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It’s hard not to picture it, once you hear the name: little waves lapping on the sand. Water rushing in between your toes. The warmth of the sun on your shoulders. An abiding feeling of calm.
Areli Barrera de Grodski came up with the name Little Waves in a text message. She’s the co-owner and founder of the roastery and its accompanying retail locations, Cocoa Cinnamon, in Durham, North Carolina. She’s admittedly shy, someone who describes herself as quiet and reserved, but she relishes moments of awareness and noticing—she describes herself as “being comfortable in the meta.”
When I think of Little Waves, I also think of a number: 230. That’s the number of retail coffee bags the roastery needs to sell every day to keep the doors open. After the novel coronavirus shut down coffee shops across the globe, Areli and her partner, Leon, went immediately into planning and preservation mode. They figured out exactly how much business they needed to do, down to the day, to keep their business going without laying off any employees.
In this conversation, we oscillate between the meta and the concrete. Some of the topics we discuss are straightforward, some are weird and obscure, and most land somewhere in the middle. Just to get a little meta here myself, breaking down assumptions is why I love interviewing people and asking questions—there’s always more behind every story. And in this interview, we do just that: we break down assumptions and learn more behind the story of Little Waves.
This interview is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts. Below is a transcript of our interview.
Ashley: Where does your coffee story start? Does it start for you when you decided to open a business or does it start earlier than that?
Areli: I would say one or two years before that, my coffee journey starts in 2009. After I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, I moved back to move with my parents in Cherokee, North Carolina. And moving back, having just graduated, I feel like that's like kind of the story of every graduate, right? It's like, “What do I do now? Cool, that was fun, now what?”
I studied Spanish. I wanted to be a Spanish teacher and when I moved back to Cherokee, I wasn't ready to jump quite into that yet. I wanted to do something that was in a creative mindset.
I applied to work at this coffee shop in Cherokee that was started, co-founded by my now-husband. For me, it was really more about the space and how the space was such a foundational place for people in the community. Having grown up in Cherokee, I got to really see the impact that it had on community members that didn't necessarily like, like weren't necessarily like church or football people.
Ashley: Right. So I imagine having space specifically away from those two things mattered a whole lot as you, as you said.
Areli: Yeah. Yeah. So it was nice. I was able to see the impact because I had been away for a while, like going to school and so coming back and seeing it in action, I was just like—I don't know, it had an impact on me and I wanted to participate in that and I wanted to learn more about what creating space like that look like.
Ashley: I think it's really fascinating to reflect on one's very first almost imprint of coffee in a way, because I think back to my very first coffee shop job. Part of why I'm kind of going back to that is we graduated the same year. I graduated in 2009 as well, and I was going to, and I was a teacher. I taught middle school math and science right after I graduated from college. And then I worked at a coffee shop because I, I couldn't do it. I was not old enough to assume the responsibility of teaching middle school math and science at that time.
And it was also, you know, you graduated in the same economy I did too. So you knew that was like. So I think about my very first coffee shop job where we were this really tight unit. It was a very, you know, Midtown Manhattan, super busy coffee shop. It was just like grab and go really fast-paced. And because of that, we were such a tight-knit unit.
I have this one manager who really encouraged us to be the best versions of ourselves. And she'd be like, “You're good at this, like, go do that. And you're good at this other thing, go do that.” And I think a lot about that now in my life. So it's interesting you reflecting on that first imprint of coffee, I imagine had a lot to do with what Cocoa Cinnamon looks like now.
Areli: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, very much so. I feel like even the coffee shop that Leon created with this partner at the time, I mean, the fact that Leon is, you know, the co-founder of Cocoa Cinnamon and Little Waves plays a huge role in how he—like his imprint in that coffee shop is also in this one.
Just like the whole idea of embracing culture and really kind of putting culture and history and the elements that sometimes get forgotten in history—and by that I mean, the people who get erased when history is being told, bringing that story to the forefront, I thought they did a really beautiful job, especially being in Cherokee. His partner is Cherokee as well. So I don’t know, I think that that concept really stuck with me as well. Trying to think about coffee and not just coffee, but chocolate—chocolate was also another aspect, learning the history of chocolate.
