Moqah Coffee and Beyond, a locally owned coffee shop that put down roots at the Rio Rico Plaza a couple years ago, is set to open its newest location in an area badly in need of new business and investment: downtown Nogales.
Owner Francisco Ruiz said he hopes that the new location at 49 N. Terrace Ave. will attract a wider customer base to his family’s business while also helping establish the foundation for a new, more vibrant scene in the downtown Nogales area.
“The main reason why we wanted to come to Nogales was because we get a lot of people who drive from Nogales all the way to Rio Rico to try our food or to just spend time over there,” Ruiz told the NI. “Also, I think Nogales needs something different, a little twist from what people are used to, which is fast food or Mexican food.”
Soon, Moqah will open its doors to offer the Nogales community its variety of coffee drinks, sweet and savory crepes, salads, panini sandwiches and bagels. And it will do so just a few steps from the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, in an area where shuttered and abandoned storefronts have become the norm since the pandemic hit and the U.S. government banned non-essential border-crossings from Mexico.
Ruiz and his family aren’t ones to shy away from a challenge, however, having already expanded once during the coronavirus pandemic.
Risky move pays off
Ruiz, along with his parents and wife Karen, opened up the first Moqah branch in Rio Rico in May 2019. When the pandemic hit less than a year later and forced them to close their dine-in service, he said, the business was hit hard.
“Two families were living out of one restaurant with practically no income during the pandemic,” he said. “We were making probably about $3,000 a month and that was to sustain two families. You know that’s not enough.”
He said his family gave their all to the original location in Rio Rico to try to keep it afloat. In the meantime, Ruiz also began working side jobs, including graphic design and cleaning gigs, to try to make ends meet while also putting away some money.
When his family had finally saved enough, he proposed the bold move of expanding their business to Green Valley during the pandemic, a time when many small businesses were closing their doors due to the economic downturn.
“They were like, ‘You’re crazy. We’re barely surviving this,’” Ruiz said of his wife’s and parents’ reactions. “But I told them… what if we open another one and that way one restaurant will provide for one family and the other restaurant will provide enough for the other family.”
His wife and parents ultimately came around to the idea and decided to take the risk, investing every bit of savings they had into opening the second Moqah branch a few miles north on Interstate 19, across the Pima County line.
Ruiz noted that the process of setting up shop in Green Valley went smoothly from the standpoint of fulfilling local government requirements and regulations. However, opening a new business took a big toll on their mental health for the first few months.
“It wasn’t easy mentally because we were all stressed out about whether it was going to work out,” he said. “If not, we were going to have to close both locations. So we had our fears, but everything turned out perfect.”
Moqah received enough support from the Green Valley community that Ruiz and his family decided to divide the business’ operations. Ruiz’s parents now take charge of the Green Valley location on their own, while Ruiz and his wife Karen kept the Rio Rico location for themselves.
After surviving the hardships brought by the pandemic, Ruiz said that he and Karen were motivated to continue expanding and open a third location.
But the process of opening the Nogales branch of Moqah turned out to be a bit more complicated than they’d expected, he said.
He noted that the building they chose in Nogales – most recently the home of the Border Shoppers store – was originally built for retail purposes, rather than restaurant operations. That led to several obstacles when it came to working with the City of Nogales building department.
“I get it. It’s an old building, it wasn’t meant to be a restaurant. I get that they need to be strict about certain things,” Ruiz said, adding: “There are ways to say things to people and to signal the steps that you need to take… You can be strict and still make it easier, be helpful.”
On Saturday, Ruiz told the NI that the Nogales branch of Moqah passed its final inspection and he and Karen were given the green light to open for business.
They walked through the interior of the soon-to-be coffee shop, describing small parts of the process in making the kitchen area and pointing out other pieces of entertainment that they hoped to add to the space before opening up.
Outside of the shop, the only people who walked past the building were those crossing the border or waiting for their shuttle trips up north. But Ruiz said he hoped the new Moqah branch brings a new type of customer base to the area.
“I think this is going to be the starting point for something really cool for the city, not only on Terrace Avenue, but hopefully on Morley Avenue, too,” he said, adding that he hopes it inspires others to open up new businesses on the empty storefronts on those two streets.
At the Rio Rico location, he said, they regularly hold “open mic” evenings for locals to share their music, poetry or other talents with the community. At the Nogales branch, they hope to continue that tradition by holding “arts and coffee” Friday nights for locals to take part in different activities.
Ruiz said that he and Karen plan to get the third Moqah location off the ground with four-to-six new employees on board. They noted that they encourage high schoolers to work at the coffee shop to gain work experience.
The couple was unable to confirm an exact date for the opening of their restaurant, but anticipated that it would happen within the next two weeks.