Areli Barrera Grodski of Little Waves Coffee on Winning Roaster of the Year, Operating in Integrity, and Growing a Business Organically

In October 2021, Roast Magazine announced the winners of two of the most prestigious awards in the roasting industry: Macro Roaster of the Year, and Micro Roaster of the Year for 2022. For Macro Roaster of the year, Huckleberry Roasters was named winner. And for Micro Roaster of the Year, Little Waves Coffee Roasters took home the crown. This award recognizes companies that show a dedication to diversity, inclusion, sustainability, education, and well roasted coffee. Areli Barrera Grodski and Leon Grodski Barrera established Cocoa Cinnamon and three retail locations in 2010 and established their roastery, Little Waves Coffee Roasters in 2017. With 34 employees, this company roasts over 58,000 pounds of coffee in a year. Little Waves Coffee is a Latina Majority-owned and woman forward company, that strives to employee folks of different cultures, gender identities, languages, faiths, and beliefs. We were given the opportunity to ask them all about their inspiration, advice, business practices, and COVID experiences in the interview below.

Congratulations on winning roaster of the year for Roast Magazine! That is a huge accomplishment. How has this affected your business so far?

Thank you so much! We’re so grateful to you for taking the time to get to know us a little more. We have been extremely fortunate with this win as sales have gone up and we have been gaining even more new wholesale partners! This boost in the roastery has helped offset some of the challenges on the retail side due to not being fully open through the pandemic. This increase in sales has many impacts through our company and in continuing to build continued stronger and more sustainable relationships with producers. One aspect that we are most proud of is that our roastery is a predominantly-women of color operation. This includes folks who started with our company in their mid-teens as first jobs and are now, almost 7 years later, production roasters, and roasters in training who are doing excellent work and continuing to hone their skills. We also have folks newer to coffee who are super smart and hard-working and bring a level of performance and work that adds to our equation. We are so proud of the folks who work in the roastery on the individual level and love what the makeup of our team represents in the greater world of coffee. We’re extremely proud of our team for managing to win this award through some of the toughest years. 

What does the name “Little Waves Coffee” mean to you, and why does it perfectly encapsulate your business and business practices?

As a regular practice, we ask ourselves, can we, knowing that our business is an ongoing pattern of buying and selling, use that pattern to continually express the world we hope to see more honestly, more effectively, more realistically. That is Little Waves…

Little Waves is our version of a rooted all-encompassing, act-now-from-where-we-are version of sustainability. We can see a world and industry far healthier, more beautiful, and fair, and we use each day to reach, decide and urge ourselves forward as part of a profession where we find so many have their hearts aligned to do so.

With every decision, purchase, and sale we make, we work to honor people, places, cultures, and histories. We name our roasts and drinks after places that inspire wonder, have cultural significance, and after people and places that we love and admire. Every act is an invitation to connect, and we are fueled by the joy we get from cultivating health and wonder with the world around us. All of this fuels and ties coffee quality to impact.

We are aware that this is an imperfect process and we don’t wait for the perfect to make real, good, progress that ranges from small gradual changes to indicators that open pathways to paradigm shifts.

It is just as much about the calming beautiful nature of doing that work, the pleasure of that first sip, and the reverberations of fostering that feeling and its byproducts through our system and hopefully through our industry. All of this is what we mean by #rootedreverberations.

What kind of growth has your business seen in the past couple years?

Since we founded Little Waves Coffee in the summer of 2017 we have nearly doubled our roasting volume year after year with an exponential increase after first becoming a finalist for Roaster of the Year in 2020 and then again when winning in 2021. We also attribute to consumers valuing our combination of social and quality approach. Having started from a coffee bike, our guests and community (near and far) have always been kind of participants in our business and growth, have been key through the pandemic, and love the recognition we have gotten. While our retail side took a hit during the pandemic like any front-facing retail business, our roastery growth enabled us to keep our team fully employed including all quarantines. Our wholesale growth and exponential growth of subscriptions have helped us secure all of our livable wage jobs, be solid with our producer relationships, and even helped us make workplace improvements during the pandemic. We still have a ways to go to achieve all of the little waves we can see for our company, team, communities, partners (and industry), and we are well on the path.

How has your Loring roaster contributed to the success of your business and your roasting style?

There is so much to love about the Loring. Consistency is one of the biggest things we can say our S15 Falcon provides and has contributed to our success.  We love how energy and production efficient it is. It has made it easier to train production roasters on and feel confident we will get a consistent result on the cupping table. The green lift feature is amazing for our bodies and it is extremely user-friendly when it comes to maintenance. I love that we can get excellent results on this machine for light, medium, and dark roasts. We tend to stick to the light and medium roast profiles to allow each coffee’s attributes from origin and processing to shine through. Creating profiles and tweaking them feels approachable on the Loring. While we use Cropster (great integration by the way) to track our roasts and profiles, one can easily capture and save profiles on the Loring’s touchscreen computer system.

