Community, Local Business

From Tesla Lawyer to Santos Coffee Founder: Meet Wendy Madden

The 6th location of Santos Coffee opened on July 28th with a soft opening in Gardendale. The impressive Guatemalan coffee shop is located in the old Wendy’s building just off Highway 31.

I thought that bypassing opening day and dropping by on a lazy Saturday just before noon on day 2 would make for a less busy time to enjoy a coffee and do some writing.

I was wrong. Santos Coffee was buzzing.

Inside Santos Coffee in Gardendale. Photo: HERALD staff.

The parking lot was packed when I arrived, as was the drive thru. Once inside, I found a sleek and smartly decorated shop with a mix of table and sofa seating. I ordered an espresso and took a seat on a plush and comfortable sofa in a corner surrounded by floor to ceiling windows.

As I was writing, I was approached by a lovely woman who asked if I would mind her wiping the coffee table in front of where I was sitting. Little did I know that the woman was Wendy Madden who is one of the owners of Santos Coffee.

After introductions, Wendy and I spent the next hour discussing her story and the story of Santos Coffee.

I came away knowing this: Wendy Madden is very smart, accomplished, a formidable presence and entrepreneur and a force destined for great things.

There are 2 sisters that own Santos Coffee, Wendy who is a prominent immigration lawyer and graduate of The University of Alabama law school, and Katie Ellis.

Readers who graduated from UA or those who spent some time on “the strip” may remember Crimson Café. It operated from 1993 to 2009 and Wendy owned it. Crimson Café is the predecessor to Santos Coffee.

As we were talking, my eyes kept focusing on all of the Tesla cars that continued to pull into the Tesla Supercharger station on the Santos lot. It was full and I asked Wendy how having the station connected to Santos came about.

The Tesla Connection

While working for a powerhouse Birmingham law firm in 2015 as an immigration lawyer, Wendy took a road trip with her teenage son to Florida. Wendy noticed Tesla cars they were passing, and her son perked up and began talking for hours about Tesla and Elon Musk.

After the trip, Wendy was on the business social media site LinkedIn and happened to see a posting by Tesla for an in-house immigration lawyer. Through a connection at her firm, Wendy called about the position and was flown to California and offered the position.

From 2015 to 2017, Wendy worked as an in-house immigration lawyer inside Tesla and for Elon Musk. It was eye opening and important to how she views building a business.

It was clear how much Wendy respects Elon Musk and how much she learned from being involved in Tesla and how Mr. Musk operates the business. “When they say he would sleep on an air mattress in the facility, it’s true. Elon would never ask anyone to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself,” Wendy told me.

Wendy told me that when she was first approached about opening a location in Gardendale and visited what is now their location, she immediately saw the space and knew it was the perfect spot for a Tesla Supercharger station. Since Wendy had worked for Tesla, she was able to reach out and make it happen. Some may ask how many people actually visit the Tesla Supercharger? Wendy says that just this week she learned that the site averages 67 Tesla’s per day.

In 2017, Wendy’s sister wanted to preserve the family Guatemalan coffee farm and impressed upon Wendy that they should begin opening up coffee shops that would be supplied by the farm.

Wendy agreed and in 2019, the 2 sisters began with a simple kiosk on 3rd Ave N. in Birmingham. That quickly fueled new shops in Hoover, Homewood, the “Uptown” district, Mountain Brook and now Gardendale. A 7th shop will open later this year on Acton Road in Vestavia.

Wendy and her sister have no plans to stop. Santos Coffee is poised for high growth with many more locations.

Santos Coffee is much more than coffee. You can check out the menu on the Santos Coffee Facebook page.