Savannah, GA — There comes a time in many people’s lives when a reinvention is not only desired, but necessary. For Juan Rafael Argüelles, known by friends and business colleagues as “Rolly,” that time came about a year ago.
Argüelles, who spent 32 years working as a public relations executive in Puerto Rico, decided to partially phase out of that profession and shift into something completely different and in an entirely new place.
“After 32 years I felt I had met my personal and professional goals in Puerto Rico,” said the former three-time president of the Puerto Rico Public Relations Professionals Association. “I felt full. I always said when I left, I would do so with my head held high, and I did.”
Prior to leaving the island, Argüelles was the public relations executive for a number of large clients, including McDonald’s, Nissan and Econo. He still represents one major brand, Corona. The experience with all of those accounts prepared him for what would become his second wind — making an entrance into the retail business.
“I learned about quality, safety and customer service through those clients in Puerto Rico,” he said.
In the heart of Savannah, Georgia, Argüelles and his partner Javier Carro are now the owners of two thriving businesses —Blends, a Coffee Boutique and Tandem Coffee & Spirits.
Tandem opened six months ago in the city’s historic district, where by day it serves coffee and, in the afternoon becomes a bar mixing up novel cocktails and liquor-laced coffee drinks that keep a steady stream of patrons, both locals and tourists, coming through the door.
“I had never owned a bar. I was always in front of the bar asking for drinks, never behind the bar serving them,” he said. “It’s a change. It’s a very interesting industry, not just in terms of liquor sales, but consumption. It’s interesting to see what clients order and want to taste.”
Tandem is located in a structure built in 1854 that also houses a 28-room boutique hotel. It entailed a $200,000 investment to design and restore the 1,200 square feet of space where 10 people now work, he said.
Meanwhile, Blends opened three years ago with a $500,000 investment, and is run by Carro, under the same parent company, J&R Holding. It is a 5,000 square-foot property that takes up a prime corner on the historic district’s main street a few blocks away. It serves coffee from six countries, including Puerto Rico.
“Savannah is a very fertile city for new concepts that have to do with food, drinks and entertainment,” he said. “I define Savannah as the illegitimate child of New Orleans and Charleston. It welcomes 14 million tourists a year.”
Tandem, he said, is part of an industry that entails a lot of sacrifice and time. In Savannah, the bar owner is responsible for inebriated customers and all patrons must be carded prior to being served.
“It’s a city that while it enjoys partying, it also has a lot of control over what is served and offered,” he said. “People here are very accepting, very happy.”
While Argüelles has been a full-time Savannah resident for six months, he already has his sights set on becoming an active member of the business community, he said.
The city of Savannah has a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, of which he and Carro are already members.
“The organization is already evolving to become more inclusive, not just for Puerto Ricans, but for Mexicans, Nicaraguans and Colombians who are making a difference in Savannah. The Chamber is working so that it can be an even stronger voice,” he said. “I would love to be a part of that.”
Looking into the future, Argüelles is already considering developing more new concepts, including a “good Latino restaurant that includes different types of cuisines,” to continue adding to the historic district’s offer.
“This is a city that has opened its arms to me, and I think we’re here to make a difference. Puerto Ricans make themselves noticed where ever they go, which is the plan. This is a reinvention, a change of life that I hope will bear fruit,” he said, while wistfully accepting that he misses Puerto Rico.