And that had a huge imprint on me and my older brother whose palate is like, that of a five-year-old's. All he wants is like, nothing green, no vegetables. And when we started Cocoa Cinnamon, we started in the kitchen, my mom's kitchen, in Western Carolina. And we started off with chocolate. We started messing around with making truffles and making tempered chocolate.
And this was after reading this book on the history of chocolate and getting to know that cacao is originally from Latin America, the Amazons, and it made its way over to the Aztecs and the Mayans. And that whole rich history just really infused … this wonder. Like, why aren't these stories being told, you know, in different formats and here we are working with these products, like why not highlight these stories through naming chocolates after these stories?
Ashley: That's so cool to hear because it seems like there's a lot of interconnectedness in your life and in the way that Cocoa Cinnamon looks and the way that Little Waves has kind of come to be.
I was reading that the names for these businesses came from dreams, or they came from like the ethereal world, the world of experience, which is really interesting. Because I imagine for a lot of people who open up coffee shops, it's like, “Oh, I just want to open up a coffee shop,” and they go do it. But it seems like you and Leon and the team around you have been able to weave in personal experience to not only highlight the stories of others but also, I don't know, I guess create more meaning as well, to add to that story.
Areli: Yeah. I feel like that's kind of the lens in which see everything, right? And how we approach everything. Our approach is pretty much heart-driven and also, like what I was saying earlier in terms of like, history-driven and culture-driven. It's all about honoring as opposed to appropriating and bringing things to light.
And I think that it's super important to see yourself even within the products. Sometimes, you know, we have specials that are created by some of our staff members and I think it's really cool. Like we get to explore. I mean, we gained so much from it because we get to explore somebody's iteration of their culture and their expression through a drink. I think for us it's really important to honor those stories.
And like you were saying, everything that we've done up until now has been guided by the universe. If it didn't feel good, if it didn't feel right, we wouldn't go forward with it. Everything that we've done up until now, like I said, has been heart-driven and it really does tell us when something isn't the right path for us.
Cocoa Cinnamon did come to Leon in a dream. Little Waves came from a text message while we were falling in love. It's like this visual of this calmness of little waves kind of like rushing up the shore. Leon is originally from Long Island, so he was thinking about those little waves. And he sent me that message and it was through this interaction—I was sending him like these random magic realism text messages of just like … I feel like living in the Great Smoky Mountains, I was just expressing this with my friends the other day that lately I've been feeling I've been falling deeper into my safety zone or my comfort zone of being in the meta.
I feel like I thrive in the meta and I feel like Cherokee is very much a place that has a lot of history. And a lot of like … basically, if you don't believe in ghosts, then you're the odd one out.
Ashley: You’re speaking my language. I feel like I've typed the word ‘meta’ seven times this week for very different reasons. Especially when it comes to podcasting and storytelling—we're going to get a little meta here, I guess.
Maybe I'm using that word wrong? I feel like I'm going to have an Alanis Morissette moment where I'm like, “Oh, ‘ironic’ … I wasn't using that right.”
When I think about these conversations, and I think about what I want to achieve when I have them, I'm always looking for that interconnectedness, right? I'm always looking for the ways that things that you've experienced in your life inform the experiences that you're currently having. And those are not always obvious.
That's why I really like doing these interviews because I think it really forces people, myself included, to reflect back on moments that were important and connect them to bigger moments that maybe, if you don't really sit down and think about it, you don't really have time to reflect on, but it seems like you do that pretty much all the time.
Areli: Yeah. I feel honestly one of the things that I love and appreciate about coffee is that it is a small cosmos of life lessons that literally like are a mirror to yourself. And I feel like you can literally learn how to ascend or how to connect to your higher self through coffee with all the lessons that you learn in this industry. There are so many beautiful lessons and so many hard lessons, and it's just a matter of literally paying attention and learning from them and letting go of your ego.
