The java tastes unique and delicious in a shop that delivers an uplifting and welcoming experience. And all the while, the proprietors are successfully facing down the challenges of the pandemic economy.
Gail Hamilton Azodo and her husband Uchendu Azodo opened SIPS, a coffee roasting company and eatery, in July 2019 in the CIC building in Overtown. The building, at 1951 NW 6th Ave., also houses a busy co-working center and research labs, so before the pandemic there was a steady stream of customers. Lindsey Hopkins Technical College was also nearby.
But when the co-working space and the school largely closed down for months due to the COVID-19 crisis – and those facilities drove most of SIPS’ business — it would be easy to just throw up your hands. But not these entrepreneurs, said Michael Sellinger, loan director of Miami Bayside Foundation. MBF mentors and provides Small Business Training and loans to minority-owned small businesses in Miami-Dade, including SIPS.
The first step for the Azodos was negotiating with their landlord, who was understanding and flexible, Sellinger explained. Then it was time to turn up the heat on online sales, and consider making other pivots. But it turns out the changes made by these coffee aficionados skilled in the hospitality industry are good for the business long term, too.
HOW SIPS REFOCUSED ITS BUSINESS
SIPS shut down temporarily in late April. “That gave us time to rethink the whole model,” said Gail Hamilton Azodo, who has worked in the hospitality and food industry and previously founded another startup, Lemon City Tea Company. The rethinking entailed realizing SIPS didn’t really need the amount of commercial kitchen the small business had, and Gail talked with Sellinger about how they could better utilize the space.
SIPS’ owners create and sell only their own coffee blends but had been using a roasting service in Delray Beach. So they bought an appropriately sized roaster and brought the roasting in-house. Now they could blend up to 400 pounds of coffee a day all in-house, and hire and train a roasting staff, creating more jobs within Miami.
Noting that customers are always interested in knowing the origins of SIPS coffee, Gail said now they can see it being roasted. “And we work directly with our farmers. We’re working on bringing in a coffee farmer in Nicaragua right now and she is a fourth-generation woman-owned coffee farm.”
When SIPS reopened in early June, Gail went through the numbers and noted they were spending a lot on food items for the space when it was coffee that was their passion.
“We recognized there was an opportunity for other food businesses to operate here who need the space,” Gail explained. “Let’s make it their space.”
JOINING WITH JUNCTION HALLS INCUBATOR
To do that, SIPS joined with the new Junction Halls Food & Beverage Success Incubator – Gail is a partner in the incubator with founder Michael Hall – to open the kitchen to food entrepreneurs in the incubator. The free 6-week program offers one-on-one mentoring, hands-on training sessions, a marketing stipend and the use of the commercial kitchen, Hall said.
The first incubator class filled up fast and the 17 companies started Sept. 22. Junction Halls is taking applications here for a second class, Hall said.
Incubator participants can use the SIPS’ commissary kitchen to create their products and SIPS can be a popup market for their goods. After the program, they can contract with the kitchen if they wish, as could other food business owners.
“They can use us as a ghost kitchen because when you think about our delivery radius – Allapattah, Edgewater, Wynwood, downtown — we have the best delivery radius,” said Gail. “We thought, why underutilize and cross-focus on food and coffee? We are passionate about coffee and we can share the kitchen.”
The staff of SIPS is as local as its product line. SIPS only hires from the Overtown area. The small business also donates any extra food to Camillus House and is working on other ways to integrate with the neighborhood.
A BIG E-COMMERCE PUSH
At the same time, SIPS is rolling out a national brand strategy to sell online.
“Since COVID, I overly invested it our e-commerce business,” said Gail, who won a grant for women-owned businesses from the Sara Blakely Foundation and put the dollars to work ramping up the e-commerce business and hired the local creative digital agency Jastor to bring it to life. “E-commerce is only about 10% of our business now but we see it as growing into more than half of our business.”
What could the business look like a year or two from now, when COVID is finally in the rear view mirror? We asked Gail. “A year down the road, we are selling coffee not only at the original SIPS location but nationally and we want to keep that location as the flagship. I want to make it clear this is an Overtown-grown business that supports jobs in the community.”
The SIPS owners are already thinking about a second location, perhaps in another area of Overtown that needs a space where the community can gather. It, too, would likely be a roasting location, Gail said.
“We see SIPS having grown into a community business with national recognition.”
Photos were provided by SIPS and Miami Bayside Foundation.
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