The door swings open to the Hillsborough Road location of the Cocoa Cinnamon coffee shop on a sunny afternoon. As I step inside, I’m met by the beaming shine of a La Marzocco Linea PB espresso machine displayed on the corner of their coffee bar. Behind me, light pours in from the large glass storefront windows, illuminating the vibrant colors of the bustling space. Cocoa Cinnamon, planted in the midst of a city undergoing revitalization, brings a sense of thriving community to the streets of downtown Durham. Perhaps because the business, itself, represents more than just good coffee – though they have certainly perfected the craft. Areli and Leon Grodski de Barrera, the owners of Cocoa Cinnamon, have incorporate innovation into every aspect of their business. Rich spices, delicious ingredients, and art are the roots of Cocoa Cinnamon and reflect the couple’s passion for history, travel, culture and people.
I approached the barista and introduced myself, “Hi, my name is Grace, I’m here to see Leon and Areli.” He had expected me, offered to take my order and then ushered me into a meeting room at the back of the shop. Leon and Areli welcomed me in through the sliding doors with smiles and hospitality - again offering me coffee. I reassured them that I had already been taken care of and we sat, together, to talk about adventure, travels, and exactly how Cocoa Cinnamon had come to be.
When Leon and Areli set out to turn the dream of Cocoa Cinnamon into a reality, the influence of a dear friend brought them to Durham, North Carolina. As they became familiar with the city and community, they developed a sense of the culture, which later provided the vision for their shop. Leon and Areli founded Cocoa Cinnamon hoping to represent Durham and provide quality craft products while also telling the often-disregarded history behind the spices, chocolate, teas and coffees they offer. Their menu highlights these rich ingredients, however, the history behind them is delivered in a subtle manner. No quotes from history books are written on the walls, but if you ask any Cocoa Cinnamon employee, they will share with you the story behind each of their ingredients and specialty drinks. They may even point out the many artistic pieces located throughout the shop, as each piece plays a role in representing the history and stories Leon and Areli hope to tell.
The first Cocoa Cinnamon shop opened on Geer Street in 2013. Today, three Cocoa Cinnamon locations have found their homes along the streets of Durham. Leon and Areli opened their second shop on Hillsborough Road earlier this year. The newest shop, still in the building stage, will be a micro-roastery located on Chapel Hill Road. Leon and Areli view the idea of roasting their own coffee as “a piece to the whole puzzle.” They want to take part in all aspects of producing quality and sustainable coffee. “We are excited about the process,” Leon noted. Though they will continue to source coffee from a variety of large and small-scale local roasters, the addition of their own coffee will be an exciting new dimension for Cocoa Cinnamon.
All three Cocoa Cinnamon locations are diverse in character yet each one was designed to create an experience that is distinctly Cocoa Cinnamon. As an artist, Leon wanted to utilize the structure and décor of the shops to tell the story behind Cocoa Cinnamon. What may seem at first to simply be a coffee shop, doubles as an art gallery displaying great craftsmanship from a multitude of contributing artists. Walking into the Geer Street location, you will find geometric art painted on the floor, which represents the map of the original distribution of coffee. A similar map is displayed on the coffee bar of the Hillsborough location and, is then reflected through geometric brass lines inlaid in the tables of the coffee shop. Every detail of the three shops has a purpose and a story. However, it is not just the décor that has been creatively designed to represent the essence of Cocoa Cinnamon. The menu was crafted to do so as well. As a well-traveled couple, Leon and Areli have spent time in a long list of locations including the United States east coast in places like Western North Carolina and New York, as well as in countries such as Mexico, Germany, France, Morocco and many others in-between. They describe the “sense of wonder” they feel when traveling outside of their norm and experiencing something, as simple as the preparation of tea, from another cultural viewpoint. With their inventive menu, Leon and Areli aim to recreate this sense of wonder for their customers.
Though they have a variety of drinks and an impressive, rotating menu for pour overs, Cocoa Cinnamon is perhaps best known for their signature drinks. At the Geer Street shop, a drink named The Doctor Durham has become a customer favorite. Sweet and Salty, The Doctor Durham was inspired by the city’s namesake, Doctor Bartlett Leonidas Snipes Durham. This drink demonstrates Cocoa Cinnamon’s creative combination of ingredients with the use of homemade vanilla, maca root powder, ginger root powder and black lava salt. At the Hillsborough location, Areli prepared one of the new signature drinks for me, one that she was particularly excited about - La Frida. Crafted to represent Frida Kahlo, the La Frida is inspired by a mole recipe passed down through Areli’s family. The drink is a masterpiece that incorporates ancho and arbol chiles, true cinnamon, star anise, pumpkin seeds, almonds, cocoa powder and is finished with a dusting of ground rose petals.
Leon and Areli’s passion for history and good coffee is brought to life through Cocoa Cinnamon. Even more notable is their love for the community and city of Durham. During my time with Leon and Areli, they continuously pointed back to the community that has made Cocoa Cinnamon possible. Leon and Areli emphasized, “Cocoa Cinnamon isn’t just us. It is a community of people.” The couple successfully balances the community aspects of a coffee shop while continuously striving to perfect the craft of coffee. Leon ended our conversation noting, “Craft and service are incredibly important, but, they are a part of the bigger picture. We ask ourselves how we can build craft and service so that it is fun and delicious but also builds quality in every direction.”