The eighth episode of Hey Awesome Girl with Tivi Jones features Areli Barrera-Grodski, co-owner of popular coffee shops Cocoa Cinnamon and Little Waves coffee in Durham, North Carolina.
Areli does more than just sell drinks with her Latina-led and women-forward coffee business. She wants to uplift and diversify the coffee industry with her heart-driven business approach.
Areli immigrated to the U.S. with her family at the age of 6 and grew up in Cherokee, North Carolina, surrounded by Indigenous people. When she moved to Durham, where she attended the University of North Carolina, she realized the value of representation in the community.
In this episode, Areli talks to host Tivi Jones about running a business with a heart, how business leads to spiritual growth, and thinking about your ethics and values at every step in your supply chain.
Areli Barrera Grodski started her coffee business in 2010 with her husband Leon Grodski. The name for the first coffee shop, Cocoa Cinnamon, came to Leon in a dream. He had worked in the coffee business before, and that’s how the two first met. Leon saw so much community attachment in working in coffee and Areli admired that. She wanted a job that was ever-evolving and made an impact on the community.
Areli, the first college graduate in her family, grew up watching her dad work tirelessly on opening up shops across Mexico and the U.S. He provided her with inspiration to open her own shop–without any capital, just with an idea and a dream.
After she graduated from UNC, she moved back to the town where she grew up, Cherokee, to work in coffee.
“The idea of cultivating community and knowing that this isn’t just local and that you can actually look at it from a global perspective of how you purchase. There’s a story behind every single part of the chain. There’s a possibility and opportunity to create value and change,” Areli says.
She moved back to Durham and created a business model for a coffee business with her husband Leon. In 2010, they went on a trip to Europe to a friend’s wedding in Sweden. Areli previously refused to visit Europe because of its colonizer past, but once she did, she enjoyed learning about life in other societies. She says in Sweden, little things blew her mind, such as the importance of work-life balance, prioritizing pedestrians instead of drivers, and meeting people’s basic social needs. She compared it to the perspective in the U.S., which is rooted in capitalism and hard work. After the trip, she was thinking about business from an international perspective– “How do you use it as a vehicle to create the life that you want and need, and how can you create that opportunity for other people as well?.”
Cocoa Cinnamon, now three shops, is driven by Areli’s travel experience: cities and the roots of languages, landscapes, the history, colors, textures, and stories of coffee, chocolate, and tea. Cocoa Cinnamon makes drinks that reflect these histories and the characters that inspire them, those who remind them of the beauty and possibility of humanity, as explained on the cafe’s website.
Finding a balance between work and life is hard for everyone. Areli has to balance the big vision of her business, its ethics and values, revenue, and working with her life partner.
“It’s a challenge for sure,” Areli says. “The more you care, the harder it is. Obviously, if we didn't care, we’d just be pocketing all the money and paying minimum wage.”
They want to be able to bring in enough revenue to create good livelihoods for everyone on the team. “I think the biggest thing that we’ve been learning is having empathy while still being accountable and holding people accountable,” Areli says.
She says it’s important to run the business as well as possible but also take into account things like waste management and getting the best price for the product without cheating the vendor.
"When it's a heart-driven approach, it's hard to be an asshole,” Areli says.
Learning how to be a manager and a good boss is a difficult and ever-evolving journey.
“The journey of being a good boss is about unlearning so much of what has been conditioned into you about what work is and how work should be,” Areli says. “I’m all for work ethic. I come from a family that works really hard. But at the same time, we also have leisure. I also came from a family that has never talked about retirement or learning about savings.”
Areli’s husband, Leon, worked in the film industry for a while in New York, and Areli says, that’s where he learned how to make something happen out of nothing. “I think that’s why we were able to open Cocoa Cinnamon. We had that mentality and approach that even though we have no money, we will make it happen,” Areli says.
Areli thinks she’s grown a lot as a person working in the coffee business. And most importantly, she cares about the impact of her work–buying coffee from female producers, specifically women of color, and paying above a fair wage.
Communicating with the team members is key for the business to run smoothly and also to find balance. When it comes to working with her life partner, Areli says, they’re still working on finding balance and try to not talk about work on their date nights and at home. They also split their duties– Areli is in charge of the roastery and Leon the cafe. “That’s the way we can stay sane,” Areli says.
DIVERSIFYING THE INDUSTRY
Areli and Leon want to make sure that everyone in the value chain is making a living off their coffee business. She loves the idea that coffee-producing can be a career and it doesn’t have to be perceived as a “low-skill” level of work. “There’s so much work that goes into producing great coffee. And I think that needs to be said over and over again because, from the consumer’s side, it’s not something they’re reminded of on a daily basis,” Areli says.
“The journey from seed to cup is such an art. It can easily go bad before it can go good,” Areli says.
For her, it’s about valuing the humanity of every single person in the process and representing people of color.
"When you uplift women of color, they return back to their community. It's beautiful to be a company that is both immigrant, Latina, and women of color and to see that in your staff,” Areli says.
