By Carlos Nogueras Ramos, The Texas Tribune
“In a hot oil and gas economy, a West Texas welder charts his own course one cup of coffee at a time” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
ODESSA — A pumpkin pie latte was the first order of the day. Seconds later, the iPad hanging on the wall pinged again. This time, a caramel macchiato. Then, a third and fourth. The orders come in waves, and without fail, the iPad lit up again.
The crew inside the narrow trailer had been bracing for the rush.
Fabian Maldonado manned the espresso machine. His wife, Amanda, took care of foam and flavor. His mom, Edith, dutifully delivered the orders to the nearby hospital with the help of her grandkids.
The grind of espresso beans, the hiss from the steam wand and Edith’s chatter served as the soundtrack to this recent Sunday morning.
“You should be here every day!” a hospital employee and customer said.
Maldonado — a native Odessan — grinned at the suggestion. It’s been three years since he started the coffee truck as a side hustle to his work as a welder.
True, Maldonado could have continued to rely on his welding career, which has kept him and his family afloat despite the industry’s ups and downs. In a stretch of West Texas where oil and gas is a way of life, it would have been the logical approach. But Maldonado’s venture into coffee is about the man he is determined to become, his own boss who can brew even in a bust.
“I’m tired of playing it safe,” Maldonado said.
By not playing it safe, Maldonado and his wife work nonstop. Monday through Friday, Maldonado wakes before sunrise to open the coffee truck. At noon, after the morning rush, he clocks into his “day job” as a welder. His wife, a medical assistant, sometimes helps out during the week. On the weekends, it’s all hands on deck.
“It’s tiring,” Amanda said. The day before, the family had worked the local farmer’s market. The festivities were packed, and the lines were so long that the family had blown through 15 gallons of milk.
Be that as it may, the couple considers the busy schedule an essential investment. The business has yet to cut a profit — it is barely breaking even. Maldonado thinks he is ready to leave his welding job and commit full-time to the coffee truck. Amanda worries coffee isn’t ready to replace welding.
Welding is their safety net, she said. It has kept mouths fed and bellies full. Oil jobs provide security in West Texas.
And they aren’t hard to find. In 2023, the Permian Basin’s unemployment rate was below the state and the nation, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Odessa’s unemployment has remained at 3.3%. Statewide it is 4.1%. In the U.S., the unemployment rate was 3.6%.
A separate study by Texas A&M called these jobs “the lifeblood of Midland and Odessa.”
Workers travel hundreds of miles to the oil fields of West Texas seeking high-paying work. A byproduct, industry experts say, is a boost to up-and-coming entrepreneurs like Maldonado.
“There is no question that the rapid growth occurring in the region is led by the oil and gas industry,” said Michael Lozano, a spokesperson for the Permian Basin Petroleum Association. “But one thing that makes the [Permian Basin] so special is the people that are naturally interested in utilizing the opportunities around them and capitalize on them.”
It’s not easy, even in a red-hot economy.
Maldonado, 40, had no idea what he had gotten himself into. He had never been a barista or owned his own business. He and his wife leisurely enjoyed a cup every morning brewed with ready-made coffee he bought from the convenience store.
And he has a good-paying job. At 22, he took up welding because he was passionate about building things and watching his work come to fruition, he said. With his skillset, a job in the oil field was a natural transition.
Despite the grueling working conditions, it was the right fit.
“It’s hard work, but it was fun,” he said.
In his first welding job, Maldonado helped build storage tanks for companies to store oil. Day in and day out, Maldonado lifted pipes that weighed up to 61 pounds, stretching up to 61 inches in length.
“It was back-breaking work,” he said. “The hardest job I ever had.”
However risky the work, it remains an attractive employer in the region, accounting for over a quarter of workers in the Permian Basin, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. And the jobs are blossoming, said Willie Taylor, the executive director of the commission’s branch in the Permian Basin.
“We don’t have to incentivize oil and gas jobs because this industry pays top wages,” Taylor said. “Workers look at the wages.”
There are so many job options in the Permian Basin that employers have struggled with finding and keeping workers in the post-pandemic economy. Taylor said that oil and gas companies turn to other states outside the boundaries of the Permian Basin to fill roles.
It isn’t always like this. During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic — which brought oil production to a grinding halt — unemployment in Ector County, which includes Odessa, jumped to 13%. Maldonado was among a fortunate few whose job was intact. The work was slow, he said, but there was a job he could turn to.
Acting on a desire to control his destiny, Maldonado pulled his retirement savings.
“I didn’t even know what I was looking at,” Maldonado said of the used espresso machine he purchased in San Antonio. “I didn’t even know if it would work.”
He took the fixer-upper and worked out the kinks using online tutorials.
He takes mornings off from his day job and sets up shop in a trailer he repurposed into a barista’s station. Nearly every detail in the vehicle’s interior, from the cabinets to the electrical wiring, is Maldonado’s handiwork.
He designed the windows to be long and wide, letting customers get a slice of his world.
It’s 11:30 by time the Sunday morning rush is over. Maldonado and his family stick around for stragglers — every cup counts toward the dream.
Edith’s chatter fills the quiet while Maldonado wipes his station clean. A few feet away, Amanda takes care of the dishes.
“They’ve worked hard,” Edith says before taking off. A church service starts in a half hour, and she is a regular. She wants to arrive a few minutes early to hand out coffee before mass.
Amanda says that when they have more savings, she’ll be ready to commit to the business. If push comes to shove, she’ll leave her job first. She understands the stakes are about more than just the coffee.
“I know we’re just going to have to take that risk,” she says. “And it’s scary.”
Disclosure: Permian Basin Petroleum Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/11/02/texas-oil-gas-economy/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.