At the Cincinnati-based Cream + Sugar Coffeehouse, creating a sense of community is just as important as brewing a great cup of coffee. “People feel welcome when they walk in there,” co-owner Taren Kinebrew said. “It’s a family.”
A former programmer and analyst for IBM, Taren left her corporate career to start Sweet Petit Desserts in 2009, motivated by her love of baking. Nearly a decade later, she partnered with her childhood friend, Crystal Grace, to revive a closed coffee shop in Cincinnati in 2020. According to Taren, their supportive network helped them weather both the pandemic and other barriers as a Black-owned business.
“For Black women entrepreneurs, it is so hard to sometimes break into the market,” Taren said. “We’re going to have these barriers. And most of the time, in order to navigate those [barriers], it’s really about your network. It’s about the relationships you have built, the relationships you can cultivate.”
How did Taren and Crystal build a network that’s made to last? It’s not just about connecting with your regulars—they also bring Cream + Sugar’s mission out in the community through mentorship, partnership, and events. Below, Taren shares four ways they’ve expanded Cream + Sugar’s small business network, from their own team to the next generation of business owners.
1. Building a customer service-oriented team
Cream + Sugar may be a coffee house, but according to Taren, it doesn’t feel like one. “We wanted people to feel like they were at peace when they walked in. We did not want it to look like a coffee shop,” she said. The usual buzzy atmosphere of a cafe has been enhanced with a sense of community, accented by comfortable furniture and local art—and most importantly, staff who are friendly, genuine, and mindful.
“Our staff is very customer service oriented because we know how we wanna feel when we visit places, right? We’re still customers too. Sometimes you go to a place [that] may not have the best food or the best whatever, but the environment is wonderful and you love the people.”
Thankfully, Cream + Sugar manages to do it all—starting with creating a sense of community on the staff. In interviews, Taren looks for candidates who have an interest in connecting with people of all ages and backgrounds, including the cafe’s older clientele and students from nearby Xavier University.
“It is all about camaraderie and making sure that people can pretty much be the essence of who we are,” Taren said. “We love people, and we feel like everybody should be respected no matter who you are. With our staff, you have to really like to talk to people and love on people and be sincere about [asking] how your day is going because we can feel that—if someone’s being genuine.”
2. Collaborating with local vendors and artists
While Cream + Sugar’s staff and regulars make up a tight-knit community, the coffee house’s network extends well beyond its walls. According to Taren, connecting with other like-minded business owners is a crucial part of her business plan. “We do really seek out small businesses like us. We just wanna keep them going just like they wanna keep us going,” she said.
As the owner of two small businesses herself, Taren is very thoughtful when it comes to choosing her business partners, making sure their practices and values align with hers, along with the coffee house’s vision of spreading love and inclusion. Everything from the healing tea they brew to the art on the walls is made in-house or sourced from a local business owner or vendor—most of them women-owned.
“Anything we can get specifically from a small business owner, we will do that. We really do seek out women in particular,” Taren said. “All of our artwork in the shop is by one artist, and it’s a woman. And we know her. We’ve sold a lot of her art, so we’re very intentional in that way.”
Whether you’re securing vendors, giving referrals, or simply networking with other business owners, forming meaningful relationships with other entrepreneurs can help enhance your business and identify opportunities for future collaboration. Learn more about building a supportive business network.
3. Mentoring other business owners
Networking is also about nurturing. After coming up in a time without a community to uplift her, Taren became the mentor she never had. “I wish I had a me when I started Sweet Petit in 2009,” she said. “I didn’t have a me. However, I believed in myself enough, and I had a lot of things going on for myself that I was able to, in fact, start my business out on the right foot.”
Since then, Cream + Sugar and Sweet Petit have become a much-needed source of support, inspiration, and expertise for Cincinnati’s Black business community—Taren has hosted mentorship events with the Cincinnati African American Chamber and taught classes for young bakers who aspire to own their own pastry shop.
Despite being the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs, Black women in particular face high barriers in entrepreneurship: More than 60% of Black women had to self-fund their businesses instead of securing a bank loan, and Black business owners who apply for funding have a rejection rate three times higher that of their white peers.
“As a Black woman, it is so hard to sometimes break into the market—get capital, get funding, get support,” Taren said. “And so I lend my talent to teaching entrepreneurship, facilitating for organizations here locally so that other Black women can see somebody that looks like them and can tell them the truth and be very transparent and say, ‘You may face this these things, but you have a community or you have somebody now that you can go to.’”
4. Growing a network with Yelp’s community managers
A spot beloved by Yelp Elites, Cream + Sugar maintains a robust community presence online as well as in-person. The cafe made Yelp’s list of Black-owned businesses to watch in 2021, and its business page also features Yelp’s Black-owned attribute, which boosts engagement, reviews, and revenue for Black-owned businesses.
All of this caught the eye of Bailey Dixon, Yelp’s Cincinnati community manager, who felt that sense of community on her first visit: “The coffee was fabulous, but any place can serve good coffee. Not just any place can make you feel like you’re welcome.”
As a community manager, Bailey’s job is to highlight and support small businesses in her region and connect them to the local community. Last June, she collaborated with Taren to host an event to celebrate Cream + Sugar’s second birthday. “It was really special for me because obviously I love showing off local businesses, especially women-owned and Black women-owned businesses in our community. But even more so because [Taren] and Crystal are so in touch with the community.”
Want to get to know your community manager? If you’re a business interested in hosting a Yelp event and would like to connect with your local CM, please submit an inquiry. Plus check out www.yelp.com/events to see local events happening in your area.
These lessons come from an episode of Behind the Review, Yelp & Entrepreneur Media’s weekly podcast. Listen below to hear more from Taren and Bailey, or visit the episode page to read more, subscribe to the show, and explore other episodes.
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