Ashley: I want to talk about that a little bit. I think in this current moment—if you're listening to this not necessarily live, this will come out in a couple of weeks, but if you're listening to this in 2020, COVID is currently affecting your life. And I feel like you've gotten a lot of attention specifically because you have been able to keep on your entire team. You've had a really specific goal of how much coffee you need to roast to keep your team on, and that's amazing.
There's so much good stuff to talk about there. And I definitely want to talk about that, but going back to something you just said about learning from mistakes, I wonder as somebody who's a leader, as someone who owns a business, what have been some of those experiences?
What are some of those hard lessons that you've learned through coffee? And they don't have to be tangible. They don't have to be, like, “I learned to do this. I learned how to do that,” but maybe some of the bigger life lessons that you've learned on this journey.
Areli: I’ve learned the importance of clear communication and learning how to clearly communicate.
I feel like I honestly, that's been the biggest one. I feel like communication is such a huge and broad topic. We do have a lot of younger people on our team and this is their first job. As I'm getting older, one of the things that I feel like is important and is tangible is that I can really resonate with a lot of our team members because we have a lot of women of color, a lot of Latina women in our business and on our team. And I see some of myself in some of their actions and in some of their like shyness.
I grew up with a very quiet family—in the sense of when it comes to talking about our feelings. But we're also very loud when we're together; like we're a very joyful bunch when we're together. But when we're by ourselves, we're … I dunno … I'm a very quiet person. And I see that in a lot of our team members. I feel like sometimes it's really hard.
You can't support somebody if you don't know what their needs are. And sometimes it's like, you don't even know as a person that you can ask for things or that you can express your needs because sometimes we just don't grow up knowing that, Or being told that that's something valuable.
From my own personal experience, I can see that playing a role in communication and lack of communication. One of the other things is realizing what I have to offer and what are my strengths and what are my weaknesses. How can Leon and I balance each other out or reach out to other people on our team?
So it’s really depending on each other to create a wholesome system and holding each other accountable. And doing that from a heart-driven … I think that communication has been the biggest learning journey for me as someone who has a very similar experience to a lot of our team members.
Ashley: That's a critical thing to point out because, and I think you said this as well, communication is so broad, so it's easy to kind of point to communication as a tool or a resource and to simplify it. But it really is about asking, “Does somebody feel comfortable saying to me that they need the day off or will they get nervous that there'll be some sort of retaliation?” Or if this is someone's first job, can they say to me and feel safe saying, “I need this,” or “I need that”?
I think is it's easy to assume that those things are obvious, especially if you come from a background where your needs are met.
Areli: Yeah. Without question. And then also just how people receive information. We all come from different backgrounds and different experiences and somebody’s louder tone might come off as too much, or not too much, but like offensive, or I don't know.
I don’t know what the right analogy here is, but Leon and I are very different when it comes to communication. His family and ancestry are New Yorkers, and he’s very much like the Italian side of his family. He can be loud and he talks a lot more than I do.
I think that's been a fun journey too, learning each other's communication styles and how that plays a role in our business as well. Learning how you take information in and, as leaders, how do we take all of those things into account and also take care of ourselves. It's this whole nuanced thing that has so many complexities.
Going back to the meta: I think about the book, The Conference of the Birds, and that whole book is about oneness, but it's also about how you get to this point, it’s about bringing yourself but leaving yourself. And it's just filled with these contradictions. And I feel like when it comes to communication, it's this fine balance of being able to be present and to be able to voice your needs and at the same time, leave room for the other person to be able to voice their needs of you as well. Does that make sense?
Ashley: That totally makes sense. You haven't said a single thing that doesn't make sense to me.
Areli: Yeah. I feel like that's been just a big eye-opener of the experience of communication. And a lot of the issues that ever arise are always around communication or misunderstanding of communication. It's just giving each other a little bit of grace and benefit of the doubt that even though [something you said] felt this way, it wasn't meant that way. And if it was meant that way, then that's a whole other issue, but that's something else to talk about.
Ashley: Especially as the leader or as the person in the position of power. I think it's always the responsibility of that person to step back and be like, “How was this conveyed? How did this other person take it?” Because you have that space because you're in a little more of a secure position, which is really hard to recognize.