Areli says the cafes, especially roasteries, have been predominantly white-male oriented and gate-kept. “You always promote people who look like you, that’s why representation is so important,” she says.
“It’s a huge feat for us that our roastery is predominantly women of color. I wouldn’t say that we are the only ones, but it’s not common. Ideally, I hope that will change. It takes work and a mindset to give opportunities to people who don’t look like you,” Areli says.
BIG AND SMALL WINS
The biggest win for Areli and Leon was being selected as the roastery of the year for 2022 by Roast Magazine. The magazine hosts a competition every year and evaluates everything from business, education, and sustainability practices to ways a roastery contributes to the industry. “It’s really cool that it’s not just based on the taste of coffee. If your application is selected, only then do you send them the coffee,” Areli says.
Last year, they applied for the first time ever and were selected as finalists. “We are a small and young roastery so this was really exciting and validating to even be finalists and then to win next year,” Areli says. “It feels nice to win something in the industry because for the longest time we felt like less than. Our ways of running our business, our approach, our menu, wasn’t up to snuff for the industry,” she says. “We have all these different beverages that tell a story and now people are starting to see a value in that. Before, the value was in minimalism, a very Nordic approach.”
Even though it was hard for them to feel valued in the industry, they felt the support from their community and that’s how they knew they were on the right track.
The second biggest challenge and win have been making it through the pandemic. Coca Cinnamon relied on the community from day one. “Without community, we wouldn’t have been able to open our first shop,” Areli says. “The same methods that we used for opening up our first shops are the methods that we went back to during the pandemic—a grassroots approach of being vulnerable with the community about our needs and how they can help support us.”
Leon tweeted, “if we sell 230 bags of coffee a day, we can survive this pandemic.” Overnight, their online orders skyrocketed. They had to learn how to create a structure for this new volume of orders. So they started implementing subscription programs. When it comes to wholesale, their bread, and butter, they had to think outside the box.
“Leon created this map where he mapped every zip code that we sent coffee to and our goal is to fill the entire map up,” shares Areli.
The community has allowed their coffee shops to stay open and afloat, and they didn’t have to let go of a single employee because of COVID-19. “And that was something that we were celebrating on a payroll basis,” Areli says.
Tivi, who is a frequent visitor at Cocoa Cinnamon, says, “It’s really easy to support you. I love supporting you.”
Lastly, Areli says, the fact that Leon and she are still going strong is another win.
SPIRITUALITY AND BUSINESS
Areli shifts the conversation to spirituality and business.
She grew up in Cherokee in a Catholic family, but they weren’t practicing Catholics. She absorbed this spirituality from Cherokee and Mexico. “This indigenous way of living and understanding is what Europeans call ‘magical realism’ and we just call it realism,” she says.
When she moved to Durham, NC, she felt like a fish out of water because she wasn’t absorbing that magic, that spirituality. “It really was a blessing in disguise because it made me seek and search what my grounding ritual practices are,” she says. “Even though it’s so hard to do that as a busy body, somebody who’s consumed by work all the time, it’s such an important thing to go back to and try to make time for that.”
She asks Tivi, “I am curious to hear how it’s going for you, and is your business feeding your soul and nurturing you as a human?”
Tivi says she grew up in a Christian, Southern Black Baptist household but that she’s not a religious person anymore, even though she has a lot of respect for religion. Her mom is Christian and her dad is Muslim.
“I believe this entrepreneurial journey has brought me back to myself and every day is a process,” Tivi says. “Through this journey, I see a hallway of rooms and it constantly opens these doors in my mind that I never knew were there, and I know that I have to explore them because I can never close them.”
"I believe this entrepreneurial journey has brought me back to myself and every day is a process,” Tivi says. "Through this journey, I see a hallway of rooms and it constantly opens these doors in my mind that I never knew were there, and I know that I have to explore them because I can never close them."
She says one of those doors opened for her recently– “Have I set up my business for me to feel free?” Tivi remembers her great great grandma, who was a slave, and what her definition of freedom would have been. “Am I actually living that life?” Tivi asks. “Am I actually setting up my business to be free or am I setting up different types of bondages for myself?”
That’s the door she’s going to have to explore.
Areli can relate. She says she has always struggled with this question. “I don’t know what the answer is,” she says. “Can you really be free in the society that we live in and build something socially conscious within these structures?”
We’re going to leave you with two questions: What does it mean for you to be free? How are you incorporating your ethics and your values at every step in your business process? If you don't have a business, how are you incorporating it into your life? You can engage in conversation with us on all platforms @heyawesomegirls !
Demi Vitkute is a Media Editorial Manager at Hey Awesome Girl and Director of Hey Awesome Girl with Tivi Jones show. She’s a passionate storyteller, fashion aficionado + crazy cat mom trying to change the world. She’s a journalist, editor, and media consultant. Demi is the founder of The Urban Watch Magazine and has written for The Washington Post, Inside Hook, and Promo Magazine, among others. You can follow her on IG and Twitter @demiivit.