How did you shift your business during COVID to adapt and overcome the challenging times? How has that contributed to your overall success as a business?

Wow, the pandemic has been a long sprinting marathon.

…Accounting for team and guest safety, keeping folks safely working, minimizing stress, considering societal challenges, letting folks know how to support, living through the extremes of a world full of one-dimensional bubbles, working to lead while feeling stressed ourselves, and everything else we’ve all been living through.

All of that in mind, we are proud of the actions we have taken and adapted over the last two years as we have had zero covid spread inside of our company, kept all jobs secure above living wage levels, grown overall as a company, and are working to be poised to emerge post-pandemic emergency better than ever.

Starting around March 12th, 2020, we implemented safety measures, then moved to garage door only (and soon there added app based) no contact ordering. On March 15th, 2020 my husband (and partner) Leon and I sat down for a long Sunday and developed what we called our Covid Crisis Solvency Plan. With the potential of closing for what was said to be about 8 weeks, if we didn’t take action, we knew that we could go out of business or at the very least cost a lot of people’s livelihoods. We started our business with $75 in the bank and no access to credit and we used our learned skills to get our shop open to stay open in this crisis.

My husband and partner did the math and put out a tweet on March 15th, 2020 to our community saying that if we sell 230 bags of coffee a day we will make it through the 8 weeks, not have to lay anyone off, and keep our very basic bills paid. So many folks from around the country shared the tweet and messaging, the news picked it up and people from around the country actively kept us going. Little Waves grew hundreds of times over night and it has continued to build through the pandemic via subscriptions, wholesale accounts and shipping coffee to over 35 countries in more than 2050 zip codes in all 50 states ever since.

We also adapted very quickly – production of higher volume sales, shipping, marketing, packing, and order fulfillment. Each payroll period we made it through we celebrated and kept hustling knowing that nothing was guaranteed but we were grateful that we didn’t have to let anyone go because of the pandemic. This boom in the roastery was great because our sales in the café plummeted but we kept innovating and figuring out how to continue to keep our team employed, stay safe and serve our community. The growth in the roastery truly catalyzed us into what we had already been planning for pre-pandemic. We just didn’t get the time to pre-think what production would look like with higher volume. We went from roasting 2 days a week to 6 days a week in the beginning and now that our production is more efficient, 5 days a week.

We have continued to adapt updated production, safety, a few months later, team compact, and revenue diversification strategies. We like all of us are pretty wiped out from the experience of much of the pandemic, and we feel optimistic and grateful.

How does it feel being a woman-minority owned business in a mostly male-dominated space?

It’s truly beautiful. It feels grounded, rooted, ancestral, magical, destined. Sometimes it is hard for us to think about this because it is so common to us.

It feels quite normal until we go out into the world of coffee – when we go to the expo, to other shops around the country and world we get to feel how unique our company and team feels. This is our team makeup: Women or Non-Binary Folks 82%, People of Color 55%, Languages Spoken (at least) 7, nations represented 8.

We feel a power from our team makeup and continue to work to attract employees from all walks of life, sexual orientations, and gender identities, beliefs, and backgrounds, aiming to be as diverse as our city. This is not for the sake of ticking off boxes, but because we believe that diversity of identity, story, background makes us a better fuller, more vibrant workplace (and society) and an indicator of the world that we value. We want the makeup of our team to represent an invitation of diversity for the public whom we hope to invite. We find strength in our diversity and feel a sense of purpose, letting other women and young folks see themselves in us, from being women forward at every level of our company.

If you could give a new coffee business one tip, what would it be?

Who you are and how you exist will affect more about your business than anything you will ever say. (It’s hard to keep this to one. We have a lot to say about this! :))

If you could give a new roaster one piece of advice, what would it be?

Be curious, don’t be afraid to “mess up,” cup, cup, cup, and cup with others, trust your intuition and senses.

Loring Smart Roast Congratulates Little Waves Coffee for being Roast Magazine’s Roaster of the year for 2021. Known for their sustainable practices, equitable pay throughout the supply chain, and frequently giving back to their community, Little Waves Coffee is a beautiful example of a successful and ethical business, operating not just for profit but for people and the planet. We at Loring feel so inspired by Little Waves Coffee Roasters and can’t wait to see what’s in store for their future.

Check out their website and learn about their wholesale partnerships here https://littlewaves.coffee