Amanda-Jane Thomas and Shanita Nicholas are the co-founders of Sip & Sonder, a café and creative space in Inglewood, Calif. They chat about placemaking, creating connection within their community, and the lessons learned from their business partnership.
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of Sip & Sonder
Amanda-Jane Thomas and Shanita Nicholas met as lawyers in New York, and are now the owners and operators of Sip & Sonder, a café and creative-use space in the Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles. You can hear some of their ideas and insights about gentrification in the April + May 2018 issue of Barista Magazine, and in this article we take a closer look at the business partners and the space they’ve crafted for their local community.
Ashley Rodriguez: Did you grow up with coffee in your life? Do you have any early memories of drinking coffee?
Amanda-Jane Thomas: I was definitely more of a tea girl growing up. Whenever I did have coffee, it was a treat—I was breaking the rules and being a rebel amidst the rampant “propaganda” that coffee was bad for young girls like me. Pretty funny because fast forward, here we are opening a coffee shop. Propaganda aside though, there weren’t many cafés in my community growing up. I’m talking Brooklyn, New York, in the ’80s and ’90s. It was only as I got older, went to high school in Manhattan, and eventually off to Cambridge for college and law school, that I really began interacting with coffee shops. But even then, those interactions were almost as an outsider—I never found that one place where I truly felt at home, sipping coffee, taking in the smells and sights, watching passersby whirl around me, lost in my own thoughts.
Shanita Nicholas: I didn’t start drinking coffee until I got to college, which is also when I moved to New York. I remember finding solace in the various cafés strewn throughout the city. It started with Starbucks. Although I don’t frequent the chain much anymore, it was my entry point into the community of coffee, where I could have a space that felt like belonged to me anywhere I went in the city. I then discovered the Hungarian Pastry Shop in the Upper West Side near Columbia’s campus. It was my secret escape to experience a specialty coffee while finishing assignments. I appreciated the baristas that made the space feel like home to so many of my peers that found themselves immersed in the space much like I was.
As I moved to law school and ventured downtown, I could be found every weekend at Think Coffee near NYU. There was loud, but not obnoxious, music playing, creatives of all sorts losing themselves in work, and fellow law students looking for a place to relax, but not too much! I mapped the city of New York, and my early adult life, with coffee shops—from Birch Coffee on Seventh Street on my run home from Chelsea Market to Hungry Ghost Coffee in Brooklyn when I got off the train at Fort Green to visit friends. Each shop had its own flavor of coffee and culture.
AR: What were you doing before opening Sip & Sonder? How did you two meet?
AJT: We’re both practicing attorneys and that’s how we met, at one of our old firms. We clicked and became friends first. After we both left that firm, I stayed in New York and Shanita moved to Los Angeles, but we remained friends and would frequently talk about our dreams, passions, and aspirations. The idea for Sip & Sonder was born during one of those many discussions, in October 2016 on a rooftop terrace in midtown NYC.
AR: Before opening Sip & Sonder you both were very involved in the Inglewood community. Could you talk a little about what you did and why it was important?
AJT: As non-natives to Los Angeles and Inglewood specifically, it was important for us to create an authentic connection with Inglewood. We didn’t want to be those outsiders who come into a community and assume they know what’s best for that community. So before we opened Sip & Sonder we were active in the Inglewood community mainly through our 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization the LA Black Investors Club (LABIC). With LABIC, we had various programming in the community aimed at addressing the lack of resources and access to frameworks that support entrepreneurial ventures and promote individual and collective wealth creation. We spent almost two years just learning, listening, and building relationships and partnering with individuals and other organizations in Inglewood.
AR: Sip & Sonder isn’t just a cafe, but a space for creatives to work and make things. Why did you want to provide this type of multi-use space?
AJT: We wanted to create a space that was much more than your typical coffee shop. Lively communities and inviting public spaces are socially and culturally important. With Sip & Sonder, we wanted to create an inviting, accessible, visible, personable, empowering, supportive and inspiring space where folks—be they entrepreneurs, creatives, and everyone in between—can connect, engage with their community, put sonder into action, and just be. Sip & Sonder is that space.
