Amanda-Jane Thomas and Shanita Nicholas met almost 9 years ago while practicing law at the same Wall Street firm in New York City. When they weren’t burning the midnight oil, the pair would carve out space and time to chat about their passions and what they wanted to do in the future. They shared their goals and hopes for the future, and it turned out, both of them envisioned a business model highlighting the same two things: coffee and connecting with their communities. Years later, in 2017 to be exact, the pair realized their dream with the Inglewood coffeehouse Sip & Sonder.
“I grew up as an army brat, traveling across different countries and states, and came to find solace in knowing that wherever I was in the world, I could find a coffee shop and have all the comforts I associated with those spaces,” says Nicholas. “When I would go back to my extended family in PG County in Maryland, I noticed that those same experiences weren’t available in the communities I called home– predominantly Black neighborhoods. I wanted to provide access to the same experiences I had to the people and in the spaces that reflected further parts of my identity as a Black woman.”
Thomas had similar experiences growing up. “I felt like an outsider in many of the coffee spaces I visited,” she says. “And I wanted to have a coffee shop experience in my own community, where I could just stare out of the window, lost in my own thoughts, sipping a latte on a cold winter day.”
Both agree that sharing their memories and desires with each other, led to a “Eureka moment” that set them on their professional path as a duo, celebrating coffee and using it as “a conduit for folks to just ‘be’ and make authentic connections with others.”
‘Sonder’ is defined as “the realization that everyone around you is living a life as beautiful, robust, and complex as your own, filled with their own craziness, ups, downs,” explains Thomas.”To me it’s the starting point for connection. It signals how even though we can be so different on the surface, I can empathize with whatever you have going on in your own life. The space we’ve created encourages and allows this type of reflection and connection, over a delicious cup of coffee.”
“When Amanda-Jane and I were discussing the type of space we wanted to create, the meaning of the word resonated so strongly,” says Nicholas. “Within Sip & Sonder, any and everyone is welcomed inside to be themselves within community, and can be engaged with the collective whether actively or passively doing so.”
Of course, the face to face connection the pair had in mind was put on hold when COVID-19 hit. Their overall revenues suffered due to less foot traffic, the need to reduce operational hours, and sustained expenses. “We responded to these impacts by accelerating our e-commerce division and initiating and growing our single origin coffee roasting company,” says Nicholas. “ During the height of COVID in 2020, this enabled us to still get our coffee to people, even though we couldn’t have folks in our physical space.”
As a result of moving online, S&S now ships their coffee worldwide and they’ve created direct relationships with farming communities so they are fully immersed in the sourcing, production, manufacturing and distribution of their coffee focused on “sustainability, traceability and intentionality.”
While COVID made it challenging to remain engaged with their community and customer base, once things re-opened the pair also got creative. They offered a “Sidewalk Series” with outdoor activations and a “Brewing for Good” campaign in which they donate coffee and pastries to frontline workers on the COVID-19 floors at Centinela Hospital Medical Center, through their 501c3 nonprofit affiliate Sonder Impact. Online they sought engagement via their “Be You With Us” content campaign, inviting folks wherever they are in the world, to share experiences while sipping their coffee. They’ve also forged promo partnerships, such as The Proud Family- Louder and Prouder installation they presented with Disney+ for Black History Month, which spotlit the new animated series reboot. The activation is part of the company’s “Celebrate Black Stories” presentation.
As the Black History Month closes out and Women’s History Month rolls in, the Sip & Sonder sisters clearly still have celebrating to do. “As Black women in the specialty coffee industry, we have a deep appreciation for the fact that most of the world’s coffee originates from Black and Brown countries across the diaspora,” says Nicholas. ”And yet, there is a lack of black ownership as we look up the supply chain to end consumers. We’ve been inspired by the warm reception, both within the industry, across Los Angeles, and nationwide, towards us telling our story as Black women in the specialty coffee industry and sharing our views regarding what exactly is required–education, resources and capital–to address this issue.”
“We saw a positive impact on our revenues from the uptick of support for Black-owned businesses that came in 2020 in the midst of social and political unrest,” adds Thomas. “We encourage the general public to not see this as a passing fad, but as a sustaining effort that is crucial for businesses like ours that are still struggling… we think it’s important to highlight that there’s often a lot of talk about supporting Black business and patronizing Black business without there being the dedicated attention to the type of support that would allow Black businesses to truly sustain themselves and become independent, thereby financially liberating our communities. That kind of support is actual investment in Black businesses.”
Visit Sip & Sonder’s Inglewood space (108 S Market St.) and check out their second outpost location at The Music Center in DTLA outside of the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Watch The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder on Disney+ now.