After Inti Martínez-Alemán graduated from Mitchell Hamline School of Law in 2016, he knew he didn’t want to work at somebody else’s firm.
“I didn’t want to have a boss. I wanted to work for myself,” said Martínez-Alemán. “I wanted to have the freedom to choose my clients, my fees, and my schedule.”
After passing the bar exam, Martínez-Alemán, 37, connected with an incubator program called LegalWise, which provided him with office space, administrative support, software, and a pipeline to both clients and professional mentors in exchange for a modest fee.
With that, Martínez-Alemán launched Ceiba Fôrte Law Firm the same year he graduated. The ceiba is a towering tree from the tropics and is considered sacred by the Mayan people, while fôrte means “strong” in Spanish. The operation caters primarily to Spanish-speaking clients in civil matters related to business, real estate, and employment.
“I was the only crazy one in my class who opened a law firm straight out of law school,” Martínez-Alemán said.
Martínez-Alemán was also likely the only one in his class who had already run his own practice. Before he earned his degree in Minnesota, Martínez-Alemán had already worked as a lawyer for five years in his native Honduras. There, he often practiced alongside his mother, Judith Aleman Banegas.
That came to an end in 2011 when Aleman Banegas, along with her bodyguard and secretary, were ambushed and assassinated by masked men. Such attacks on attorneys in Honduras are not rare. According to the Honduran Human Rights Commission, 130 attorneys in the country were killed between 2010 and 2018.
“Hiring a hitman is cheaper than going to court. What better way to scare off your opposing party than killing their lawyer?” Martínez-Alemán said.
Initially, Martínez-Alemán wanted to stay in Honduras but, after a spell, he reconsidered.
“Economically, I was doing well. Professionally, I was doing well. But I didn’t want to be a statistic and I didn’t want to die,” he said. “I guess I saw the light.”
He landed in Minnesota after securing a full scholarship at Mitchell Hamline. Not long afterward, Ofelia Ponce–Martínez-Alemán’s high school sweetheart-turned wife and a practicing attorney in Honduras–joined him. Ponce later obtained a master’s degree in law from Mitchell Hamline.
A couple years after Martínez-Alemán launched Ceiba Fôrte, he began poking around for real estate. On the daily drive from his condo in Little Canada to his rented office space in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, he kept noticing a for sale sign on a modest, two-story building in St. Paul’s Como Park neighborhood. In 2019, the couple purchased the building as a permanent home for Ceiba Fôrte, which is located at 1053 Dale Street North.
For Ponce, 34, the new space presented an opportunity to pursue her own entrepreneurial vision.
“I always dreamed about owning my little coffee shop,” Ponce recalled. “When the pandemic hit, I would drive Inti to work and get a cup of coffee. Then in 2020, the coffee shop that I went to every day shut down. I thought, ‘Maybe my dream isn’t so crazy?’ ”
Ponce also did her due diligence. For anyone with a taste for gourmet coffee, she observed, the options in the Como Park were limited. And the couple’s new office building on busy Dale Street had plenty of traffic, with more than 15,000 cars passing by every day.
A month ago–after extensive remodeling of the property–Ponce realized her vision and opened Abogados Café, an espresso bar that offers an array of gourmet coffees, desserts, and snacks. The name of the café (Abogados is Spanish for lawyer) and its specialty coffee drinks reference the couple’s legal background: beverages include the “Fearless Lawtee,” “Motion Granted,” and “Sua Sponte.”
The café is currently takeout only, but Ponce and Martínez-Alemán are working on plans for indoor seating and a mini-market. There is extra space to accommodate an expansion on the ground floor, where the cafe is located. The law office occupies the second floor.
So far, Ponce said, business has been good.
“The Como Park neighborhood has been amazing–very, very supportive,” she added.
Ponce spends mornings working in the café, and afternoons helping out with the administrative side of the law practice. When he has time, Martínez-Alemán pitches in at the café.
Sahan Journal sat down with Martínez-Alemán and Ponce to talk about their two businesses. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When you launch your business, identify the need. “When I was in law school, I did a market study,” Martínez-Alemán said. “I asked a bunch of practitioners serving the Hispanic population, ‘What are some areas of law for which Latinos can’t find a lawyer?’ I kept hearing the same stuff: contracts, real estate, business, employment. So I started working in those areas.”
And when you start, find mentors. “That is critical,” Martínez-Alemán said. “If you don’t have good mentorship, you’re going to fail because law school does not prepare you for the business part of running a law firm. I still consult with a bunch of lawyers all the time. I get support without the baggage or the overhead of partners or associates.”
As it turns out, opening a coffee shop is more arduous than opening a law office. “You only need a cell phone, a computer and your bar license and you can practice law anywhere. You can do what you want,” Martínez-Alemán said. “With a coffee shop, you’re dealing with contractors, dealing with subcontractors. Red tape with the Department of Health. Red tape with the city. Red tape with the county. Red tape with Metropolitan Council.”
“I think we had 17 different inspections just for plumbing,” Ponce said of the coffee shop.
About “Making It in Minnesota”: This ongoing Sahan Journal series highlights the experiences, challenges, and successes of immigrant business owners—in their own words. We’d like to share your business story, too.
If you’re an immigrant business owner or entrepreneur, please get in touch with us at [email protected]. (Feel free to suggest a favorite business we should write about, too.) Please use the subject line “Making It in Minnesota.”
You want to grow a business? Network! “Unfortunately, there isn’t a secret sauce,” Martínez-Alemán said. “It all starts with relationships–becoming friends with business owners, becoming friends with chamber of commerce people. Going to a lot of networking events–not to schmooze, but to actually become friends.
“Have them over to your house. Have a cup of coffee. Have fun in a non-work setting. Those relationships become clients. And those clients bring other clients. Eighty percent of the business is word of mouth.”