The power of coffee: Cocoa Cinnamon seeks to connect Durham community through inviting atmosphere

Having recently reached its tenth anniversary, Cocoa Cinnamon continues to push the envelope for what a coffee shop can be. While its delicious churros and piping-hot coffee are the highlights, visitors return time and again for its role as a community space. (Photo credits to David Solow.)

Monday, March 11, 2024

By Ava Dobson

The aroma of coffee and spices and the heat of animated discussion fill the air of a bustling Durham coffee shop. An ambush of the senses strong enough to overwhelm the soul, this wordless greeting beckons visitors as if to say, “you’re welcome here.”  

Longtime Cocoa Cinnamon co-owner, Areli Barrera de Grodski, stands near the counter, offering a warm smile to each passerby. “Can I offer you a coffee and a churro?” she says.

The community’s love for the environment offered by the shop is apparent. On a seemingly lazy Monday afternoon, few seats remain unoccupied, and employees shout the names of numerous waiting customers.

Leaning against the bike that once stood as the shop’s foundation, Areli smiles and laughs, brushing off her business’ evident success.

“It takes time to create trust within the community,” she says.

And it took lots of it, 10 years, in fact, for Cocoa Cinnamon to reach its current success-level. With three locations and a growing customer base, it’s safe to claim that the business is thriving. Success is never so cut-and-dry, however.

At the age of only 25, Areli married now-husband Leon and set out on a journey inspired by memories from her youth and the vibrancy of Mexican culture. She hoped to recreate the experiences of coffee shops past, taking inspiration from shops she frequented while living in Cherokee, NC. Shops that embraced indigenous heritage while simultaneously providing a welcoming space struck a chord with de Grodski. Having immigrated from Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico at the age of six, shops she visited regularly in Cherokee inspired her to honor the flavors of her birth country. A proper form of tribute to both Mexico and the small town, North Carolina shops of her youth would manifest through creation of a space that embraced people from all walks of life.

With a small bike and limited cash, her idea was born. Long days spent carting around and selling coffee translated into an outcome she, admittedly, did not at first expect. Areli attributes the community of Durham to the shop’s initial, unexpected success.

“People would bring us tools and ask if we needed help,” she said. “Without our community, we wouldn’t have survived.”

The community’s warm embrace allowed the shop to expand beyond the confines of a simple bike, and Cocoa Cinnamon was officially born with its first location on Geer Street.

Now, she hopes to return the favor, and give the same dedication that the community displayed for her own shop back through the creation of an authentic, hospitable space. De Grodski has remained authentic to this promise, establishing a shop that has both remained true to her Hispanic heritage and served as a welcoming space “for all.”  To de Grodski, these qualities are two sides of the same coin.

“When you make one community feel comfortable,” she says, “a lot of others feel comfortable.”

Hues of blue and yellow and splashes of orange and red dot the tablecloths that wrap each seating area, and the familiar Spanish greeting, “hola,” along with a menu printed entirely in Spanish serve as small nods to de Grodski’s heritage. These are just a few of the shop’s elements designed to make visitors feel right at home.

“We wanted it to feel like you’re in your grandma’s kitchen,” she says.

A primarily women-of-color led business, de Grodski envisioned a shop that reflected the surrounding community of Durham. She desired a staff that mirrored the very city responsible for its success.

Diversity within her staff, she feels, has allowed for a more welcoming space, as a result.

And, by doing so, de Grodski’s once-small shop has grown to astronomical heights, with plans for continued growth. To a community that gave its hearts and believed in the success of Cocoa Cinnamon, the once-small shop gives back through both its inviting atmosphere and impactful action, as well.

“Our role is to be a net path of impact,” says de Grodski. “We offer Community Coffee every week for a dollar. It’s our way of letting people know this is a space for everyone.”

A challenge for the shop has been navigating how to assist Durham’s most vulnerable, while also remaining sensitive to customers, as patrons are frequently approached outside of the shop with requests for money. 

“It’s tricky,” she says. “We live in a very broken society, and those things often show up on our doorstep.”

Which is why, she explained, Cocoa Cinnamon participates in numerous forms of community assistance, such as “Community Coffee” and invests in city-wide improvement endeavors, like the HEART Program.

“It’s trained members of the community who help neighbors in a crisis, based in conflict de-escalation,” she says.

And these are just some of the ways Cocoa Cinnamon strives to give back to a city that has given so much to them. 

A commitment to sustainability and reduced energy usage are additional practices the shop has employed to maintain its dedication to community wellness.

While the business is, by no means, “perfection,” says de Grodski, she hopes to keep “pushing the envelope forward” and continue finding ways to improve both the recipes and the atmosphere.

With one of the shop’s roasters set to compete in an upcoming national coffee championship on behalf of the shop’s accompanying roastery, Little Waves, the business’ devotion to continual improvement is evident. And the results speak for themselves.  

Most recently awarded Roast Magazine’s 2022 Micro Roaster of the Year,  deGrodski’s shop continues to uphold a standard of excellence.

While Cocoa Cinnamon’s vision remains the same, its goals and aspirations continue to expand beyond the community of Durham. Without a doubt, the shop’s Bull City roots will always shine through, despite its continued growth. Whether a steaming latte, or a sweet-and-savory churro, each sip and each bite is a small reminder of the power of community.