Issa Rae, Ajay Relan, & Yonnie Hagos Talk Hilltop Coffee: Part One

Ajay, Issa, and Yonnie stand pictured in front of one of the Hilltop locations. On the left, Ajay had short cropped hair and a blue chambray shirt. Issa is in the middle pictured with a singular long braid and a hoodie. Yonnie to the right has a plain grey shirt on with his hands crossed. All are wearing face masks.

The minds behind this L.A. coffee destination chat about their space and its significance in the community.

BY JOHN HORTON III
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Cover photo courtesy of Yasmin Antonio

There is a coffee renaissance brewing in African American communities across the United States. Ajay Relan (he/him), Yonnie Hagos (he/him), and Issa Rae (she/her) are a part of this newfound burst of entrepreneurship that is happening throughout Los Angeles in particular. Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen opened in August 2018 in the View Park-Windsor Hills neighborhood and later expanded to Inglewood with the help of Issa in 2019. Their third location is in Glassell Park, which recently opened this past fall 2020.

A lot has been written about this trio, but I wanted to know more about Yonnie, Ajay, and Issa’s thoughts on running their operation during the pandemic, which has brought difficult challenges to businesses across the world. I interviewed Yonnie and Ajay separately from Issa, who is currently in production on a project and yes—as some of you know, there will be a fifth season of Insecure! Stay tuned for my interview with Ajay and Yonnie to appear here at Barista Mag Online soon.

The storefront of hilltop in Inglewood pictured. It is a square shaped black building with plain white font saying hilltop. It is a bright and sunny day and a palm tree stands out front of the cafe.
Hilltop’s first location is in Windsor Hills. Pictured is their second location in Inglewood, which was opened with help from Issa Rae.

Interview With Issa Rae

John Horton III: What is your favorite coffee?

Issa Rae: I love an almond milk latte. That’s my staple. And I love Hilltop’s Ethiopian Brew when I’m looking for a pick-me-up.

How is Hilltop Coffee managing during the pandemic? What’s it like being in the coffee business?

Hilltop has been pretty innovative in terms of tapping into the community and using its reach to help the neighborhood. Our “to-go” business has been doing fairly well during this time. It’s definitely been hard, but the neighborhood support has been unwavering. 

You said that you wrote a lot in coffee shops—which cafés were your favorite places to work? What did you write there?

I used to work in Starbucks. There was a place on La Brea and 8th that I’d write in consistently, until I saw a roach there. And then Larchmont Bungalow was another favorite. Both of the latter spots are closed, but I remember writing my early web series there and also writing in my journal frequently—thoughts and plans. 

How do you like your coffee?

Black. No sugar. No cream. 

Do we need more Black-owned coffee shops in Los Angeles? And where? What city has the most Black-owned houses?

Absolutely. South L.A. is having a renaissance, which is nice. I’ve been to Atlanta several times and am always happy to see so many Black-owned spots there.

Do you own a coffee maker?

I have an espresso machine.

Do you own a coffee bean grinder? 

Yes.

When did you first start drinking coffee?

I first started drinking coffee in college, but I became a daily drinker in my mid-20s, around the time I had my first real job.

How many cups a coffee do you drink a day? And when?

Probably two. In the early morning, around 5 or 6ish, and then again around 2 or 3 p.m.

We will continue this interview tomorrow with co-founders Ajay and Yonnie.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John W. Horton III is a 47-year-old writer and teacher who lives between Kawaguchi, Japan, and Los Angeles. His novel Alvarado, published by Atmosphere Press, is available on Amazon.

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