve been drinking coffee since I was 7 years old. I just developed a passion for it.

Is it complicated to make a terrific cup of coffee? From the very beginning, we try to make coffee a ritual. It’s an art. There are a lot of details that can be complicated, like buying beans in micro-lots, or harvesting by hand or semi-automated harvest, or how to wash and dry the beans to preserve the natural sugars for roasting. Beans are almost like popcorn when you’re roasting; there has to be a certain temperature and if you start too strong, they’re going to burn and toast. You’ve got to start slow and heat them up so when you’re grinding, you’re going to be able to extract those flavors.

And how are you going to steam the milk? We don’t use thermometers like lots of coffee houses. Our baristas hold the pitcher in their hands and they know when to stop by how hot it is. For us, it’s all about the training and education, and how we can instill the passion for coffee in our baristas. It’s all about the ability to create a better cappuccino today than yesterday, because your palate is more developed.

Some people might complain that it might take longer, but it does because we grind the beans, we tamp the beans, we pull the shot, we steam the milk individually for each cup. We brew special for you. It’s a process, and people appreciate that. Why do people wait in line two days to buy an iPhone, but they won’t wait an hour to buy a Droid? Because of quality, and because there’s an emotional connection to the brand or product. We make your drink with love, care and passion, and all those things take time.

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Brock Radke is Las Vegas Weekly's food editor and author of the Strip-focused column The Incidental Tourist. He has written ...

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