To see two Black female coffeehouse owners and roasters in the U.S. is a rare thing, but a shared purpose brought Shanita Nicholas and Amanda-Jane Thomas together to launch Sip & Sonder to support Black entrepreneurs from bean to cup, and through a common experience. Their latest journey: supplying hotels.
Every month Skift will profile someone working in the quirkiest, most incredible and surprising jobs in global travel. Skift's relentless curiosity about our industries extends to every corner of the labor market. Who knew jobs like this even existed?
Born in Germany into a military family, Shanita Nicholas is no stranger to travel. After returning to the U.S. at age six, she continued to travel while studying in different places. But little did she know that a journey that started overseas would lead her to law school and business school in New York, where she met business partner and second-generation Caribbean American and Brooklynite bestie, Amanda-Jane Thomas.
After practicing at the same law firm, the two friends moved to the warmer climate of Los Angeles and eventually settled in Inglewood, just outside of Los Angeles, where they launched Sip & Sonder coffee house in 2017. From opening a coffee shop to directly sourcing and roasting beans from around the world, Nicholas and Thomas have now made their first foray into supplying one of the travel industry’s key sectors: hospitality.
Culture and Community: Coffee as a Connector
The coffee connection and its overall significance and power to unite is what drove the two Black female entrepreneurs to launch their business, one that weaves in travel and community in a space that is often lacking diversity in ownership.
“I was traveling around a lot, I kind of found solace in coffee shops,” said Nicholas. “Wherever I went, I knew I could go to a coffee shop and have some sense of ownership and sense of self. It was the case everywhere except for when I would go home in Prince George’s County, Maryland, and there were no coffee shops.”
While living in New York, Nicholas first launched a pop up called “and drink coffee.”
“I would have meetups across Bedstuy in coffee shops to talk about entrepreneurship and things like that, so this kind of underlying excitement for what coffee shops could bring and what coffee as a product could do was just really exciting to me.”
Thomas’ path was different, with a cultural connection with coffee which was seen then as a treat, but also with the ability to see the power of community and design through her studies of sociology and her interest in urban development, as well as the rising popularity of coffee spaces during her time as a graduate student.
“The two of us realizing there’s something really special here,” said Thomas about the moment Sip & Sonder was born after lengthy discussions of passions with Nicholas while at the firm. “The importance of the physical space itself in a community, but then even broader than that, the coffee and the culture around it — more than a coffee house, how are we approaching this amazing product that can be a conduit for so much more, for culture, for community.”
Sip & Sonder, which is today a fully operational coffee house with 13 staff members, invites customers to “Be you with us” and describes itself as a “coffee house and roastery where coffee, community and culture truly connect.”
“I always say I went to law school, I became a lawyer so I could work and study in coffee shops, and that’s kind of the truth,” said Nicholas.
Becoming a Hotel Coffee Supplier
It’s this intentionality behind the business — seeking to bring together and support Black entrepreneurs, sourcing coffee directly from destinations such as Ethiopia, Burundi, Colombia, Rwanda and Papua New Guinea, and embracing the global Diaspora connection that coffee creates through their space and product that’s led Sip & Sonder to stand out.
“Coffee is made by Black and Brown hands, picked and farmed and produced and owned by Black and Brown bodies and hands,” said Nicholas. “And so it actually is really cool that we see more of us as we get deeper and deeper into it, to be able to see the Diaspora from crop to cup, all the way through.”
The experience likely differs for those farmers as they rarely sell to or see Black women in the coffee house business. But Sip & Sonder’s exposure is about to grow more widely. After a difficult first half of 2020, during which the shop had to pivot, a flurry of media features followed, including an appearance on the Ellen Show. The opportunities came knocking — notably, the offer to source coffee for the newly opened Guild House Hotel in Philadelphia.
“When we got the Guild House email, we went through the history and, you know, women’s empowerment is at the center — I mean, it’s who we are, let alone what we espouse. And so it was just so aligned to receive that,” said Nicholas.
The Guild House Hotel, a former 19th century headquarters of a women’s advocacy group was recently sold and renovated for three years into a 12-room property in a way that honors the Victorian era property’s history. It opened in September 2021.
Nicholas and Thomas said they had just come out of making their first coffee shipment across the world for the 2020 holiday season, the business’ first big push, when the Guild House Hotel owner got in touch about becoming their coffee supplier.
The first step was to coordinate samples over to the hotel, which they have yet to visit in person, provide how they suggest brewing it, and the equipment they’d use if they were there. “And then almost what we do in house with our cupping and how we pick coffee ourselves to serve to our community,” said Nicholas. “What do you like about the samples? Which one do you prefer? What notes do you want? What do you want your consumer to experience when they’re in their rooms having the coffee?”
Once the hotel decides which coffees they’d prefer based on their experiences, then it’s time for the paperwork and registering the wholesale account, getting the frequency and looking at minimums to roast as the coffee house works out what the hotel’s needs are going to be.
“We’re roasting for multiple wholesale accounts and our own shops, and for retail and so it allows us to kind of coordinate around, how much are we gonna roast for this area versus this versus another and so that frequency is really helpful just to kind of get an idea. We can set up our roasting schedule, making sure that we’re meeting all the needs.”
The process has started with invoices and the next step will be determining how to get into long-term contracts, Nicholas said. “So if we know that we’re going to be supplying a hotel or a company for two years on a certain product, then we can back that into our sources and get that stability to our sources of saying okay, we’re going to need X amount of pounds of coffee over the next two years for sure.”
The long term contracts also enable Sip & Sonder, as it continues to source coffee from additional countries, to work with clients on blends, Thomas said. “We’ve had more and more requests for blends for our clients.
After the Guild House Hotel experience, the goal is to supply more of the hospitality industry and become more embedded in the travel world.
“That’s a huge part for us. I think as we grow on both the coffee as a product side and then on the cultural lifestyle side of the company, that expansion geographically is huge,” said Nicholas. “It’s exciting to think through.”
The “Local Globalist”
Aside from operating a coffee house, the two friends also run their own private practices, and host events under “Sonder Impact” — their 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization established several years ago to create opportunities and programs for the Black community’s well being and capacity building both on the professional and personal side.
Sonder Impact was the precursor to Thomas and Nicholas opening a coffee house in the South LA and Inglewood area, which made their permanent presence in the area a natural next step in a community that already welcomed them.
When the U.S. international borders reopen on November 8, Sip & Sonder’s location means it’s also likely to see many more customers from around the world to walk through their coffee house.
Sip & Sonder is for “the local globalist,” Thomas said, noting that the two friends love to come up with these kinds of phrases. “It’s the person who wants to have an experience where they are locally, but then also they’re a citizen of a larger experience. Think of it as concentric circles. The community can be as small as you can imagine, or broader.”
For Nicholas, international travelers returning to Los Angeles in large numbers is an exciting time for the coffee shop after a tumultuous year for many.
“We’re right next to the airport — you land in LA, you’re five minutes away from Sip & Sonder, so there’s already that feeling of communities that are in and out and have Sip & Sonder as like their first home base or their last stop out, which is really exciting,” said Nicholas.
“Our reason for opening is for the community that we sit within and that will always be the case. But we are always excited and thrilled to welcome other people into that who are aligned with us and to experience it.”
Soon, that will include those staying at The Guild House Hotel in Philadelphia.
Photo credit: Sip & Sonder coffee house owners Shanita Nicholas and Amanda-Jane Thomas.