At the beginning of our interview, I ask Areli Barrera Grodski why her roastery is called “Little Waves.

The question is a formality; I’m certain the name comes from the inadvertent hand gestures Durhamites might extend when spotting an acquaintance on the Cocoa Cinnamon patio. 

I quickly realize that Barrera Grodski—who co-owns Cocoa Cinnamon’s three locations with her husband, Leon—is not the kind of person to name a business after something so coincidental.

But the name goes deeper, Barrera Grodski tells me: when she and her husband were falling in love, long before coffee entered the chat, a beach-bound Leon sent her a text describing the “little waves brushing up on the shore.”

Later, having bonded over a shared love of coffee and community, the couple moved to Durham and dipped their toes in industry waters by rigging a cart to the back of a bicycle and pedaling caffeine around town. Six years, several city grants, and a hefty chunk of crowdsourced funds later, the pair had opened two brick-and-mortar locations and cemented their mission to promote sustainability and inclusion as an immigrant-owned, women-forward business.

They then decided to jump on a venue that could serve as both a third cafe and a roastery. The roastery, they agreed, would be called Little Waves.

“It relates to the idea that little waves make big waves, and that being rooted in daily actions—we call them rooted reverberations—can help us create these bigger changes,” Areli says. “We have this saying that goes, ‘The sun, the moon, and everything in tune.’ We try to approach everything from a very intentional perspective.”

When we look at the moon, we tend to forget that its light is courtesy of the sun. Similarly, when we drink coffee, we don’t usually think about its journey from crop to cup. We’re not wondering if it was sustainably sourced, or if the workers who prepared it are earning a living wage; we’re generally just trying to wake up, and in turn, sleeping on the issues at the other end of the supply chain. 

While customers might only have a vague idea of just how intentional the company is, folks in the industry are taking notice. In October, industry publication Roast Magazine named Little Waves the “Micro Roaster of the Year.” Recently, the INDY spoke with Areli Barrera Grodski about the award, sustainable coffee sourcing, and the importance of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

INDY WEEK: What was your reaction when you heard you’d won?

Areli Barrera Grodski: Extremely elated, in disbelief, but also not, because we have been hustling so hard since we first opened.The application [for the award] is a beautiful process because it’s a mirror to yourself, to be able to reflect on what you’ve accomplished over the years and where you want to go. Just knowing our hustle since 2010, being a woman of color and an immigrant, and having a predominantly woman-forward business, it feels so rewarding to be seen and acknowledged in this prestigious way.

One of the criteria for the contest was a “commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity.” What are some ways that you do this?

There are little things, like adding Spanish [signs and translations] to our Lakewood location so the surrounding community understands that this is a place for them, too. And when I look around and see so many bilingual, sometimes trilingual, women of color working in our business, I’m reminded of how important it is that we represent who we want to invite.     

But in the way that we approach everything, we try to look at histories and stories that have been forgotten, to uncover those stories and bring them back to the top. I have my own experiences of going to coffee trade shows and looking everywhere to try to find somebody who looks like me in management. Because there are a lot of people that look like me that are producers, you know? So it’s like, how do you find these people in all aspects of the chain? I think it’s one of those things where, when we’re able to get [more diversity] in leadership or decision-making positions, you’ll see that reverberate in a way that results in more representation across the board.

What do you prioritize when you’re sourcing coffee?

I’m always seeking to support producers who are women of color. That’s a top priority. It’s been interesting because as we grow and try to get more wholesale accounts, we’ve been talking to Duke, and what they care about is that we get coffees that are certified organic. Most of the people we partner with are using sustainable practices, but they’re not necessarily certified, because certifications cost a lot of money. I think the most important thing is to build trust and relationships with your producers and to have an awareness of their practices that isn’t just tied to whether or not they have official documentation.

And how do you commit to sustainability on the production side?

We try to create the least waste possible and reuse everything we can. We put all of our coffee grounds back into the bags that we get them in, and put them out for the community to take to their gardens. The roaster that we chose is 80 percent more energy efficient and doesn’t cause pollution in the air. We’re continuing to work towards creating less packaging.

How do you ensure that your product is sustainably sourced but also accessible?

Packaging is built into our pricing, so we’ve been considering doing something where you bring your own container, and we sell coffee at a price per ounce. That could make it more accessible for customers, while not cutting at the price that the producer is receiving.

We also have a community coffee program, which is essentially like a big community gift card that people can contribute to, so if somebody wants to come and participate in our space and get a drink, they can just pay a dollar and the rest of the price is covered by the community gift card. When we started with Little Waves, we were trying to figure out how to stick to our mission of paying a livable wage and still making our coffee accessible. Part of that is relying on the community to help support the program. I do believe that we live in the city for that.

On the living wage note, I’m curious if you use tipping at Cocoa Cinnamon, and if you use tipping to make up part of the living wage you pay, given your emphasis on equity and inclusion, and given that tipping has a tendency to perpetuate a power imbalance between customers and employees, especially employees that are women of color.

We do use tipping and totally understand that dynamic. The reason why [we use tipping] right now is because that’s the only way that we can actually afford to offer $15 an hour as our starting wage. During the pandemic, we implemented an automatic 20 percent tip, mostly because everything was touchless and we weren’t taking any cash, and we wanted to make sure our team wasn’t losing out on tips.

That setup has been the most equitable way of tipping, but we have gotten a lot of one star reviews from people because of it. People aren’t [as inclined to tip] for coffee as they are for food, or for a cocktail.

That’s the whole weirdness of tipping, it’s just completely arbitrary. It’s like, yeah, I’m behind a bar, I’m making you a drink, but because it’s coffee and not alcohol, people will interpret it differently, because they have preconceptions about when or when not to tip. 

I completely agree with you. It’s always been our goal to bring in enough revenue to create career wages that aren’t dependent on tipping. And this goes back to what I was saying at the beginning—what does this award mean for Little Waves? It means we can continue to listen and learn and move toward our goals. We’re always seeking to do better, and there’s always work to be done. 

What does winning this award mean for Little Waves and Cocoa Cinnamon, moving forward?

We’re trying to ride the wave, pun intended, and seize the momentum so we can continue to grow [and] reach the moonshot goals we have with creating sustainability within our system and our industry chain supply chain. Some of that is wages: we do provide a livable wage, but that’s like, the bare minimum.

We want to create possibilities for coffee careers. And if we’re thinking about livable wages for our team, we need to be thinking about livable wages for our producers as well. Every contributor that has helped us get to where we are today, cup to crop and crop to cup—they all play a role in this award and should partake in the recognition of it. 

A condensed version of this interview ran in print in the November 3, 2021, issue of the INDY Week. 

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