Fresh up today on an all-new Sprudge Maps Spotlight, we’re learning more about the dynamic dual business Little Waves Coffee Roasters and Cocoa Cinnamon. Long regarded as one of North Carolina’s finest cafes, co-founder Areli Barrera Grodski was featured on the debut episode of Cascara on the Sprudge Podcast Network. Today we’re diving in deeper to learn more from Barrera Grodski about what makes her small businesses so notable and distinct, and how they’re surviving and thriving through an unpredictable 2020. Read on!
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Introduce yourself to our readers—tell us about your cafe!
Greetings! My name is Areli Barrera Grodski, co-owner of Little Waves Coffee Roasters and Cocoa Cinnamon alongside my husband, Leon Grodski Barrera. We started Cocoa Cinnamon in 2010 with $75 to our name and no access to credit in my mami’s kitchen in the mountains of North Carolina. We moved to Durham in 2011 thanks to our friend, David Solow, who would later go on to collaboratively design all three of our shops. In the following years from 2011 to present day we went from a coffee trike called bikeCOFFEE to our first brick and mortar (1/2013) to two (1/2016), then three and a roastery Little Waves Coffee Roasters (8/2017). Our cafes are about 2.5 miles from each other, each with a unique design that integrates with our menus, aesthetics, and mission. The three together make one complete experience. We want our spaces to be invitational to all who want to participate in our spaces and that takes shape in the aesthetics.
Cocoa Cinnamon, our three brick and mortar shops, located in Durham, NC, are driven by the experience that is amazed by the marvel of cities and the roots of languages, whose blood rushes in the awe of landscapes, the wonder of travel, and the history, colors, textures, and stories of coffee, chocolate, and tea. We make drinks after these histories and after the characters that inspire us, those who remind us of the beauty and possibility of humanity.
Little Waves Coffee Roasters is an impact-driven group of thinkers, dreamers, and doers who delight in the enduring power of coffee as a shared experience. By making small, determined reverberations through sourcing, roasting, and brewing, we add our open-hearted energy to the tides that un-conceal and uphold the beauty of coffee and life. Little Waves is the coffee-forward arm of our company, located at our Lakewood location in Durham, NC, shipping coffee worldwide!
Our first shop in the Old North Durham neighborhood used materials preserved from Durham’s tobacco past and research present to drive its design. The colors of the walls are inspired by coffee, cacao, and spices. There are more couches than chairs in this one and it has a lot of outdoor seating (except for right now during the pandemic). Our goal was to infuse science and exploration from a sense of our place on this planet and how we are in relationship with everything around us.
Our Old West Durham location is an exploration of the history of Mexico and its people; looking at the massive influence North African design has on Mexican design through the Spanish conquest. Furthermore tying that into the spread of coffee and human migration from Ethiopia. We have a lot of talented artists in Durham and some of them have permanent work displayed there that explore this concept, each work connecting almost physically in the space.
Our Lakewood location is our biggest and there you will find Mexican oil cloths on the table, pre-pandemic a wall dedicated to displaying local artists, signs on the upper cabinet that spell our Café, Chocolate, Churros, and Tostador de Café. This shop is where community comes to commune over coffee, chocolate, and tea drinks accompanied by fresh churros. This shop is in a neighborhood that is very mixed but has a long standing Latinx and Black constituency. We added freshly made churros at this location as a kind of feel at home invitation to folks in the neighborhood. We wanted something that folks could identify with and that could have an accessible price point. Being from Mexico and having childhood memories of fresh churros being made by street vendors, it was very important to that our churros tasted as good and as fresh as those. It’s been really wonderful seeing folks from all walks of life participate in our space even now as a pick up only cafe. Our roastery, Little Waves Coffee Roasters, is in full view behind glass from the retail area of this location.
At all three of our shops you will find a menu that focuses on quality, single origins, start coffees. Another part of our menus plays out of the histories of coffee, chocolate, and tea. The first coffee houses were in Syria at the western edge of ancient spice routes, coffee initially spread via Muslim pilgrims going to and from Mecca, which led to spices being part of the brewing process across the Middle East from an early time. Our wonder menu starts plays with this, exploring stories and spices as they give us a way to look out into a beautiful and plural world. These drinks and stories serve as a further invitation for people who might not be acknowledge in mainstream American society to be seen, acknowledge in a simple yet deep way. You will see a traditional espresso menu, signature lattes with most of our syrups being made in house and with names that honor these stories and places like Amuleto, Moctezuma, Rumi, Strait of Hormuz, Jemaa El-Fnaa, Dr. Durham, etc.
What equipment do you use in your shop?
We use La Marzocco Linea PBs at all three of our shops as well as FETCO XTS with dispersion mods for perfectly dialed in batch brewed coffees. We use Kalita Wave 185s and Baratza Forté BGs for our pour-over bar at CC OND and CC OWD. We use Mahlkönig EK43s at CC LKWD and in the Roastery and E65S for espresso and some Mazzer Konys.
