The Pressures Of The Small Coffee Biz: ‘I Feel Like Capitalism Is Killing Us’

In 2010, Areli Barrera Grodski and her husband, Leon, started their coffee company Cocoa Cinnamon in her mother’s kitchen in the North Carolina mountains. A year later, they moved to Durham, and briefly sold coffee from a tricycle. Two years later, they opened the first of three brick-and-mortar cafes. In 2017, they founded their roastery, Little Waves, inside the third shop. Areli is one of a handful of Latinas who owns coffee cafes and roasts coffee. She was born in Tijuana, Mexico, and immigrated with her Indigenous parents to San Antonio when she was 6 years old. The family eventually settled in Cherokee, North Carolina, rife with Indigenous people (and racist tourists), and her entrepreneurial parents opened up gift shops. For this edition of Voices in Food, Areli told Garin Pirnia about her upbringing, how coffee can be a catalyst for change and how representation matters.

On The Inspiration Behind Starting A Roastery

“Little waves” is our approach to everything: thinking about the daily actions and how those things amount to bigger actions. When you walk into the cafes and you look at our menu, and you read a little bit more about the coffees, you can feel those ripples. You can feel the energy and the intentions that we put into everything that we do.

It was always in the plan to open up a coffee shop and roast our own coffee. We started Cocoa Cinnamon with $75 and no access to credit. My dad is an entrepreneur and watching him do that successfully gave me a vote of confidence in what we were doing. But it’s such a gamble, too. You’re putting all of your passion into this and you have to depend on the community to be like, this is totally something we want in our community. Luckily, it was something that the community responded to. It’s always been our vision to use coffee as a catalyst for creating community. It’s a catalyst for being able to create the world that we want to live in. That all sounds really idealistic, and it’s really freaking hard when you care about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it.

“I had never felt seen and I never felt represented when I read things about management, because it was mainly coming from a white man’s perspective. We would go to coffee expos and I’d look for other Latinas that owned a café. It was a little hard to find.”

How do we support our mission with revenue? We’re trying to create these careers for people who are interested in working with us. In order to do that, we need to make sure we’re bringing in enough revenue, so it’s never been about growth for us. It’s been more about smart decisions of how do we get to our mission and our goals of creating a good workplace doing what we love and paying people what we wish to see in the industry.

Leon and I are more artistic beings than we are business beings. We didn’t go to business school. We’re learning along the way. But we’re doing these things from our heart, so it just takes a lot longer to get things into place. I have to be gentle with myself about the progress we’ve made, but I never feel satisfied.

Her Thoughts On Representing Latinas In The Coffee Industry

In 2017, we opened the third location, and we added churros. It was a selfish thing because I love churros and it’s hard to find good churros in the U.S., especially in North Carolina. It was a delicious, simple gesture to the Latino community that this was the place for them. I kind of neglected my identity for a while at the beginning, mostly out of imposter syndrome and not wanting to be the face of our business. I didn’t really know how much representation mattered until I was like, OK, I need to find other leaders in our industry who look like me.

I had never felt seen and I never felt represented when I read things about management, because it was mainly coming from a white man’s perspective. We would go to coffee expos and I’d look for other Latinas that owned a café. It was a little hard to find. Ashley Rodriguez’s podcast “Boss Barista” did an interview with the Brazilian woman who owns Panther Coffee, Leticia Ramos-Pollock. I remember hearing her interview and just feeling really seen and inspired by her approach. I remember one day looking around and seeing how many Latin-equis people were on our teams. It felt so normal and so commonplace for me. When I looked around, I was like, “Oh shit, this is what representation does.”

We’ve always been really mindful of how we hire and put our applications in communities that we want to see represented behind our bar. When we first opened and put out our application, it was predominantly white men [applying] who were already working at coffee shops. We were like, “Oh my god, we gotta redo this.”

“I feel like capitalism is killing us. We’re always worried about whether we are going to make it through the next day. It’s just constant worry because we have so many people depending on us for their livelihoods.”

It’s really nice to be surrounded by predominantly women of color. It’s not a very common site for a roastery. It’s changing slowly but surely. I’m seeing more women of color in roasting positions, but this industry is very white-male-dominated. I would love to see more Black Americans in positions of leadership in our coffee industry, and that takes business owners like myself and people in positions of power to use their resources to allow opportunities for not just white men.

For us, here in our roastery, it’s easy for me to attract other Latin-equis people to come work here. It’s less easy for me to attract Black males to come, because I obviously don’t represent them. That’s an important thing to recognize and figure out: What indicators do I need to put out that will allow more Black folks to want to come work here? Not just here, but in the coffee industry, period. My biggest struggle as being a woman of color is I have this concept that I need to be in the trenches with my people. I don’t know what it is to be a boss, I guess, sometimes. But sometimes, the boss needs to take a step back from being in the trenches to lead the business forward. I almost don’t give myself that permission.

On Experiencing Racism In The United States

I feel like my first time experiencing culture shock was when I went to Chapel Hill for my undergrad [at University of North Carolina]. I loved learning and I loved being there after I felt more at home, but it also was the most white experience I’d ever had. Growing up in Cherokee, I wasn’t as aware of the meaning of the Rebel flag, because my parents sold it in their gift shops; we’re in the South and that’s what people were buying. It was always interesting to me to see the people who were buying these Rebel flags, to be OK with giving their money to an immigrant-owned business, and every now and then we would get somebody who’d say, “Go back to your country.” It would shock me. And you’re giving me your money while you’re saying this. I was in high school when that happened and I didn’t know how to interact with that. I was letting it slide off of me. It wasn’t until moving to Durham that I learned more about microaggressions and probably how many microaggressions I have absorbed.

On The Stress Of Running A Business

I’m exhausted, not just because of this year and half. I’ve been exhausted since 2010. We’ve been hustling to get this business up and off the ground and running smoothly since then. It’s consumed our entire lives. I feel like capitalism is killing us. We’re always worried about whether we are going to make it through the next day. It’s just constant worry because we have so many people depending on us for their livelihoods. I wish there was a way to close down so we all could take a break, but I don’t know if we could afford it. But I took a solo four-day trip, and I feel a lot more optimistic now that I’ve gotten a chance to rest. The words for us right now have been joy, boundaries and this awe for humanity and the potential of what we have to offer.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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