But it seems like you have, and I want to talk a little bit about the way that you portray yourself and the way that Little Waves portrays itself. So when I was on the website it says Cocoa Cinnamon is a Latina-led company. And I was wondering if that's something that you've always led with?
Areli: I feel like yes and no. Right in the duality always. Yes, in the sense that being Latina has always been a part of my identity, being Mexican is something that I have held onto. Grippingly, I have. It's part of who I am to the core in the sense of being born in Mexico and moving to the United States at six years old, I felt like I needed to hang on to that identity, to not lose it because I did grow up in the United States.
I resonate so hard with Selena because even though I'm not Mexican-American, the role that she had to play in both Mexican and American culture is very similar to what I feel like a lot of young immigrant kids have to deal with.
And even if they're not immigrant kids, children of immigrants, speaking a language and being enough of that culture at home and with their family, but also fitting in at a predominantly white school or a white community. And just trying to figure out, especially as a child, if you're enough. How can I be enough in this culture that I don't see myself in?
I feel like that has always stayed with me and it's always been a part of me, but in terms of our business, I've never necessarily, like … I know that representation matters and it's always mattered to me. And I think at the very beginning of our business it was a part of who we were, but it wasn't necessarily at the forefront. We weren't necessarily using it to, I guess, market ourselves? And I think a lot of that just had to do with me learning how to step into the power of what that meant and being comfortable with it. Because like I said earlier I am much quieter and I don't like the limelight. And the fact that I'm doing this podcast with you, it's like, I'm ascending, yo!
There's been a lot of work from 2010 when we first started our business to now of being able to step into that power of being in a leadership position. It seems silly that it needed to take me that long to get there, but that’s putting metrics on aligning with your higher self. Let's not colonize that either.
Ashley: It's interesting to hear you talk about these things because I'm realizing as we're recording—which is also fun to connect the dots—that you and I are probably the same age. You and I graduated into a very, probably similar situation, had sort of similar goals to want to teach.
We both also idolized Selena for the very same reasons. I watched that Jennifer Lopez movie every time it's on TV. I remember this one scene in particular where she was giving a press conference in Mexico and she's like, “I'm muy … I’m really excited!” She doesn't know the word for “excited” in Spanish. I don't speak Spanish. I grew up in a very colonized mindset of like, “You are only going to speak English.” I remember seeing that and feeling so seen. I was like, “That's me like trying to talk to my grandpa!”
Along with this idea of trying to decolonize your mind and trying to figure out the ways that you suppress certain parts of your identity because of colonization. And then other ways in which, you know, I'm a white Latina. I have a lot of privilege because of that. And then there's a lot of colorism in my community that I need to contend with. So it's interesting to see all those different dynamics come into play. And it's really powerful for me to hear you talk about them. Which is wild because before we started recording, you mentioned one of the things that you were really looking for was representation in coffee.
Ashley: Small world, it all connects.
This is getting real meta now. We're just getting … I feel like we're just gonna start floating off the clouds.
Areli: Oh my gosh, yeah. The meta is where I hit my stride. Also having these conversations and having … I don't know. It's still hard to find representation. Like you said, there are many levels of representation. I don't know that I've ever had this kind of conversation with another business owner. I don't know.
I think there's a value to metrics and obviously, we need to have all kinds of metrics to be on the same page to talk about the same stuff, especially when you're grading coffee. But I don't know. I just feel like sometimes … I know I personally feel like my life experience and what I can bring to the table isn't enough in this industry sometimes, you know?
And I just feel like sometimes that's such nonsense and it's, again going back to that decolonizing and imposter syndrome. But I think it's mostly just learning that the senses [are powerful] beyond knowing the chemistry behind roasting coffee. You can actually smell the reactions happening. And that I just feel sometimes the sensory element of roasting coffee isn't necessarily as valued as knowing the physics behind roasting coffee, you know? I just feel like even just having this conversation about communication and understanding the cultural value of how somebody grew up and how that plays a role in creating structures within your business … yeah. I don't know. I dunno where I'm getting.
