Shannon Smith and Nancy Alvarez launched Monster Coffee last year.

Shannon Smith and Nancy Alvarez launched Monster Coffee last year. Photo by Thomas Wasper

For a long time, Nancy Alvarez and Shannon Smith didn’t view coffee as much more than burnt liquid that they poured sugar into for a quick jolt at the office.
 
That changed when Alvarez and Smith started researching the culture and history of coffee. Their budding interest quickly became a hobby. They started visiting coffee shops and sampling different roasts and brewing methods.

 
Now coffee is their business.

 
In July 2020, Alvarez, 31, and Smith, 29, took a big leap, launching their own coffee retailer and naming it Monster Coffee Roasters, a name inspired by all the people they see in the morning who act like zombies before they get their first cup of joe.


Alvarez and Smith said they believe they can carve out space for themselves in the specialty coffee roaster market, even if the field in Los Angeles is crowded with competition from other local wholesalers and retailers, like Sailor’s Brew Coffee in Pasadena; Café Demitasse, which has a location in Santa Monica; and downtown-
based Cognoscenti Coffee Roasters.


“Our mission is to bring fresh and complex coffee to every kitchen while bringing visibility to women of color in the coffee industry,” Smith said. “We have really tried to lean in, and we need to do so even more, with both of us being women of color and LGBTQ-plus as well.”


Monster Coffee sells 12 different coffee bean blends, some named after monsters like the yeti and werewolf, that rotate during the year according to the seasons. The beans are available in 12- and 16-ounce bags that retail from $15.95 or mini-packs with four 2-ounce bags that retail from $20. Monster Coffee generated $20,000 in revenue its first year and is picking up steam.


Alvarez and Smith funded the company using their personal savings and run the business while working their day jobs. Alvarez works in health care, and Smith is in marketing.

 
The duo worked out an arrangement with another independent coffee company, Temecula Coffee Roasters, to borrow its grinding and roasting machines. Monster does not have its own machines but hopes to obtain them in the near future. Monster Coffee sources its beans internationally from countries such as Brazil, Honduras, Peru and Ethiopia, and the bulk of its products are sold online. However, now that the pandemic is receding, the young company has started hosting pop-ups at a storefront in Long Beach.

 
The location is a shared space with a vegan bakery next door, but Alvarez and Smith aspire to open their own brick-and-mortar location in the future.
Their other big goal is to create representation for women of color in an industry traditionally dominated by white men.

 
Alvarez, who grew up in El Salvador, recognized that coffee beans are predominantly grown by people of color in countries near the equator. Yet, in Los Angeles, she said, she was hard-pressed to find much diversity among coffee shop owners.  
“Going to all these coffee shops, something we realized is that the ownership, and sometimes even the employees, none of them represented what the coffee production really looked like,” she said.

Online activism
In 2019, Alvarez and Smith traveled to Bali to visit coffee bean farms and sample coffee. Seeing where the beans were farmed was a new experience for Smith, but for Alvarez, it reminded her of the coffee farms that she grew up near as a child.
“I think that was the first time Shannon saw the whole process of coffee, and for me it … was like going back to my roots,” Alvarez said.

 
Alvarez and Smith aspire to eventually focus on hiring people of color. For now, much of their vision and activism takes place online.

 
Monster Coffee’s website includes a “take action” section listing local community gardens and grocery co-operatives, along with nonprofits that work to advance intersectional environmentalism and help low-income women in Latin America, among others. The company’s Instagram page is populated with visuals celebrating National Coming Out Day and Black History Month.

 
Social media has also helped Smith and Alvarez build relationships with customers and provide them with product recommendations. Due to Monster Coffee’s small size, Alvarez and Smith said they have the capacity to roast beans to customers’ preference without sacrificing freshness.

 
Platforms like Instagram have also helped them network with nonprofits that support business owners from underrepresented backgrounds.

 
“It’s been a blessing,” Smith said. “Being online is like your bread and butter. If you don’t have an online presence, you’re really lacking.”


The nonprofit Spicy Green Book, for example, included Monster Coffee in its national directory of Black-owned food and beverages businesses. Production company Diirt took photos and created promotional videos free of charge, and Five Dollar Faithful donated the tent Monster Coffee uses during its pop-ups.

 
Alvarez and Smith estimate the value of these services in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and credit the organizations with helping Monster Coffee find its footing.
They also received a $500 grant from an organization called Getchusomegear, which in partnership with Oatly Group AB, helps marginalized groups in the coffee industry. They also received a $1,000 grant from the Long Beach Economic Partnership in collaboration with Centro CHA Inc.


While shelter-at-home orders have forced Monster Coffee to do most of its business online, in some ways, the pandemic may end up benefitting small companies like Monster Coffee. Covid-19 has helped consumers develop an appreciation for small businesses, according to Nick Martin, the chief executive and co-founder of Coffey Ventures Inc., dba Joe Coffee.

‘Appetite for small business’
Through Joe Coffee, an app that allows customers to order coffee online from their favorite local coffee shops, Martin said he has observed a boost in interest about local coffee shops and beans for at-home brewing.

 
“There’s a real appetite for supporting small business, and there’s a real opportunity to reimagine our out-of-home routines with small business at the center of that,” Martin said.


That attitude seems to be sticking around even as the economy reopens and consumers return to their old routines. Martin said customers are seeking out coffee shops that are building meaningful relationships in their communities.


Businesses like Monster Coffee that are owned by people from underrepresented backgrounds are uniquely positioned to create a sense of belonging for neighborhood residents, especially for those who grew up in the area.

 
“That’s something that these corporate giants can’t try to replicate or emulate in a real, authentic way,” Martin said. “And so that’s something that makes independent coffee extremely special.”


Alvarez compared the choice for coffee to other industries like clothing or shoes. Some people like heels, while others prefer sneakers — and different companies can cater to those tastes, she said.


“I don’t really see it as a competition,” Alvarez said. “I see it as finding the right fit for you.”

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