Azalea Coffee Bar is not only a chic new addition to Columbia's coffee scene, but it's also a woman-owned business with a dedication to an important mission.
The coffee bar began serving customers mid-April and has already found success at its cozy, white brick storefront on Devine Street. Creative drinks like "The Queen Bee", a specialty coffee named after Beyoncé, an artsy atmosphere fostered by string lights and potted plants and the unique experience offered by locally-owned businesses have likely contributed to this success.
Customers note that Azalea has a certain "homey" feeling and a taste that can't be achieved at larger companies.
"I feel like the quality is better at smaller places like this, and it is more of like a community-type feeling," Olivia Correira, a third-year criminal justice student, said. "It's not like a big chain."
Azalea's manager Alissa Ayers said the coffee bar's mission to highlight and uplift women is what sets it apart from other coffee shops.
"I just really like the mission of supporting women," Ayers said. "All of our coffee and teas come from women-owned farms, and all of the drinks are named after women – influential women."
The idea to fuse a love of coffee and a desire to support women came to owner Brittany Koester while she was working at her mobile coffee and cocktail bar, 72 Company. During this time, she became aware of gender discrepancies within the coffee industry in coffee-growing countries. Oftentimes, women do most of the farm work, but are unable to move up in the supply chain or run their own farms, she said.
"I wanted to do something to kind of highlight that. And so I started toying around with the idea of opening a shop and only sourcing coffee from the female farm owners," Koester said.
This dream was realized with the opening of Azalea, where not the menu items are entirely sourced from women, as well as everything from the store's branding to its chairs.
Azalea's dedication to its mission extends beyond its doors. Since the store's opening, the staff has wasted no time in working with the community to promote other women-owned businesses in the area.
The shop participates in pop-up events with businesses, such as 27 Pancakes Breakfast & Brunch and Sakhar Jams, and is currently partnering with a local chapter of Girls on the Run. For a limited time, 10% of proceeds from Azalea's pumpkin spice latte, called "The Finish Line," went to the organization.
Koester said such collaborations have been very fulfilling.
"Just connecting with women like that, that want to help Azalea grow, and we want to help their business grow — that's been the coolest thing about having the shop thus far," Koester said.
Koester has maintained this positivity and enthusiasm, even when faced with negative pushback to her mission. She shared that those challenges have actually helped to renew her faith in what she's doing.
"I mean honestly, any pushback that we've had, has kind of strengthened that mission. I'm like, OK cool, we still need to educate people on what's going on in the coffee scene and what's going on in every industry, honestly. And it's just kind of pushed me to want to do even more outreach and partnerships with other female businesses," Koester said.
She also wants to dispel any ideas people might have about Azalea's inclusivity.
"I think that, you know, there may be some little misconception that we're just a place for women, and that's not the case at all. Like, I have a ton of regular customers that are men that come in every day and get coffee," Koester said. "It was beneficial for everybody to have a place that supports women. It's not just a women's issue. I think that there's a lot of guys that can get behind that as well."
Koester said she is always looking for new women to partner with, and shared that this will be an ongoing pursuit in the future. In the coming months, fans of the coffee shop can look forward to the release of a new seasonal drink inspired by Billie Holiday and, possibly, additional locations.
Correction (Sept. 18, 2021, at 1:01 p.m.): The caption misstated Alissa Ayers as the owner and as the daughter of the woman in the mural. The woman in the mural is the mother of Brittany Koester, who is also the owner.