Ashley: And that's fine. I think that that's what I'm liking. Again—getting kind of meta in this conversation right now—that's what I'm liking about this conversation as we're having it in real-time. I think for the most part when I do these interviews and I think about, “Why am I here? What am I trying to do?”
I really want to let my guests talk and we're certainly doing that here for sure, with me asking you questions, but very rarely do I reflect back on my own experiences, because I really try to remove that. I mean, I have [shared a lot] in the past but as an interviewer, I'm trying to get a little bit better about removing my personal experiences. Because I don't want to editorialize, but seeing your light and seeing the perspectives that you have and feeling like, “Oh, this person shares a lot of perspectives that I grew up with as well, but is also vastly different.”
Which speaks to the importance of representation because, you know, Latinx folks are not a monolith. It’s important to see people from a variety of different backgrounds be successful and be able to say, “This is my story. This is how I got here. And you can do this too,” because you're seeing other people achieve it.
So let's talk a little bit about COVID-19. Something that I noticed pretty much right when coronavirus hit is that Little Waves had a plan. You folks were ready, you had a metric. And I know we just talked a little bit about metrics and sometimes how they can be not super useful, but in this instance, you were very public with your Instagram following or with the people who follow you folks. You shared that, “We need to sell 230 bags of retail coffee to keep going.” So can you talk a little bit about when you realized that something was going to have to change?
Areli: I think March 10th is such a clear date for us. Leon and I had just gotten back from our first trip in a really long time—we had gone to Puerto Rico for a really short vacation. And as soon we got back, it was like, COVID hit.
I remember feeling this sense of like, “What the hell?” We don't really know what the hell is happening, how long this is going to last, we were being told that it was going to last, I don't know, I can't even remember—seven weeks or something. Something like that, something really short. We were looking to see what other people in the industry were doing.
We didn't close our shops immediately. But the more we kept going without closing our shops, the scarier it got. I think that was sign number one that we needed to shift our model to pick-up only. We had all of our department heads meet and talk about how the hell are we going to weather this.
We were also caught in a time where we had invested in different things. We had invested a little bit of money into roles that we didn't necessarily have the money to have yet, but we were putting a timeline on it and then COVID happened. So we were already in the bank, we weren't in the best position. If we don't have any business tomorrow and from there on out, we're screwed.
So we were trying to figure out how do we stay open—but keep everyone paid and not have to lay anyone off. That’s where the metrics came in. Here's how much money we need to make on a daily basis to keep everyone paid. And Leon was the one who put that metric into [a number]: 230 bags. If we can't let people into our shops, we need to sell bags of coffee that we can ship. So we saw this huge spike in online sales overnight and, Mandy [the head roaster] and I were just like, “Okay, whoa, we're not ready for this production.”
I was literally staying until 1 a.m. stickering bags and just doing everything that we could to like stay open. And our messaging was out of hand—like not out of hand, but it was in this like mode of do or die where we were literally posting something every two hours on social media. Which reminded me of our days of getting started in 2011, 2012, when we did our Kickstarter.
One of the things that I really love and admire about Leon is that he will not stop until something gets done. It's a blessing and a curse because it can also be really bad for his health. But I don't know that I could have done this on my own without his leadership as well. But that's why we make a great team.
We were putting some ideas out on the table and saying like, “How can we cut hours?” We did end up having to cut our hours down, but even within that, we were like, “Okay, what can we afford?” We immediately communicated with all of our team members [asking], “How many hours do you need per week to survive? Be as honest as possible.” We basically asked that question out to our team. Some of them came back with, “I need 40 hours.” And some people said, “27,” or “35.” Within that, some people said, “I don't want to risk it. I'm gonna not work.”
So some people opted out. And the thing about our team is that we're a very big team, but we have a lot of part-time people. So some of the part-time people decided to opt out. And everyone who needed the work, we did everything that we could to keep them employed and to keep getting them those 40 hours. It's a lot better now, but in the very beginning, it was a little bit harder to get them the full 40 hours.
