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

The interior of a hilltop cafe location. It has tall ceilings, chandeliers, and a mosaic tiled floor. The bar front is marble top and house plants hang amidst the backdrop.

We continue our interview with the people behind Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen by hearing from co-founders Yonnie Hagos and Ajay Relan.

BY JOHN HORTON III
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE

Cover photo taken by Ed Rudolph

From the editor: Yesterday, we began learning more about Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen from actress Issa Rae, a co-founder and partner in the business. Today, we wrap up the discussion through a separate interview with co-founders Yonnie Hagos (he/him) and Ajay Relan (he/him) about Hilltop’s personable approach towards its L.A. communities, Black entrepreneurship, and managing through a pandemic as a newer business.

Yonnie and Ajay stand smiling with their hands in their pockets inside one of the hilltop locations. Ajay wears a multicolor collared shirt and Yonnie has a plain grey t shirt.
Ajay Relan (left) and Yonnie Hagos (right), co-founders of Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen. Photo by Valentina Vee.

How has Hilltop been dealing with the pandemic so far?

Yonnie: All in all, much like everyone else, we’ve been dealing. It’s definitely been a challenge, but we could not ask for a better community of patrons to serve. We’ve had a built-in connection with our regulars within our first two locations in the View Park-Windsor Hills neighborhood and in Inglewood from day one. Our guests are our neighbors and, in many cases, have been Ajay’s and my neighbors and friends since we were kids, and they treat us like family. Through it all, we’ve kept our focus on providing the best-quality product with stellar service, despite being limited to pickup and delivery.

What are you offering that’s different from other coffeehouses?

Ajay: That’s a big question with many answers depending on the context. In one sense, the fact that Hilltop exists at all makes us different. Before we opened our first location in 2018, cafés with great coffee and what we call “conscious comfort” food options just didn’t exist in South L.A. In other parts of the city—West Hollywood, Los Feliz, Venice—there’s a coffee shop on every other corner. 

Hilltop is different because the relationship we have with our guests goes far beyond any transaction that can be recorded on the register. That care and concern extends to the way we’ve approached customer access during the pandemic, prioritizing safety above all. Even when city officials gave us the green light to do so, we’ve opted to hold off on on-site dining. We knew in our hearts that it wasn’t in the best interest of the safety of our guests and our team. So it’s been all delivery and takeaway since March 2020. We can’t wait to have folks back in our space.

What are your favorite coffee beans? How does coffee help your creative process?

Ajay: Our Ethiopian Brew is special. Personally, I love it over ice. Coffee for many is a conduit to creativity. Whether we know it or not, we are all creative. Coffee definitely helps get those juices flowing.

What were each of you doing before you started your coffee business? 

Ajay: Yonnie and I have been in the restaurant and bar business for the better part of a decade. Prior to Hilltop, we owned—and still own—The Parlor, which is a high-end sports bar and grill on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. I’ve also worked for years with #HashtagLunchbag, a nonprofit which provides lunches for the unhoused population on Skid Row in Downtown L.A. The movement began at the The Parlor in 2012 and has since grown to 100+ cities around the world. We just love feeding people.

What was the coffee culture like for Black coffeehouses in Los Angeles before you got started?

Yonnie: It was limited. It isn’t that investment dollars weren’t there, it’s that they weren’t being spent in neighborhoods where a majority of residents are Black. When we started looking into the possibility of opening what would ultimately become Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen, I think we were both a little dismayed by that fact. View Park-Windsor Hills is the wealthiest primarily African American neighborhood in the United States of America. And yet, somehow investment dollars kept going elsewhere. We’re really proud of being a small part of that change.

What were the major obstacles you faced starting your business?

Ajay: Any business worth opening has its fair share of obstacles, especially the restaurant business. The name Hilltop actually represents the goals we all share, as well as these very obstacles that we must overcome in order to reach wherever it is we want to go. For us, it was ensuring that we kept our mission top of mind and established a culture within our company that was felt by our patrons and is what ultimately keeps them coming back. Setting this tone is always difficult, especially when it is something that you truly value. We are grateful to have set this early, and it shows by the quality of the people we’ve been able to attract.

A barista pulls a shot of espresso at the cafe. She wears a black beanie and has dreads.
A barista works the floor at one of Hilltop’s three locations in Los Angeles County. Photo by Justin Jemerson.

How do you mentor other Black entrepreneurs?

Ajay: Through Hilltop, we hire largely from the neighborhoods where we’re doing business. Our team members have the opportunity to learn the business from the register all the way to management. I’m also active in investing in a venture capital fund called Slauson & Co., the mission of which is to drive economic inclusion and democratize access to entrepreneurship for historically underrepresented founders.

Did anyone try to partner with you before Issa? 

Ajay: Many of our early investors we’re lucky to count as friends, most of which were familiar with the community we wanted to impact. We met Issa through mutual friends and realized we had a shared love for coffee shops and what they represent to the communities they exist within. We could not have asked for a better partner to align with our mission.

Do you have any final messages for the coffee community? 

Ajay: We’re just grateful for all those that came before us. Being in the coffee business is extremely special. We play such an important part in people’s daily rituals and never take for granted the time and money spent with us. We are excited for what the future holds and all the innovation that it feels like is on its way to make the experience (and world around us) better as a whole.

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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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