One of the most popular drinks in Ybor City, café con leche has been a part of the city's history almost as
long as Ybor has been around. The drink originated in Spain, though the exact details surrounding its creation remain unknown. After becoming popular in Spain, café con leche migrated to Spanish-speaking countries around the world such as Cuba. It became popular there as well and was brought to Tampa in the 1880s by Cuban immigrants working in the cigar factories.
Café con leche helped fuel the cigar industry and allow for over 400 million cigars per year to be rolled. Before machines which would automatically roll cigars, factory workers would manually roll cigars by hand for hours every day and needed to be able keep up their stamina. Many of these workers were Cubans, who had a strong appreciation for a cup of coffee. It became almost necessary for coffee to become entwined with the cigar industry.
Factory workers would take their coffee breaks at their bench as the owners of the factory wanted to make sure that they would not leave the factory and go home for the day. To accomplish this, factories and local restaurants forged relationships to provide coffee to factory workers. Generally men, these cafeteros (relating to the coffee industry), would bring pre-made café con leche to the factory and serve it to workers at their bench as their coffee break. This café con leche would be made with brewed espresso with a pinch of salt, steamed milk, and sugar and sweetened condensed milk to add sweetness. Sweetened condensed milk was an important ingredient as it added sweetness and milk in a time where refrigeration was not as common. For those who did not want milk in their coffee, this ingredient, as well as the steamed milk, was omitted. Instead, the coffee was served black with a pinch of sugar, called café solo.
Espresso beans used to craft cafés con leche could come from around the Caribbean, but many beans came from local coffee roasters like Naviera Coffee Mills. This coffee roaster used the Cuban style of roasting beans which was crucial for getting the strong coffee taste many were used to. These beans would be roasted longer than other styles of roasting, reducing the caffeine content by almost 80% while giving the coffee a bolder flavor. This also served to make the coffee beans last longer.
Café con leche also became popular among those who did not work in the cigar factories. Streetcar conductors would often swing by the number of restaurants in Ybor City that served it, such as the Columbia to have a cup or two on unauthorized breaks. Patrons who enjoyed the bold flavor would often go out of their way to drink coffee from the Columbia, some driving multiple miles multiple times a day for a taste. According to Andy Huse, local historian, one Tampa resident bought a round of coffee for everyone in the restaurant every time he visited, once buying coffee for 68 people!