Honestly, it was just like overnight, we had to come up with a plan and we had to figure out where can we cut expenses. We immediately reached out to our landlords and figured out if they would be willing to let us pay rent next month or whatever. We could get some of the loans that we had that we were able to defer. We were just trying to figure out where within all of these massive expenses of operating three shops and a roastery can we cut down without putting our employees out of work?
Ashley: It seems like you had really honest conversations with people about what that looked like—if someone could maybe work less or if somebody maybe wanted to stay home. I know people who were let go from their jobs that day shelter-in-place started. That's the stark difference between what you did versus what, I don't know if a lot of coffee shops did, but I do know people who, the minute there is signs of distress, there was no conversation. They were out of work.
Areli: Honestly for us, it was just a no-brainer. Like I said at the very beginning, everything that we do is heart-driven and thinking about the whole and the common good. It wasn't even a question, it was just like, “How do we get it done?”
It's not like we're still in that same boat and we're still in that same situation. Now that things have opened up a little bit more we're starting to see a slowdown on online sales and it's starting to get scary. At this point, we're all exhausted from hearing ourselves say the same thing over and over. But I think one of the things that really helped was that everyone on our team was on the same page and we were all on board to like do whatever it took to stay safe and stay open.
Ashley: This reminds me of another Latinx business leader who I think you would get along with really well. Her name's Erica Escalante. She's been on the show before— and something that I think a lot about with her is that she is really good about naming needs—about saying, “This is what I need to keep going. This is what I need from you in this moment.”
Looking at you folks come up with that 230 number and blast it from the rooftops. That's you folks saying, “This is what we need.” You let the need be known, which is not natural. Sometimes it's really hard to name your needs and then put them out there. And then even if they can't get met, at least you know what the need is and there's a potential for somebody to come to meet it.
Areli: Absolutely. I'm very grateful and thankful that Leon was able to come up with that very specific need because it made it very tangible. It made it very accessible for people to know how to support.
Ashley: People want to support you. They just need to know how to.
I want to talk about a different metric that you also have. When I was researching Little Waves, I found a statistic that said that 85% of your team are women. And that 65% are bilingual, which is so powerful to put that into numbers. And I think it's really easy in the coffee industry—or really any industry, let's face facts—to say, “Oh, we can't hire for diversity. There are no people out there,” or “How do other people do it?” And it seems like it's very natural for you. So I was wondering what it meant to put that statistic together. What would you say to people who are struggling with diversity?
Areli: I feel like the only reason we really came up with those numbers and those statistics were when we're applying for things.
Honestly, we're at this point where we don't even think about it. It's just the way we do things. When we first opened our first location in 2013, we put out our application and it was all white men who worked at other coffee shops and we were like, “Whoa, okay, cool. We need to figure out how to put our application ads out in places that are going to be seen by people of color.”
We knew that we needed to do more work than just putting our application out. I think little by little, the more representation you see behind the bar, the more it kind of feeds itself.
People come in and they see themselves behind the bar and they know that it's an opportunity for them—that they can also see themselves there. So I feel like it's partially just being really intentional in where you're putting your application and being intentional. And if we don't get the results we like we go back to the drawing board and do it again. Don't settle for not getting the results.
The other thing that's really important is having representation in leadership because I feel like that really helps color where you can put your application out. Even just connecting to the community and to other leaders in the community about your application by word of mouth.
At our Lakewood location, which is our third location, it's a predominantly Black and brown neighborhood. We intentionally did churros at this location because, for me, it was a way of allowing the Latinx community to feel comfortable coming into the coffee shop. I want them to know that this coffee shop is for them as well—that this is not just a coffee shop. This is a space for them. Churros are such an important nostalgic memory of mine and growing up in Tijuana and being able to get fresh churros from a street vendor and moving to the United States and not having the ability to find the same style and the same quality of churros. Churros have like a huge, important power for me in being able to connect with the Latinx community here.
As we were building out this location, we put a chalkboard outside in Spanish saying, “We're hiring, come apply inside.” So really being intentional about hiring even from within the community that we're in. I think it's really not that hard once you get people in the door, like once you train … I mean, obviously, you're hiring people for their personality, and them being a person of color or from whatever background is just an added bonus in terms of representation.
