How Does a Truly Communal Coffee Shop Survive?

By BARRY YEOMAN
Photos by ALEX BOERNER

When Cocoa Cinnamon opened its first location in 2013, the owners, Areli and Leon Grodski de Barrera, wanted to mitigate the gentrification they knew coffee shops sometimes foster. “The city’s going to grow,” Leon says. “How do we do it in a way that catalyzes equity? How do we do it in a way that that honors our history?”

I did a lot of interviewing for my article “The Soul of Community” at a trio of Durham coffee shops called Cocoa Cinnamon. While coffee houses are an increasingly common sight in American cities, these shops feel different. To me, the owners, Areli and Leon Grodski de Barrera, represent how small entrepreneurs can put community at the forefront of their mission and still flourish.

The first thing you notice at a Cocoa Cinnamon location is the design, which was executed by a cadre of local artists. It suggests cartography and astronomy, and the history of the coffee and spice trades. (Two bike racks are shaped like cacao pods.) For the floor pattern in the entryway of the flagship shop, a converted Texaco station built in the 1940s, Heather Gordon, a visual artist, used poetry by Rumi and Walt Whitman and the brainwaves of a woman falling in love, then converted them into binary zeroes and ones.

The second thing you notice is that the atmosphere in a Cocoa Cinnamon shop is decidedly communal. Strangers share sofas and long tables. The clientele is diverse. This is most evident at its newest location, which is bilingual and inspired by Mexican churro joints and street vendors. (Areli immigrated with her family from Tijuana, Mexico, when she was six.)

The coffee shop began as a mobile operation, transported by bicycle, and the original bike is now a fixture at Cocoa Cinnamon’s newest location. The transition from a bicycle to a brick-and-mortar operation, in a form that felt truly reflective of the community, involved numerous artists, craftspeople, and small funders. “I think this is where Durham really comes in,” says Leon. “We’re not here without this place.”

The vibes here are a direct result of a series of careful decisions by the owners, following a period of diligent outreach and listening.

The Grodski de Barreras moved to Durham in 2011 from the North Carolina mountains. They wanted to start a mobile coffee shop mounted on a bicycle, but “we were broke,” Leon says. “Really broke.” What they did have was friends who were willing to lend money and even help weld the bike. “The credibility became the credit,” Leon says.

In 2012, the coffee bike became ubiquitous, and it served the best brew in town. When a customer named Nia Wilson bought a cup one Saturday at the farmers’ market, Leon, who is white, recognized her as the co-director of SpiritHouse, a cultural and political collective led by African-American women. “I really wanted to meet you,” she recalls him saying, and they fell into a conversation about the poet Amiri Baraka.

Soon the Grodski de Barreras ran two successful crowdfunding campaigns, opening their first brick-and-mortar shop in 2013. It was just outside downtown, in a once-deserted commercial area that now receives fawning attention from travel writers.

When the first job applications came from “white dudes from different coffee shops,” Areli says, the couple immediately saw a problem. So they reached out to networks representing people of color. “We said, ‘No experience is necessary; we’ll teach you everything you need to know.’” Their first hires became self-propagating: “Because people would come in and see themselves behind the bar, they would then apply.”

Still, neighbors worried about the arrival of a shop selling five-dollar beverages flavored with rosewater and orange blossom. “Coffee-shop culture is white folks with laptops, and mostly people who have expendable income,” says Wilson, who lives nearby. “My concern was that the people who lived in the neighborhood were not going to be welcomed.”

The Grodski de Barreras understood those concerns. They also knew there were built-in conflicts in their vision. Cocoa Cinnamon is a founding member of the Durham Living Wage Project, which certifies employers who pay workers a “livable” hourly wage of $13.35 or more. But fatter paychecks typically lead to higher prices, which exclude potential customers.

The owners sat with Wilson and others at SpiritHouse, hashing out ideas about making their shop as inviting as possible. “There was not a lot of tiptoeing,” Leon says of those meetings. One idea that emerged—and was later implemented—was a “community coffee” fund to assist customers who couldn’t afford full-price drinks. “We went back and forth,” Wilson says. “I remember saying: Trust that more people will donate to community coffee than will come in and ask for a free cup.”

While the system has generally worked, there have been some kinks, which in turn have required more time spent listening to people. Last May, I attended a meeting between the owners, some employees, and their customers. At one point, Leon asked what he should do with a customer who came in regularly for community coffee, but only during a certain employee’s shift, then spent that shift staring at her breasts.

“Do you guys ever get to know the person?” asked Sandro Mendoza, one of their customers.

We do, said A.yoni Jeffries, the company’s art-and-event curator. “We approach them in a very respectful way. But they’ll take advantage of us. They’ll yell at us or have a tantrum.”

The conversation proceeded quietly, and respectfully, if inconclusively. It was a breezy evening, and the sun was setting. By the end of the meeting, no one had figured out how to create a flawless community in a coffee shop. But the desire to bridge gaps was palpable. And that seemed like a good start.

When the owners opened a location in Durham’s Lakewood neighborhood, which has a large Latino community, they had a Spanish-speaking employee available at all times. Some of their English-speaking customers told them, “You have no idea how beautiful it is for my mom to come in and order in Spanish,” says Areli, who is Mexican-American.

© 2018 Barry Yeoman, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: September 25, 2018