Which roaster or roasters do you serve?
We source and roast all of our own coffee under the name Little Waves Coffee Roasters. We’ve source with a focus on quality, equity, relationship, and impact. Little Waves Coffee’s Director of Roasting and Quality Control, Mandy Spirito, is a Q-grader and in charge of QC and bringing out the best from the coffees Areli sources. We have an open feedback loop between Little Waves’ Director of Quality and Innovation, Michael Harwood, baristas and the roastery team to keep the coffees soluble and tasting as sweet as they can! We roast on a Loring F15 Falcon.
What is the neighborhood like where you’re located? What’s some other cool stuff nearby?
We are located in three different neighborhoods, Old North Durham, Old West Durham, and Lakewood. Each neighborhood has its own unique character. Durham is a huge supporter of unique independent businesses we are fortunate to be surrounded by other small businesses, restaurants, bars, grocery stores, convenience stores who help each other. Some are near schools and it’s really cool to see kids coming through to get churros or get a pastry with their parents at the OND location. All of our shops are between Duke University, North Carolina Central University, and Durham Tech. While Durham has issues with rising housing and tax costs, we are still surrounded by an amazingly diverse community at all of our locations and work each day to invite as wide an audience as we can by indicating diversity by our recruiting, offering community coffee and with our menus. Durham has a long and strong Black business community and in the last several decades has really developed a thriving Latinx entrepreneurial community. Our business exists because of this supportive Durham spirit.
Did you close during a mandated Coronavirus shut-down, and if so, for how long?
Both Little Waves Coffee and Cocoa Cinnamon have been open continuously. From early on we approached COVID-19 as an immediate health and economic crisis, working closely with our management and team to adapt to no contact storefront walkup only no seating setups, adapt our offerings, and catapult our online sales. Those moves have kept us all safe and our team employed this whole time.
We have not had to close because of a mandate but we have had a positive case and closed one shop briefly by our own accord to assure our team and community was safe. Everyone who worked that specific shop got tested and all tested negative but to be completely sure we quarantined a few people who had been exposed longer to the team member that tested positive. Everyone who was quarantined was paid during the time we asked them to self quarantine and we were able to introduce a back up team to keep the roastery running. Luckily the team members who tested positive experienced very mild symptoms and nobody else got sick, even folks who had been in close contact. Properly wearing a mask, washing your hands, and sanitizing your space truly works.
How has the Coronavirus impacted daily work at your cafe?
At this point we are starting to feel the impact of the 6+ months of isolation and not having ways to release like we all used to be able to. We are being mindful of standing six feet apart from each other, eating away from each other, washing our hands more frequently, paying closer attention when we get allergies or a common cold. The anxiety is not a fun element at all of COVID-19 but for the most part we have had really wonderful customers appreciate the measures we are taking to keep our team and them safe. Our strategy is to keep our shops storefront, no contact no seating only for the time being. While we are all getting tired of living in this status, we’re thinking of our team and community’s long term well being and are fortunate to have Little Waves Coffee that helps us offset the reduction in brick and mortar sales. We still get to interact with our customers and co-workers at a safe distance and that has been good for our mental health. Since 3/15/2020 we have shipped Little Waves Coffee to over 1,400 zip codes in all 50 states and 16 countries. We’ve been keeping a map of it, trying to make the sustained work and withstanding the layers of challenges as much fun as it can be.
What’s something cool or unique about your cafe you want folks to know?
Our team is incredible and filled with gentle and kind souls who truly have everyone’s best interest at heart. Of our 40 current employees, 30 are women, 26 are people of color, and 22 are multilingual. We have many employees who speak Spanish as their first language with others speaking several more languages. Seven team members are Black or Afro-Latinx, several of whom have been in management. Over the years, we’ve had employees from all walks of life, sexual orientations, and gender identities. We represent seven different nations and four continents. Part of the foundation of Cocoa Cinnamon is create space where pluralism thrives. We recruit to be as diverse as our city and we represent a version of the vision of the world we hope to see.
We’re getting ready to launch our seasonal wonder menu. This menu will be called “We’re In This Together,” and is a series of collaborations that can feel light and comforting and still have stories that when one looks and tastes deeper represent a beautiful world we hope for. The collaborators are vendors or clients with whom we regularly work, represent a beautiful and wide diversity with amazing craft, and layers of stories that inspire us. In each move we make, purchase, service… we work to embody the world we hope to see. It is an ongoing and imperfect effort, yet with lots of repeated reverberations we are able to contribute to bring the real closer to vision we can see.
+ a drink by our associate shop captain at our Lakewood location, Michelle Alvarenga.
Of course our S.O. coffees on pour-over are part of an ongoing collaboration. One part of our approach to sustainability is sourcing from certain producers year after year, the relationships letting us both grow and develop quality together.
Photos by David Solow unless otherwise noted, courtesy of Little Waves/Cocoa Cinnamon, used with permission