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Latina-Owned Durham Roaster Little Waves Coffee Wins International Award

Little Waves Coffee is an outgrowth of Durham’s beloved Cocoa Cinnamon.

A group of people sitting on top of bags of coffee beans.
Little Waves owner Areli Barrera Grodski (second from right, top row) and the Little Waves team.
Little Waves Coffee Roasters

Before anyone at industry publication Roast Magazine tasted Little Waves’ coffee, they had to read an awards submission that was dozens and dozens of pages long.

“We basically wrote a novel,” Little Waves Coffee owner Areli Barrera Grodski laughs. “If they like your application and you become a finalist, then you submit your coffee.”

In the application to be the 2022 Micro Roaster of the Year, the Durham roastery outlined its business ethos and sustainability practices, explaining a range of factors that make it unique; Little Waves is primarily Latina-owned, prioritizes equitable pay throughout the supply chain, and frequently gives back to the surrounding community, among other distinctions.

That “heart driven” approach helped Little Waves become a finalist, but the quality of the finished product propelled the roaster across the finish line to bring home top honors. The victory comes alongside Denver-based Huckleberry Roasters, which won in the macro category.

“The award recognizes companies that roast coffees of superior quality, exemplify a dedication to sustainability, promote employee and community education, and demonstrate a strong commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity, among other criteria,” Roast Magazine explains in the recent announcement.

That’s part of the reason the award means so much to Little Waves.

“It’s great to see the rigor they put into it,” Barrera Grodski says of the competition’s judges. “In an industry where it’s not as common to see women of color- and immigrant-run businesses, it’s great to be recognized not only for our values but the quality of our coffee.”

Founded in 2017, Little Waves is an outgrowth of Durham’s beloved Cocoa Cinnamon, which boasts three coffeeshops in the Bull City. Started initially by Barrera Grodski and her partner Leon Grodski Barrera as a bicycle-based operation in 2010, Cocoa Cinnamon opened its first brick-and-mortar cafe in 2013. Little Waves roasts almost 60,000 pounds of coffee a year out of the cafe’s Lakewood neighborhood location, supplying coffee to not only Barrera Grodski’s shops but also a range of wholesale accounts and individual subscribers.

The subscription model took off during the pandemic, as the Cocoa Cinnamon faithful rallied to keep the business afloat. As a result, Barrera Grodski said she didn’t have to let anyone go, and it led to considerable growth for Little Waves. The Micro Roaster of the Year Award will enable them to build on that success, she says, and provides an added sense of legitimacy to consumers, especially anyone ordering online from around the country.

“Subscriptions are a sustainable method for us and whoever participates, so it’s a win-win,” Barrera Grodski says.

Without high-quality products, Little Waves and Cocoa Cinnamon would never last. But both also owe their success to a community-minded approach that aligns with Durham’s spirit. Barrera Grodski — who is originally from Tijuana, Mexico — initially considered opening her businesses in San Diego, where she has family and could enjoy the beach. After graduating from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and spending some time exploring Durham, she says she was drawn instead to the city’s thriving Latino community and do-it-yourself energy, making it the kind of place with “Asheville vibes, but a little more diverse.”

Cocoa Cinnamon offers a community coffee program to enable people to buy anything off the menu for only a dollar. Little Waves’ 2020 dark roast called “Royal 7” is emblematic of that continued approach: named for the seven locals who led the famous Royal Ice Cream Parlor sit-ins in Durham during the Civil Rights Movement, a portion of the proceeds from every bag of Royal 7 funds Feed Durham, a Black-led mutual aid collective that’s distributed more than 10,000 free meals since the pandemic began.

“One of the things I always say is who we are informs how we do things,” Barrera Grodski says.

“We know it’s an imperfect world, but we’re always learning and trying to do better, and for us it’s about continuing to put these good vibras out, or ‘good vibes.’”

This award helps them do that. And ideally, Barrera Grodski says, it will put them on a path to roasting more than 100,000 pounds of coffee annually, a waterline that would bump Little Waves up into the macro roaster category. When that happens, she’s already picturing how they’ll reenter Roast Magazine’s international competition at the higher level and try to win again.

Little Waves Coffee [Official]
Roast Magazine Announces 2022 Roaster of the Year Winners [Daily Coffee News]

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