At Inglewood's Sip + Sonder, coffee is the starting point for connection

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Shanita Nicholas (left) and Amanda-Jane Thomas wanted all the perks of café culture in Black neighborhoods so opened Sip & Sonder in Inglewood. Photo courtesy of Sip & Sonder.

Why do two lawyers decide to enter the much more perilous and less lucrative world of hospitality? Because they want a cafe that reflects their identity, one where Black people feel welcome, where they can enjoy all the perks of cafe culture. That hadn't always been easy to find for Shanita Nicholas and Amanda-Jane Thomas. When they opened Sip & Sonder at the end of 2018, it was the first specialty coffee house in predominantly Black Inglewood. But Shanita and Amanda-Jane always saw it as more than a cafe. They wanted to create a community-minded venture complete with a roastery, a creative space, and live events. Now with three locations, Sip & Sonder is the subject of this week's In The Weeds.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

KCRW: What inspired you to open Sip & Sonder?

Amanda-Jane Thomas: “Sonder” comes from the “Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” and the definition is that it’s the realization that everyone around you is living a life that's as vivid and complex and beautiful as your own right. Full of its own ups, downs, struggles, happiness, joy, everything. And it's such an amazing word. We love it so much that it's part of our company name, because it really is really at the root of what we're all about. When I hear “sonder,” I think about a way for me and others to connect with each other. It really is that starting point of connection, just like coffee. Coffee is a great connector as well. It was just obvious to us: Sip & Saunder – that's the name of our company. I never would have imagined that I would be in food and beverage. What we're doing now is kind of the culmination of a path that took some turns and twists.

With Sip & Sonder’s first location on Market Street in Inglewood, Black and Brown-owned businesses are cropping up more frequently in the neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Sip & Sonder.

Tell us how you met. What drew the two of you two each other?

Shanita Nicholas: Amanda Jane and I met at our very first law firm working together. And it really did become the non-typical New York corporate legal office – I'm working around the clock, kind of leaving myself at the door when I would walk into that space, which also meant leaving the stories that were happening around the country, and within the Black community in particular, and kind of more broadly, I'm just happening around the world and not being able to bring that aspect of feelings and conversation and reality and to the workplace. But I really enjoyed the time that I got to spend with the other Black women inside of the firm. I started creating meetups for us to get together, and inside of the firm, to share what we were experiencing as individuals. Amanda was such a crucial part of that experience. We got to talk about all of the things we dreamed about, what we wanted to be in life and things we wanted to do. In college, I would always say to my friends, “When I grow up and work, and then afterwards retire, I want to have a coffee shop and be a barista.”

Why did you decide to come to LA? 

Amanda-Jane Thomas: For a while, during my legal practice, and when I first started, I immediately knew that that wasn't it. I kind of immediately began that search of “Okay, what do I really want to be when I grow up?” When coffee entered the conversation and Janine and I would just talk about coffee, I said, “We're gonna do a foray into coffee, but it's really the coffee and more.” And, “How are we really going to approach this amazing product, create something that is quality, but then also everything else that that it will enable us to do?”

Our nonprofit right now our 501c3 nonprofit is known as Sonder Impact. But it was formerly known as the LA Black Investors Club, which before Sip & Sonder came into crystallization, and that organization at the time was really focused on entrepreneurship. How are we focusing on our professional capacity building within Black and Brown communities? I remember at that time, we were doing so much of our programming, in places that now are our neighbors, like in Inglewood. One of our programs in 2016, for example, was at the Miracle Theater, which is right down the street from us. So we were already in the neighborhood in the community doing work through the nonprofit. Once Sip & Sonder entered the scene, it was a natural choice that that is where we were going to start to build.

 “Sonder is from ‘The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows,’” explains Amanda-Jane Thomas, “it’s the realization that everyone around is living a life that’s as vivid and complex and beautiful as your own.” Photo courtesy of Sip & Sonder.

Shanita Nicholas: What's been so incredible to see in our placement on Market Street is also the growth of small business, especially Black and Brown owned small businesses in the area, as well. Now, around the corner from us, there's a Black-woman-owned bookstore called The Salt Eaters, The Residency art gallery, and many of these really incredible spaces of ownership that also recognize the need for communal ownership of a community in Inglewood that's been there for decades. And so it's that vibrancy, people are walking down the street, and more frequently than we had seen before. 

But traffic alone is definitely prominent, and has allowed us to continue to grow and so that buzz is coming back and that's why it's been incredible to be a part of I'm so our coffee is roasted and how so other coffee that we sell is manufactured currently in our space in Inglewood. But we look across three different areas and when we source our coffee: sustainability, traceability and directness,  and so that really all leads to, “What are the stories of the people that our coffee is coming from?” And part that means going out and meeting them. 

So we take visits to the different countries that we're sourcing our coffee from to meet the producers and meet the farmers on the ground so that we not only know where our coffee is coming from, but they also know where their coffee is going. When we look across the line landscape of LA, we see an incredible amount of Black and Brown owned coffee shop spaces. That speaks to the presence at the end of the supply chain of a group of people that's reflected at the beginning. When we talk about origin, we go to Honduras or Jamaica or Ethiopia. We're visiting Black and Brown and indigenous spaces. What I see in that reflection is how are we moving through the supply chain and supporting ownership throughout that supply chain so that we can recycle that back?