Coffee, Paddle Boats and the American Dream

Coffee, Paddle Boats and the American Dream

Hard work has taken Alfredo Melendez from impoverished illegal immigrant to successful business owner.

Growing up poor in a rural El Salvador village, Alfredo Melendez and his seven brothers worked long hours without pay at their family's grocery shack. When business was slow, Melendez and his family — which was crammed into a hovel, sleeping four to a bed — would simply go hungry.

"It was truly a struggle," Melendez recalled recently. "My mom used to say to us, 'We got to stick together. We got to work together and we got to love one another to survive. God has better things ahead of us.'"

Now, 18 years after he snuck across the Mexican border into the United States, Melendez owns the popular Lake Anne Coffee House, runs the Lake Anne plaza's boat rental business, heads a family of four and recently bought a sizable house in Great Falls.

Melendez's journey from impoverished illegal immigrant to owner of a successful Reston coffee shop has been marked by hard work, luck and the desire to give his children the comfortable living that would have been unthinkable in El Salvador.

"I want to give this to my kids," he said, sitting in the back of his coffee shop and gesturing to his surroundings. "God has been so good to me."

MELENDEZ IMMIGRATED to the United States in October 1985, to join his father, who had immigrated earlier, and to escape El Salvador's civil war. Seventeen years old at the time, he paid a Tijuana coyote — a border smuggler — $3,500 to sneak him across the border into California.

After crossing the country, Melendez joined the growing Salvadorian community in Northern Virginia. Within a year, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen, having been sponsored by his first employer. His first job was washing dishes at the Ice House Cafe and at Scoreboard, a now defunct Herndon restaurant.

He could speak almost no English during his first six months of working in Herndon, so Melendez enrolled in a class at Herndon Middle School.

"Without English, you don't know what's happening around you," he said. "I was so desperate."

Proving to be a quick study, Melendez was soon able to leave his dish washing job for a better-paying position at a hotel in Herndon. At his new job, Melendez met his wife, Rocio, and together they dreamed of owning their own business.

In 1990, the family began to realize their dream when Melendez, along with his brothers Mario and Arturo, bought the lunch counter at the Lakeside Pharmacy at the Lake Anne Village Center. The Melendez brothers started selling a variety of Salvadorian dishes to their fellow immigrants and Lake Anne residents.

"We saw the Hispanic people were in the area and we knew we could sell them Salvadorian items," he said.

Larry Cohn, the owner of the Lakeside Pharmacy, helped the Melendez brothers get their lunch-counter business started. Cohn, who the Melendez brothers call "El Doctor," said that from the first day, he knew Alfredo Melendez was an uncommonly hard worker.

"He's the hardest working guy I know," Cohn said.

BY JANUARY 1995, in addition to the lunch counter, Melendez, his wife, and his brothers had opened a slew of small businesses at the Lake Anne Village Center, including a consignment shop, the convenience store called La Villa Market and a former video rental store.

Four years later, Melendez was approached to buy the struggling Lake Anne Coffee House. The owner took him out on a pontoon boat into the middle of Lake Anne and said he needed to sell for $900,000. Melendez haggled down the price to $650,000 and the shop became his.

Running the coffee shop became Melendez's main concern at the plaza, putting his family to work at the shop much like his mother once did in El Salvador. He began to renovate the shop's patio, installing a garden and flower-filled planters around his shop's façade.

Before Melendez realized it, the coffee shop became a popular community meeting spot for Lake Anne residents and other Restonians.

"People, when they're going to the coffee shop, they say they're going to Alfredo's," said Ray Fernandez, a Lake Anne resident and a close friend of Melendez. "You know you're going to get a smile there. You don't mind waiting because you're going to get good conversation. It's a great small business in this community."

THESE DAYS, the Melendez family operates the coffee shop and the Lakeside Pharmacy lunch counter, having sold its other businesses over the years. Also, Melendez is Lake Anne's harbor master, renting out paddle boats, pontoon boats and canoes when the weather is nice.

Reflecting back on his past, Melendez admits he never imagined as a boy in El Salvador that he would be where he is today. But, having learned the value of hard work from staffing his mother's grocery shack, Melendez said his desire to make a good life for his family keeps him working tirelessly.

"You can make it in this country if you try and if you're not lazy and want to do better," he said.

Having known Melendez since he first came to Lake Anne, Fernandez said the 35-year-old coffee shop owner is proof that hard work can pay off for anyone.

"He's kind of the epitome of that stereotype of the hardworking immigrant," Fernandez said. "He embodies that ideal."

Jonathan Melendez, 16, Alfredo Melendez's son, said his parents' work ethic has been instilled in him after years of watching them work day and night at Lake Anne and from helping out at the coffee house on the weekends.

"Work hard and you get what you want," he said.