Inglewood, California is a Black city undergoing change. As you drive down Manchester Boulevard towards historic Market Street, you see a city in the middle of transformation, not quite new, not quite the same, yet still holding onto its rich Black culture. It recently became the home of SoFi Stadium, home to both the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers NFL franchises. This is a massive new project that, even during a global pandemic, is fast-tracking the gentrification the city is facing. Cinematic shots of the South LA hills, colorful 50s architecture, and old heads walking down the street are on full display in Issa Rae’s Insecure, and it’s not just for TV. It’s an accurate portrayal of what the city is now despite a negative reputation and past, and the strength of its community is due in part to some of the Black-owned businesses that call Inglewood home.
One of those businesses is Sip & Sonder, a coffee shop and creative studio on Market owned by two Black women, Shanita Nicholas and Amanda-Jane Thomas. Inside the shop, the front of house space is 1,800 square feet housing the coffee bar, and a 600-square-foot creative studio lies behind the wall adorned with the definition of sonder: “The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex AS YOUR OWN—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries.” The wall seems to be a new kind of reminder, ready made for these days.
Sip & Sonder exists at an important intersection for Black coffee business—a crossroads that labors under the stress of multiple pandemics, a global health crisis, economic fallout, and racism. But cafes, roasteries, and coffee entrepreneurship ventures owned and operated by Black women are showing what it looks like to adapt and remain committed to improving the overall wellbeing of our community, themselves included. Perhaps even first and foremost.
Pre-COVID, tables and brown leather couches inside Sip & Sonder were occupied by young, Black creatives and neighborhood old heads while Ari Lennox Radio set the vibe for a good conversation to spark up. The space was set up to be a creative outlet and the studio was the center of this, according to Nicholas. “The goal for [the studio] is to provide space for creatives to exhibit their work and to have an outlet within that to create and ideate as well,” she says. Gatherings and events focused on artfully engaging the community while thoughtfully empowering it came to a halt. Like most LA area coffee shops, Sip & Sonder had to adjust operations in addition to plans for meeting the needs of their community.
One of those adjustments revolutionized their coffee program at the start of COVID by fast tracking the leap into roasting their own coffee. “We’ve had a great relationship, and continue to have an amazing relationship with Red Bay,” Nicholas begins of the Oakland-based roastery—another Black-owned coffee company—whose staple single origins and espresso blends flowed from Sip & Sonder’s La Marzocco Linea PB when they first opened in 2018. But times change, and now the cafe roasts their own. “We’re really proud to be roasting our own coffee,” she tells me, “and I’ve worked very hard on the two profiles we currently use in-house.”
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A single origin Papua New Guinea called “South Market” is used for espresso, boasting notes of cedar, orange, and caramel and described as “rich, sweet, and sexy.” For cold brew and drip, they’re currently sourcing a natural from Sidamo, Ethiopia they call “Native Daughter” that tastes like strawberry, chocolate, and brown sugar. They’ve been working on roasting with Bellwether Coffee for a little over a year, learning the fundamentals of roasting with the Bellwether team. At the beginning of the summer, a Bellwether roaster was purchased, arrived shortly after, and both Nicholas and Thomas have been doing all of the roasting ever since. (They named their new little roaster addition “Sage”.)
As Black women who own, operate, and now roast for their cafe, they join a growing cohort of Black woman-owned coffee companies across the US: Southeastern Roastery, Mama’s Brew Coffee, Kahawa 1893, Cute Coffee, and many more. And for Nicholas and Thomas, their identities, given coffee’s roots and the Black and brown people who’ve farmed it for generations, give them more agency to have a coffee-centered space in a Black-centered community.
“It’s so interesting to be treated as outsiders for something that’s actually from where we can trace our lineage,” Nicholas states strongly. “This is just reclaiming something that’s a part of who we are and been for us all along. There was an emphasis on the creation of [our] space to be more than just your typical coffee shop because it really is powerful to hold this space within the industry as a whole, as well within the communities we’re in.”
And they’re not new to understanding the impact of an empowered community and investing in it. Prior to Sip & Sonder, Nicholas and Thomas were practicing law in Brooklyn, where they met as friends. Eventually, their friendship turned into a business partnership through the creation of their non-profit, LA Black Investors Club, a “nonprofit organization to inform, exchange, and foster the development of entrepreneurial ventures through serving as a conduit to venture creation, capitalization, and capacity building for diverse communities.” This ultimately set the foundation for Sip & Sonder’s birth and sole mission: “For the community. For the culture.”
Sip & Sonder has lived up to that mission admirably across the last two years, and their role is especially now. As we approach a potentially groundbreaking presidential election and more news of voter suppression down racial lines is revealed, you can find voter registration forms right at Sip & Sonder’s walk-up window. They even held a “Sip & Vote” event in August for folks to register and enjoy free cold brew.
In between operating a hospitality business, and staying dedicated to serving and uplifting the community in Inglewood, Nicholas and Thomas have also made it a priority, with each other’s help, to center their personal wellbeing through it all. “Early on in COVID we were working everyday,” Nicholas says, “but it was extremely unsustainable. [We asked ourselves] what’s our solution? How can we sustain ourselves and also sustain the business?”
This is an extremely important point to make in light of the “strong Black woman” trope, a toxic notion that suggests Black women can somehow take on anything and do everything for everyone. The women of Sip & Sonder learned that your own coffee cup has to be full in order to fill everyone else’s. “Because of our background traditionally working in corporate America, there are bad habits that have been instilled in us for years,” says Thomas. “The sense of urgency for everything to be done on a rush basis—we actively have to say ‘no, we’re not doing that.’ Not everything has to be immediate, and if we have XYZ on our plate, we have to factor in some downtime.”
For them that looks like staying vigilant about when to answer emails, blocking off time in the morning for yoga, or taking a day off altogether. But at the center of their prioritizing their mental, emotional, and physical health is Nicholas and Thomas’s respect for each other, as business partners and friends, to know just how necessary it is for the work they’ve set out to do. “If we’re not going to sustain our health, there’s no Sip & Sonder,” says Thomas. “There’s no growth, or even sustaining [the business]. There’s none of that. And it has to be a constant thing, not just a one and done.”
Honestly, this is the blueprint. Black women have never once thought it not possible to sustain and pour into ourselves and our communities, economically, spiritually, and otherwise. Imagining a new normal that isn’t founded on extraction for the sake of self-interest isn’t hard when it already exists in establishments like Sip & Sonder. While it sometimes feels like we’re drifting further away from the sonders of our day-to-day as we continue to isolate from one another, we’re actually becoming more aware of the complexities of each others’ lives. Now more than ever, there’s ample opportunity to make sure no one’s cup runs dry.
Michelle Johnson is an editor at large at Sprudge Media Network, and the founder and publisher of The Chocolate Barista. Read more Michelle Johnson on Sprudge.
Photos by Michelle Johnson.