New kids on the block

Posted: July 13th, 2018 | Food & Drink, Top Story, Uptown Brews, Uptown Brews | 1 Comment

By Jess Winans | Uptown Brews

Newlyweds open coffee shop in City Heights

[Editor’s note: This is the first installment of our new, two article column, “Uptown brews,” written by Jess Winans and Sara Butler, featuring neighborhood news on our two iconic Uptown stables — coffee and beer. This month features coffee shop Black Stag, “New kids on the block,” and brewery Thorn Brewing, “A tasty pairing of Barons and Thorn.”]

Irma Castaneda and Gustavo Alvarado have a thing for good brews.

The newlywed business partners and owners of Black Stag Cafe in City Heights originally met in a brewery tasting room where Alvarado worked.

Owners Irma Castaneda and Gustavo Alvarado behind the counter of their Uptown cafe (Photo by Jess Winans)

At the time, Castaneda was brewing a different type of buzz as a manager of a Jamba Juice in Pacific Beach. When she and Alvarado met, there was a spark and the two instantly hit it off.

A year or so later in 2015, Alvarado found the inspiration for opening a coffee shop as he was sitting on the patio of Cafe Moto in Barrio Logan.

“[Cafe Moto] had a communal table outside and everybody was talking to each other,” Alvarado said. “From there I got the idea. I knew I couldn’t build a brewery, but I could see the same concepts of a brewery within a coffee shop — bringing people together that quite honestly don’t know each other, to enjoy a drink.”

When Alvarado introduced the idea to Castaneda, she was initially skeptical.

“He proposed the idea within the first year of us dating,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is a lot of commitment.’ So I kind of said no. Then, I transitioned to another job and he transitioned to another brewery.”

Despite Castaneda’s initial skepticism, when Alvarado later brought home a colossal La Pavoni Espresso 3 Group espresso machine, it seemed like the coffee shop might be a possible reality.

“I saw an espresso machine come up for sale — keep in mind at this point I had never touched an espresso machine in my life,” Alvarado said. “I had no clue what to look for and I had no clue what I was doing. But I saw a commercial-sized espresso machine and I bought it.”

“[The machine] was huge. It was a monster,” Castaneda said. “And I remember, because we didn’t know anything about espresso machines. He was so excited about that thing.”

The couple spent several weekends cleaning that machine. As their bond began to develop, so did their plan for the business. The duo began asking themselves what equipment they needed to buy, how to fund the cafe and where they wanted the shop to call home.

Knowing they would eventually need a name, Castaneda and Alvarado decided on Black Stag, inspired by the Mexican folklore and symbolism surrounding the animal.

The “coffee couple” outside of their recently opened cafe (Photo by Jess Winans)

“The stag resembles strength and wisdom. It resembles being a leader,” Alvarado said. “I also wanted to give it a play on my personal life. I’ve always kind of been the black sheep of the family — not in a bad way, I’ve just done things differently. And I’ve always been my own, quirky and different person. So when I was looking at something and saw the stag it just immediately hit me.”

After agreeing on a name, Alvarado began looking at locations. He fell in love with City Heights. After taking Castaneda for a drive to different vacant places in the area, they finally settled on their El Cajon Boulevard home.

“I don’t want to say City Heights is rougher, but I feel like it just has a lot of potential,” Alvarado said. “Driving around it, I felt like it was missing something. I felt like it was really divided. You have little sections going on.

“But when you come over here to El Cajon Boulevard, you see they’re trying to build something here,” he continued. “We’re not what you would consider your typical coffee shop where everything is white; we’re not that kind of place. We built Black Stag Cafe out with our own vision.”

Black Stag is a third wave coffee shop with a simple menu that features classics like espresso, cappuccino and cold brew. They spice things up with specialty lattes and honey varietals including avocado honey. Alvarado and Castaneda use beans from Coava, a Portland-based roaster that uses direct trade policies and moral business ideals.

“The local police and firefighters love it here,” Alvarado said. “The concept of building a community place here has really taken off. Everyday we find someone new who has a friend that told them about us. It’s a vast little neighborhood, you know?

“At the end of the day, we’re here to stay in the community,” he continued. “It sounds cheesy but a year from now when you’re doing yoga [at Honey Yoga, Black Stag’s neighbor] and you walk by, you’re not going to recognize this street. It’s changing.”

Black Stag Cafe is located at 4966 El Cajon Blvd. Follow them on Facebook and Instagram at @blackstagcafe.

—Reach Jess Winans at

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  1. […] on our two iconic Uptown stables — coffee and beer. This month features coffee shop Black Stag, “New kids on the block,” and brewery Thorn Brewing, “A tasty pairing of Barons and […]

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