Inside the new Cocoa Cinnamon

Cocoa Cinnamon on Geer Street in Durham is not a place you go to be alone. With its eclectic seating, amicable staff and lively atmosphere, an active disengagement is required to not interact with your surroundings.

That personality of engagement will soon spread to a second location later this year, when Cocoa Cinnamon co-owners Leon and Areli Grodski de Barrera open their second location in late Fall and continue their community-based approach to business.

The owners, along with their landlord and architect at Linton Architects, are working to redesign restructuring and refurbishing an empty restaurant building on the corner of Hillsborough Road and Trent Drive to become a second incarnation of the popular coffee locale on West Geer Street. Their business model strives for communication and collaboration among neighbors, which is embodied in the way they chose to raise funds for the second location and has informed their decisions about the artistic vision of the space.

“It’s business, but it’s not just a business," Leon Grodski de Barrera said. "It’s this engagement.”

The owners have already mapped out how every inch of their new location—now filled with only barren wooden beams and basic wiring—will contribute to a thriving and meaningful environment by this Fall.

Grodski de Barrera’s artistic vision is to design a space for customers to take part in the “ritual of coffee” by providing reconfigurable spaces for interaction. The owners' goal is to give the shop less of a living room feeling by dividing it into sections and creating these reconfigurable settings.

In the new store, this will include an outdoor seating area with a garage-style open front and an uncovered entryway to allow a tree to grow. Other plans include movable small tables and stools inspired by Middle Eastern tea rooms, which could be arranged to allow for movie screenings in the store.

The owners plan to have an Aztec depiction of the sun and moon on the back wall, inspired by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo’s home. In addition, the second location will have a training space for employees and a second espresso machine if funding allows.

The designs are ambitious because a coffee shop should be more than a business—it should be a place to facilitate community interaction and a way to communicate the history of the products served, Grodski de Barrera explained .

“The history of coffee leads you back into Islam, and the history of cacao leads you back into Aztec and Mayan culture,” he said. “There are pretty extraordinary stories that come out of it, and our menu kind of plays off of that.”

Small details of the new store in addition to the broad space designs will represent the origins of the products. For example, the owners and designers have collaborated on the form of the upper cabinet, which will store coffee cups above the counter. Artists Heather Gordon and Maryah Smith-Overman have used a digital mapping program to create tessellations that translate the coordinates of the locations where coffee originated onto the 25-foot curved wooden cabinet.

The piece will represent Islamic geometry, which demonstrates the beauty in repetition, Grodski de Barrera said.

“It’s really going to have a lot of visual movement," said Smith-Overman, a woodworker. "We’ve come together to create something as a team that’s going to speak pretty loudly and be really fun to do.”

Smith-Overman worked on the outdoor tables and benches at the first location and expressed enthusiasm about having the ability to transform the material she works with into something with potential to foster creativity, a depiction of ingenuity.

“It's certainly stretching everyone, and I think that for me that’s what this is about," she said. "I love that I build a lot of cabinets and boxes that are really straight-forward, but this is the kind of stuff that gets me excited about the material and what it can do.”

David Solow—who has worked with Grodski de Barrera since 2001 and is helping to design the second location—acknowledged that implementing an artistic vision for the shop will not make the process of starting the business an easy one. The reward, though, will be representing the stories of the shop’s inhabitants within its own walls.

“I’m a designer, but I’m more like a director in a film,” Solow said. “My job is to direct and to create something that is greater than what [Leon and Areli] would have produced working individually.”

Solow acknowledged how difficult the artists' task in creating the cabinet and the other works that hope to foster more spontaneous creativity is, but he also expressed confidence in their ability to create such a piece through collaborative work.

“This is like making a painting into a sculpture right before your very eyes,” he said.

Trying new strategies is a common theme for Cocoa Cinnamon. The second shop has been financed in part through a community-sourced capital campaign in which community members can become squareholders, lending funds in increments of $50 to Cocoa Cinnamon to be repaid later when the shop is complete. Grodski de Barrera said that even though the shop has greater access to bank lending this time around, he prefers this method because it gives community members a stake in the process.

When opening the last shop, the owners used Kickstarter, and more than 609 people contributed and more than 1,000 in total volunteered contributed or trained in some way. Grodski de Barrera noted that the shop’s relationship with the community was significantly impacted through using this method of funding as opposed to traditional lending.

“The truth is it changes things," Grodski de Barrera said. "It seems to be about the money but it makes these inadvertent connections. It makes us get out of our shell… and all of a sudden your shop has a life before it exists.”

The new Cocoa Cinnamon is Durham’s first community sourced capital project, and it has broken the record for the most squareholders on a project ever with more than 371 squareholders and more than $50,100. Grodski de Barrera said he already knows of five other Durham small businesses that are going to use the same funding process, continuing the trend of a collaborative business environment.

He also noted that many others are involved in the creation of the new location as well, including 10 to 12 artists and several more designers.

“None of this could happen without anyone else,” Solow said. “This intensive collaboration, when it really works, makes that shop look how it looks."

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Leon Grodski de Barrera is of Mexican heritage. It has also been updated to reflect the involvement of the store owners' landlord and architect in the structural redesign process.


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