What we’re doing is placemaking, which is a multi-faceted collaborative approach to the planning and design of public spaces that pays attention to the physical, cultural, and social identities that define a place. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, which results in the creation of public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well-being. That’s what Sip & Sonder exists to do.
AR: What are some of the hardest lessons you’ve learned opening a cafe? What’s been surprising?
AJT: Where do we begin!? Every day we learn a new lesson, but one that comes to mind immediately is having patience—with each other as a team, and with the process—as things will, inevitably, go “wrong,” off schedule, and not as planned.
SN: I’ve learned that it’s not a business for the weary of mind or heart! It takes commitment to quality that can’t be swayed too easily by margins, patience with the process of building, and a continued understanding of the purpose of opening up a café. Though I’ve always imagined it to be true, I’ve been surprised at the importance of representation in the industry. I thought I left behind sitting in rooms and being one of few, if any other, black women discussing the topic at hand … and seeing surprised, though happy, faces emerging after stating that I am one of the owners. I didn’t anticipate being as much of a crusader in this industry as I think we are. It doesn’t take the focus off of building a dope, high-quality café in the community, but it does make me work a little harder and learn a little more each day than I otherwise would have.
AR: One thing that really struck me on your website is that you highlight the rest of your team—it’s not just you two in photos, but the entire management team. Why is that? Can you talk a little bit about recruiting talent?
AJT: Our team, or “Sip Squad,” as we like to call ourselves, is EVERYTHING! We’re a group of passionate, intelligent, dynamic, and hard-working young black women, and we want to showcase that ALL of us are out here doing what we’re doing for the community, for the culture. We feel truly blessed to have these amazing women on board.
AR: What has the neighborhood response been like to the café? What does that mean to you personally?
AJT: Thankfully, the response to Sip & Sonder thus far has been overwhelmingly positive. People are excited that we’re bringing amazing coffee to Inglewood, and that a space with Sip & Sonder’s energy is joining the Inglewood community. Sip & Sonder is our baby and it means so much to us that so many people genuinely see our vision and are just as passionate about it as we are. When folks learn that Shanita and I, two black women, are the owners, and express their joy or tell us how proud they are of us, that’s the best feeling. It’s inspiring for us to inspire others. It’s the validation we need to keep pushing, and that makes every long night, every setback, every trial, everything 110 percent worth it.
AR: I know this is sort of personal, but I love learning about people who work in partnerships. How do you two work together to balance each other out? What do you think having a business partner gives you that opening a café solo might not?
AJT: Having a business partner, especially when you balance each other out as we do, has been priceless. The fact that Shanita is a transactional attorney and I’m a litigation attorney is certainly something that brings much-needed considerations, points of view, and approaches to the table. And though we’re both attorneys now, our different backgrounds have lent themselves to Sip & Sonder in myriad ways. Working with Shanita has taught me so much, and I look forward to growing even more together with Sip & Sonder.
SN: We have so many strengths between the two of us, and I am constantly amazed at Amanda’s experiences and know-how in the areas that I am less familiar with. I think together, we definitely cover a lot of aspects needed to make this venture successful. With all of that, what I appreciate most about our partnership is that we value ourselves, one another, and our team. Self-actualization and empathy for one another allow us to get through those hard moments in peace and come out on the other side in gratitude. The fact that we both take a holistic approach to life and our business, in addition to our work ethic and business acumen, is what I think really sets us up for success.
AR: What does the future look like?
AJT: One of the things we’ll be building out more in the near future are our various programs and partnerships—for example with brands, influencers, nonprofits, and community organizations—which are at the core of why Sip & Sonder exists. We’re also exploring new ways to offer and leverage our space as a true home for the community. And what Sip & Sonder has created is something that we envision developing in other communities across the country, so we definitely have plans for expansion. We’re just getting started!