It has been a long couple of years in coffee for everyone, no matter who you are or where you’re located. But it’s always worth making time for a success story, and that’s exactly what you’ll find from the team at Sip & Sonder, a Los Angeles brand whose growth and development makes for an essential brand study. When we first visited them in late 2020, the company’s founders—Amanda-Jane Thomas and Shanita Nicholas—had carved out a hub for themselves in LA’s Inglewood neighborhood, offering an impressive hybrid coffee bar and creative working space. In the years since, Nicholas and Thomas have expanded Sip & Sonder into three physical locations across LA, and have double-downed on their roasting program using a Bellwether Coffee roaster.
In our latest edition of Roaster Spotlight we’re checking in with the Sip & Sonder duo here in summer 2023, and learning how roasting has helped them better achieve their vision for what the brand has become—and where it’s going next.
How has the coffee program at Sip & Sonder evolved in the years since you launched? What’s different now from how you started?
We first launched Sip & Sonder on April 1, 2019 in our Inglewood flagship location at 108 S Market Street. Since that initial launch, not only have we grown to three physical locations, we also started our roasting program!
Over the four years since we launched, we have really honed in on our coffee program by connecting the roasting experience to the dial-in experience behind the bar. As part of our onboarding training, we take our team through a coffee education experience, which includes a visualization journey from the farming of the coffee cherries through to de-pulping, drying, packaging, and shipping. We know that by having a deep understanding of what it takes to get coffee to our customers, our team gains an increased appreciation for the product and also the ability to share that knowledge with our community.
We are also merging the science and art of coffee! Through our coffee program, we instruct on how to pull out flavor profiles based on roast dates and environmental variables, like temperature and humidity. This allows us to provide both a consistent and nuanced cup of coffee, which is especially showcased in some of our more traditional coffees, including cortados and cappuccinos.
We have also been able to get innovative with our coffee! Through signature Sip & Sonder drinks like the Onyx, a vanilla charcoal latte, and the Cardi Rose, a rose-cardamom latte, we are exploring bold taste combinations and profiles with spices and culturally relevant nomenclature. This is an area we are excited to continue exploring even more!
When and how did you get started roasting? Why is roasting important to your project—what does this control over the product offer your business?
While bringing roasting in-house has always been part of our long-term business model, we made an earlier pivot into manufacturing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In mid-March 2020, when we were forced to temporarily close our doors, we decided that we were not going to just sustain through the crisis, but actually grow. Our focus turned to creating a vertical supply chain of our roasted coffee by sourcing, purchasing and roasting our own green coffee, and our roastery was officially launched in August 2020!
With backgrounds that span chemical engineering, sociology, entertainment, law, and business, the co-founders of Sip & Sonder, Shanita Nicholas and Amanda-Jane Thomas, bring a vast array of knowledge and experience. As Black women who experienced first hand the lack of specialty coffee shops in the communities they call home, and who know the privileges of coffee spaces, they bring the skills and perspectives needed to grow the future of the global coffee industry.
We love to get techie at Sip & Sonder, especially when it comes to our roast profiles! Through attunement to the chemical and molecular processes happening during the roast, we are able to use temperature, time and calculus to get the most out of our coffee profiles. This allows us to not just “talk the talk” of coffee roasting, but also provide our own insight into what we believe makes a great cup. This level of distinction and constant reconsideration put us at the edge of innovation in specialty coffee.
Sip & Sonder specially curates signature coffee products that originate from communities of color around the world. In addition to providing excellent coffee products and programming to our direct communities, we are also working to extend our platforms to our partners in coffee around the world. We not only care about the quality of our coffee but also the quality of life of the communities that farm it. As we grow, we plan to provide logistical transparency through digital ledgers from the farm to the end consumer, extend our original content platforms to share the stories of the producers and their respective communities, and expand what it looks like to be an entrepreneur in coffee.
By centering the Black diasporic experiences and telling the stories of stakeholders along the coffee supply chain, we invite the world to “Come for the coffee, stay for the culture!”
When did you start working with a Bellwether roaster? What do you like about it? Was there a learning curve? Tell us more about your experience with Bellwether.
Our relationship with Bellwether started before we were planning to launch our roastery, and the timing couldn’t have been more aligned. In our conversations with the Bellwether team in late 2019, we had our eyes set to 2021/2022 to go full speed on manufacturing our own coffee in-house. However, when COVID-19 forced shutdowns around the globe, we decided to pivot our business to open our roastery sooner during the summer of 2020.
With the incredible guidance of Alessandro Bellino, our customer success lead at Bellwether at the time, we were provided both the machinery and confidence to get started. Given the low learning curve that the Bellwether machine provides, and early support from another local Bellwether-using roasting company in Long Beach, we introduced our first Sip & Sonder profiles to the world: SOUTH MARKET (a medium-roast washed profile from Papua New Guinea) and NATIVE DAUGHTER (a light-roast natural profile from Ethiopia). These remain two of our most popular coffees to date!
We continue to use the Bellwether roaster in our Inglewood shop to explore coffee profiles, provide quick turnaround, small batch production and fill the room with the aroma of freshly roasted coffee. Our connection with the Bellwether team has also grown internationally! In the last 12 months, we were able to travel to Peru on a Bellwether-organized origin trip, cross paths in Honduras during a coffee conference, and say hello again at the SCA conference in Portland!
Tell us—what does being a coffee roaster mean to you? Why does it matter to Sip & Sonder?
Traditionally, coffee shops are spaces where community members can create their next business idea, meet up with friends, or just be with themselves amongst the noise, however there has historically been a lack of local specialty coffee shops in Black and Brown neighborhoods around the world. These spaces are key for a community’s productivity and vitality, and without them, many people of color are economically and socially disadvantaged.
Sip & Sonder is redefining the global coffee experience by providing a social network within physical and digital spaces centered around (1) the Black diasporic experience and (2) specially curated coffee products that originate from communities of color around the world. Our physical locations are spaces that foster creativity, collaboration, and engagement, allowing community members to have an authentic experience while connected to others doing the same.
For me (Shanita), being a coffee roaster means showing up as my most authentic self. I experience the world around me through coffee. Within coffee, I get to be an engineer, a lawyer, a business person, a world traveler, a friend, a confidant, a mentor, a student, a manufacturer, an innovator, an expert and more. Coffee grounds me to my journey. “You are my familiar. Anywhere, Everywhere.” – Shanita Nicholas
My (Amanda-Jane) parents and lineage hail from the Caribbean, one of the regions where coffee grows. Through coffee roasting, I am not only connected to my roots, but I have also been able to forge a profound connection to the vibrant and rich tapestry of people, cultures, and communities across coffee-growing lands. As a coffee roaster, I continue to discover and return to who I am, a local globalist.
Sip & Sonder is a Black women-owned coffee brand where coffee, community, and culture truly connect. As a coffee buyer, roaster, and distributor, we are not only creating our own story in the coffee ecosystem, but we also get to shine a light on all of the stakeholders of color along the way.
Thank you so much.
Roaster Spotlight is a feature series on Sprudge presented in partnership with Bellwether Coffee. Read more Roaster Spotlight on Sprudge.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman for Sprudge.