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A pandemic pivot propels Durham coffee shop to international roaster of the year

·4 min read

A Durham coffee roaster made a big splash last week, earning top best small roaster of the year honors.

Little Waves Coffee, the roasting arm of Durham’s Cocoa Cinnamon coffee shops, was named International Micro Roaster of the Year by industry publication Roast Magazine.

The honor celebrates the top specialty coffee roaster producing less than 100,000 pounds of coffee per year. Little Waves shares this year’s top micro roasting honor with Denver’s Huckleberry Roasters.

Co-owned by married couple Areli Barrera Grodski and Leon Grodski Barrera, Cocoa Cinnamon started in 2010 as a pop-up bike trolley serving pourover coffees.

Over the years, it expanded to three cafes across Durham and added Little Waves roastery in 2017 at one of those cafes — at 2013 Chapel Hill Road. The beans are sold at all three locations.

“It means so much to us,” Areli Barrera Grodski said. “It’s an affirmation from our industry that we’re on the right path. It’s an honor that’s really focused on quality coffee in an in-depth way, rewarding businesses taking into account sustainability and environmental practices, all of these things that are so embedded in everything we do. For us, it’s funny sometimes how it takes outside recognition to get taken seriously. So it’s nice to get that.”

Cocoa Cinnamon’s pandemic pivot

Before the pandemic, Durham’s Cocoa Cinnamon was a trio of beloved coffee shops with the roastery on the side.

That, along with nearly everything else, flipped in the early months of 2020 with the spread of COVID. Suddenly with cafes closed and the future uncertain, Little Waves looked to its beans to keep everything afloat.

The company pays at least $15 an hour to all its employees, including paid time off. To make rent and payroll at the levels before the pandemic, Little Waves and Cocoa Cinnamon had to sell at least 230 bags of coffee per day.

Early in the pandemic that meant a robust social media campaign updating followers on coffee sales throughout the day, and showing the far-flung places in America where Little Waves beans were heading — literally coast to coast.

Today Little Waves has around 600 active subscribers.

“In the beginning, the cafes were helping float the roastery,” Barrera Grodski said. “Then it flipped and the roastery was floating the cafes while they were closed and weren’t as busy. At this point, it’s starting to level out again.”

‘From crop to cup’

In those first few weeks of the pandemic, Little Waves had to grow up quickly.

Barrera Grodski said roasting went from two days a week to five. Sales grew overnight to 10 times what they had been before.

It took every bit of that to survive.

“We had taken things slowly, but we wouldn’t have been able to survive without the roastery,” Barrera Grodski said. “It’s been hard and it’s been a hustle. I’ve literally been burning the midnight oil. We’ve had to get outside the box and look at things we wouldn’t have thought of before.”

The roaster of the year application totaled 56 pages, Areli Barrera Grodski said, detailing the company’s sustainability and workplace practices. It also included three bags of Little Waves beans, ranging in origins from Guatemala to Ethiopia to Colombia, with tasting notes contained in the inky black coffee like chocolate, toffee, strawberry lemonade and lychee.

Making a cup of coffee or roasting a bag of beans, fueling the routines and meetings and quiet moments, is the end of a process that spans thousands of miles, various countries and stitches communities together.

For Little Waves, sustainability means taking care of every step of making coffee, supporting the farmers who grow the plants to the baristas who pull the espresso, Barrera Grodski said.

“Why do you create a coffee shop? It’s a place that’s tied to the community,” Barrera Grodski said. “You can’t talk about these things without including the entire supply chain. ... We rely on every contributor to succeed. That’s why we talk about being involved from crop to cup.”

With the roaster of the year honor in hand, Barrera Grodski said Little Waves hopes to continue to grow, and it hasn’t slowed down since the start of the pandemic.

Cocoa Cinnamon is beginning to think about when the shops will allow customers to drink coffee inside, but for now it’s still enjoying the moment.

“It’s so freaking cool to have this title, particularly as a Latina-led, woman-owned, immigrant-owned company,” Barrera said. “It’s awesome to hold that identity and space and hopefully inspire others to apply for this.”

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