A hand-painted "HOLA" is the new greeting above the glass door at 2013 Chapel Hill Road in Durham's Lakewood neighborhood. By mid-August, the third outpost of coffee hotspot Cocoa Cinnamon is set to open there, and owners Areli Barrera de Grodski and Leon Grodski de Barrera are contemplating an important question: How do you make a coffee shop accessible and comfortable for the Latino community?
New businesses like theirs and the nearby Lakewood restaurant, from Scratch owner Phoebe Lawless, have brought up questions about the availability of affordable housing and business opportunities for lower-income residents in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, one that has been home to many Latino immigrants for more than a decade.
Barrera de Grodski, who was born in Mexico and lived in Tijuana until she was six years old, says it's something she's always thought about. She and her husband moved to Durham in 2011; by 2012 they were running a much smaller coffee operation on a bike they parked outside of Motorco and at the Durham Farmers Market.
"When we were just starting the business, we lived in this apartment building where Leon was the only native English speaker," she says. "They saw us hustling, they saw us on the bike, they saw us toting our stuff up and down the stairs. They knew that we were building out that first location on Geer Street and we had a great relationship [but] they still didn't feel comfortable coming in."
She says they've worked hard to make the new shop feel comfortable for every Lakewood resident, but especially the Latino and black communities.
"We really wanted to make sure that this space feels like it was being created for them, too," she says.
The couple also drew inspiration for the new shop from a taqueria they visited in Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2013.
"It felt so homey there," Barrera de Grodski says. "There was just something beautiful about it. It felt like Grandma's house, you know, simple but beautiful. It just felt welcoming."
Most of the signs in and outside of the restaurant are in Spanish. Cocoa Cinnamon has advertised job openings in Spanish, too. Barrera de Grodski has met with community leaders to explain the shop's ethos and ask them how, as business owners, she and her team can help fulfill their respective missions in Durham. Like Cocoa Cinnamon's other two locations, the third shop is living-wage certified.
"I wanted to let [the community] know: we're opening up, here's what we do, we want to make sure you feel welcome to ask questions or come into the space as we're progressing in the build-out," says Barrera de Grodski. "We want to do everything in our power to make it feel welcoming to you guys."
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Cocoa Cinnamon's churros
What's special about this third location is the addition of fresh churros, a treat from Barrera de Grodski's youth. They'll be sold hot and fresh all day, with the hopes of also stirring up nostalgia for community members.
"[The churros are] something that's a little more tangible," Barrera de Grodski says. "They're a little more like, 'Oh, I can relate to that, that's from my home.'"
The shop also includes a giant coffee roaster, where Cocoa Cinnamon will roast its own beans under the name 4th Dimension Coffee, sourcing them only from importers who buy direct from growers. They hope that 4th Dimension will give them a platform through which to make coffee farmers' lives less tenuous.
"These are questions that have been in the works for a really long time," Barrera de Grodski says. "But there's still that issue—if your crop doesn't provide quality coffee, you don't get paid at that quality price. So how do you hedge your bets as a farmer? How do roasters also help to provide a safety net for farmers?"
The husband-and-wife team has tried to make each store feel cozy and welcoming, but there are stretches of time when the shop gets quiet and insular as customers tap on their laptops. They both hope the new shop will be a place that people use to connect with one another in person, too.
"These really great things happen at our shops in computers," Grodski de Barrera said. "We've had people write amazing books in our shops, we've had people actually meet in the shop via the computer and start talking. We've had really wonderful things happen, and we don't want to cut that off, but we also don't want that to be the dominating factor.
"Do you remember the first time you were in a place that was totally different?" Grodski de Barrera asks. "I think in those moments, you can really come alive in a way that is hard in your daily life. That's kind of the root of what Cocoa Cinnamon is about."