Sugar and Spice

This year has been a dream come true (literally) for Areli Barrera de Grodski and Leon Grodski de Barrera. In late January, the couple opened Cocoa Cinnamon—the brick-and-mortar version of their popular mobile coffee shop bikeCOFFEE—which has anchored their shared passions for aroma and taste to the corner of Geer and Foster Streets in downtown Durham. The shop itself is cozy—vintage, upholstered couches and colorful chairs seat 20-somethings in search of new surrroundings for conversation and writing. And the hand-ground coffee—infused with flavors like cardamom and cayenne—is noticabley delightful, even to a non-connoisseur. Here, Towerview’s Sonia Havele asks Areli (with a contribution from Leon) about the transformation of Cocoa Cinnamon from dream to reality.

Can you talk about the experience of coming up with the concept for Cocoa Cinnamon and what it has felt like to see that idea turn into a reality?

The name Cocoa Cinnamon and concept came to Leon in a dream. In a sense, it comes out of a desire to experience where and when the stories and tastes of what we sell comes from. Coffee, chocolate, tea and the spices we put in them all have long and complex stories that are deep and can amaze. In a way, we use this kind of digging into the origins of our items as the undercurrent of what we do. It’s analogous to the pleasure of following the etymology of a word; it comes alive, sharper, more complex and ultimately meaningful. We have worked really hard since December 2010 to make Cocoa Cinnamon become a reality.... We could not have asked for a better way for Cocoa Cinnamon to have unfolded than the way it has. A lot of helping hands that believed in us and the business are a part of it and therefore make Cocoa Cinnamon a much richer concept, business and location.

Why did you choose to open your shop in Durham?

Leon had been working intermittently in Durham since 2001, producing the artwork of his friend and artist David Solow (who designed Cocoa Cinnamon, the shop) and I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We lived in the North Carolina mountains near the Smoky Mountain National Park. After we got married, we wanted to create a new beginning. We were dreaming and after a very poetic email from David and a couple of visits, Durham was at the top of our list. Since we’ve gotten married, we have worked hard at creating our life and business. And there has been a sense of inevitability, like we are floating down a river and following where it goes. In that way, we are here because it felt right and fell into place. It’s still happening.

What have been the most difficult and rewarding parts of opening and running your own coffee shop?

The most difficult parts have been starting with a very minimal budget. The rewarding parts have been figuring out how to make it happen regardless of money, learning new skills along the way, meeting amazing people that have chipped in and ending up with a unique and more thought-out result. It’s also really nice to think about the fact that Cocoa Cinnamon is providing jobs to the community where we live and that there is much more that the business can do for our community as we continue the work of doing business. The community element of the work takes time and commitment. Right now, we are still establishing our foundations and working to move past our beta launch mode.

On your website, you write “Cocoa Cinnamon means a lot to us.” Can you expand on the ways in which the shop and its menu reflect your unique heritages?

The name stems from the history of the search for spices, the colonization that occurred in turn, the destruction of nations and cultures, the creation of new cultures, exploration and scientific discoveries. It also stems from the history of the cultures behind cacao, coffee, tea and spices from around the world. Being from Mexico, it is fascinating to read about the importance of cacao within the indigenous communities of the Americas and how it continues to be a daily and accessible ingredient in Latin American cooking and beverages.

Leon: I like to think I am more connected to coffee because of my Italian roots. I am addicted to the “new”—language, experience, travel, culture, story—and the pleasure of attempting a better more sustainable and creative life. The space and business are there to support that. Espresso, specifically, and the desire to congregate like family probably stem from the Sicilian part of my background. Something we find welcoming about Cocoa Cinnamon is that it’s family owned—had the two of you planned on going into business together?

When we got married we both decided that we did not want to live a life in which we were not doing what we loved, so we decided to create Cocoa Cinnamon to give us the freedom to create at all times.

Cocoa Cinnamon is only months old at this point. Where do you see the business going in the near and distant future? Do you have plans to expand?

We would like to see the business be more embedded in the community that we are in, expanding, providing more jobs. Right now, it is a bit early to talk about expansion; we are focused on running a tight and inviting space, where coffee, espresso, drinking chocolate, tea, wine, beer and desserts serves as a pretext for a place to live and be together. The business aims to create a space/field of democracy. As a business, we don’t support a specific politics, beyond being dedicated to real and healthy discourse in a place where habit sharpens and brings to life. We want people to come in and have a simple and delicious moment in their day. And if they want more, they can find it or be it at Cocoa Cinnamon.


Share and discuss “Sugar and Spice” on social media.