Ashley: It seems like once you have the blueprint for what you need to do, the actions themselves are pretty easy to execute on.
Areli: Going back to your question about being Latina-led—it wasn't really until I literally looked around our business and saw so many other Latina women in our team and being like, “Okay, that's really freaking cool how much of an impact me being Latina has on who's applying.”
Ashley: I want to talk a little bit about your role with the Coffee Coalition for Racial Equity (CCRE). How did you get involved with that?
Areli: I saw Phyllis Johnson's open letter to the industry and for me, it was a no-brainer. I contacted her immediately. One, I wanted to work with her. I wanted to buy coffee from her because it's really important to me, in my sourcing of green coffee, I also want to support women importers and especially women of color. I think that it's such valuable representation. It isn't just behind the bar, it's also who's buying coffee from who.
So I reached out to Phyllis and wanted to work with her. I was looking on her website and initially, we had a conversation and it was kind of related to us working together, and I wanted to know more about her business.
I was really interested and intrigued by this particular project that she was working on in getting coffees from Afro-Brazilians in Brazil. And specifically Afro-Brazilian women. And she talked about, or she wrote this really beautiful article about the history of coffee and the history of slave labor and coffee and how Black women in Brazil and Black people in general in Brazil don't have access to land ownership.
That was something that makes total sense when you think about the history of this world. But I had never thought about that. I have been buying coffee from Brazil since we started in 2017 and it never dawned on me I hadn’t seen a lot of Afro-Brazilian names or people on the roster in a lot of these like places that I was buying coffee from. To read that it was just really impactful. I got so excited about the idea of working with Phyllis and our conversation led to like saying, “I really appreciate your open letter. And like, I am so invested in participating in whatever form or fashion.” And then she wrote me this email saying that she was creating the CCRE, she was creating a board and she wanted to invite me to be a part of it. I immediately said yes.
Ashley: Again, to the power of reaching out, saying a thing out loud and making things happen.
I feel like we've done a lot of shifting and thinking about big ideas and going from big to small—there's a lot of movement, which is really interesting and compelling to me, now I'm thinking about just like the idea of movement.
Of course, I'm coming back to the idea of Little Waves—just little waves on the dock. I was wondering, as you've had this conversation with me and as you've reflected on all these different things in your business and your life, what do you want people to know about you?
Areli: Hmm, wow. What a powerful question. Oh, what do I want people to know about me?
Ashley: It maybe it helps to anchor it in the business. Maybe thinking about the business, and then thinking about you more specifically might be a better launching point.
Areli: It's so hard to distinguish ourselves in an industry that is so saturated and yet I feel like we're all in this for very similar reasons. I really love where coffee is shifting towards culturally. I love that there's this support of each other. This whole era of secrecy and trade secrets … I feel like we're going in the opposite direction now.
I have a really wonderful relationship with Kyle [Ramage] and Lem [Butler] of Black & White Coffee Roasters. When COVID hit, we reached out to each other and have been supporting each other through this whole thing. We've literally bought coffee off of each other when freight transportation has been backed up.
We ran out of coffee because of this crazy spike in sales, which is a great problem, but also what do you do when you don't have coffee to roast? It's been really nice to be able to have that kind of relationship with them
In terms of Little Waves itself I feel we're just a group of really kindhearted people who are … I don't know.
I like to call them “rooted reverberations,” which are these undercurrent vibrations that we're all putting out. I feel like everyone that has been attracted to working at Cocoa Cinnamon and Little Waves are people who are putting out these beautiful vibrations into this world who are all working towards like creating a better world, whether they know it or not.
At the end of the day, like they're all like planting seeds of like, I dunno, this love frequency almost, you know?
That is what drives our need and our urgency of having to sell 230 bags a day. We're still not out of that—when you're thinking about who you're going to support with your dollars, I hope people think of us. I hope people think of other Black and brown- owned businesses to support because I think this is the time.
It's always been the time, but this is the time like now more than ever.
Ashley: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it. And I think that this goes without saying, but this conversation has fed my soul in a way I didn't expect.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.