In the suburbs of Denver, Colorado sits Sonder Coffee, a bright and airy coffeehouse and roastery. Opened by three friends, the space had been a project in the making for years prior to becoming a reality. Wife and husband, Julia Minayeva and Ernest Minayev, along with their friend, Pop Nuntanavooth, traveled around Scandinavia in search of inspiration, learning about specialty coffee in the process. After returning home, the trio started developing their business plan, combining Scandinavian influences, craft coffee, and adding their own unique attributes to the project. The company opened with the goal of combining quality coffee, excellent customer service, and a beautiful, comfortable haven for their customers.
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did the three of you get together and decide to open Sonder?
Ernest: Me, my wife Julia, and Pop got together, because Pop and I previously did other businesses, and we were messing around with stocks. We wanted to start something that was more people-driven, and we had a coffee shop in mind. A year passed, and we came back and were like, “what happened to that idea?”. We got sucked into life. After that, we got together to do research and start a coffee shop. We traveled to Scandinavia to learn a little more about coffee, and the concept is based off of the shops we were inspired by. We got to see some of the starters of specialty coffee.
What is your approach to coffee?
Julia: Our philosophy with owning a coffee shop is to add value to peoples’ lives in small ways. In the beginning, we wanted to have a hospitality-oriented shop, and it wasn’t until after our travels that we discovered craft coffee and fell in love with it. Seeing the story behind craft coffee and how there’s so much intentionality behind it paired with our desire to serve customers in a way that’s intentional. Our philosophy running the shop is three-fold: we emphasize the coffee quality and experience, the atmosphere and creating a place where people feel welcome and that they can be themselves, and customer service and building those relationships with people over time. Inviting them into this crazy, complex world of coffee that we slowly, and still, are discovering ourselves.
That was such a beautiful description.
E: We would have never gotten there. We just do the back-room stuff like roasting, she’s the one with customer-service management skills.
I think that’s the best part of owning a business; you all kind of complement each other.
J: Oh, for sure. We have such different strengths and weaknesses. It means a lot that we have each other, because we really couldn’t do it on our own.
Pop: There’s no way that just one of us could have done everything.
I know you talked a little bit about your Scandinavian inspiration, but how did you come up with the name and branding for Sonder?
J: The name itself took six months to find, and the logo took another six months to create. We wanted [a word] that was unique, something that you couldn’t pinpoint in the English language, and something that communicated the deeper vision that we had. We came across the name on the Dictionary of Obscure Words, and when we read it, it really hit home. It made an impression on us, so we kept that in mind. As we wrote our business plan and continued our vision, the word ‘sonder’ continued to stick out, and its meaning began to unravel in the context of our coffee vision. With that, we were thinking of a logo. It started with a tree and the idea that the branches, trunk, and roots all connected growing into something deeper. That idea ultimately replenishes peoples’ lives whether that’s a coffee beverage or more profound things like connections and relationships, and it really symbolized life’s unfolding and interconnecting. And then the butterfly was added on. We like to say with the tree: Sonder, a story rooted timely growing. And with the butterfly: a story fragile, ever-changing. The definition of Sonder paired with that and kind of plays with the idea that everyone has a story, and as a coffeeshop, it’s really cool to be that crossroads where peoples’ stories can unravel and lives can change and interconnect. The part of life that is changing versus the part of life that remains the same pairs around those concepts.
Can you tell me a little bit about some of your flavored drinks and the inspiration for those?
J: In the beginning, before we knew about craft coffee, we kind of just assumed we would buy flavored syrups. When we started playing around in the kitchen with unique flavor profiles, we fell in love with that more and more. When we look at our seasonal drinks and our mocktials, we just have fun making it, and we start off brainstorming flavors of the season. We are really inspired by herbs, fruits, and spices that are in season and we try to pinpoint that to the feeling that the season gives. We brainstorm with our team and then research recipes to see how we can make these flavors come to life. We’re discovering by using real ingredients that we’re finding benefits to our bodies as well. Rose, for example, is good for depression, your heart, and womens’ health. It’s funny when customers tell us they feel better after drinking it, or when nutritionist customers tell us that rosemary is linked to concentration, and someone is finishing up homework at the shop. It’s cool to see something we’re creating can help your body and mind as well. That plays a part in our Sonder vision too. In the suburbs, people aren’t used to our unique drinks so they have a lot of fun with it, and it’s cool to see people actually liking something you just created.
What has been the best part about owning your shop?
J: For me, it’s the relationship aspect, which is really funny, because I’m not a people-person. Constantly being around people and managing takes a lot out of me, but it’s actually the most rewarding. That also connects with seeing that word ‘sonder’ literally come to life every day as customers meet each other and become friends or two different customers come in and know each other by chance. It’s funny seeing the word played out in our shop. I’m realizing it’s really rewarding working with our team as well. Having the opportunity to invest in other coffee and customer-oriented people, giving them opportunities to grow is really cool too. Developing the relationships with our staff and customers is intrinsically rewarding even though it’s hard and takes a lot out of you.
P: My parents own a couple of Thai restaurants, so I really enjoy just being in the service industry. I grew up finding joy in serving people.
Ernest: For me, it’s probably the educational side. Learning so much about coffee, there’s nowhere to stop growing in the industry and seeing people grow as well. You hire someone and they have zero knowledge of coffee, and you just see them flourish. Seeing them thrive in customer service is so awesome. Our staff gets the vision and just go from there.
What is your favorite coffee you’re roasting right now?
Pob: My favorite at the moment is a natural Ethiopia Limu. It’s has a very unique flavor-profile; it’s mild, very fruit-forward, very clean.
Ernest: That’s probably my favorite as well, and it’s definitely our customers’ favorite. We also have a washed Guji that’s pretty good as well.
Pop, Ernest, and Julia will be pulling shots at our Expo booth on Friday, April 20 from 12-1 PM. For more information on Sonder Coffee, visit their website, Facebook, and Instagram. To learn more about Sonder's business development, visit Julia's blog, Dream a Latte.
Photos courtesy of Sonder Coffee.