By Marcus Green
Imagine for a moment that Rainier Valley’s very own long overlooked Hillman City harbors a coffee shop that is not just any garden variety java hydration station, but one that serves as a festive confluence of neighbors, artisans, and burgeoning musicians. A place where bonds of communal friendship are both strengthened and forged anew, and where your nostrils are seductively infused with an aroma so divine that every whiff you take convinces you someone, somehow, confiscated heaven’s perfume vial.
It is your good fortune that such an exercise in fantasy is no longer necessary, as that description flawlessly matches the Tin Umbrella Coffee Roastery and Cafe, which recently opened at 5600 Rainier Avenue. The love child of long time Rainier Valley resident, the perpetually upbeat Joya Iverson, it is the only coffee roastery in the south Seattle area, in addition to one of the few coffee shops that do not fall under the umbrella (no pun intended) of the “Schulz coffee empire.” I was fortunate enough to sit down with Joya to discuss, coffee, the Rainier Valley, and her incredible life story which took her from a six figure fortune 500 marketing consultant, to a fight to regain her life, and finally to the coffee aficionado she is today. Hers is a tale that relates the vitalness of persistence not only in business, but more importantly in the lives we lead.
RVP: You have an extremely inspiring story as it relates to opening up your own coffee shop here in Rainier Valley. Would you please share a bit of it with our readers?
Joya: Of course. I had been a business consultant for quite some time, being contracted by several large companies from around the world. As a result I spent a great deal of time on “the tourist circuit,” traveling and staying for a time in various countries as my job was such that I could, and did, work from anywhere. I traveled to Indonesia, Turkey, France but it was when I went to Ethiopia that I truly ended up falling in love with a place that wasn’t home. I loved the people, the culture and the beautiful language, which I was actually able to pick up fairly quickly.
Being there was a little surreal at first as they kept inviting me, this tall foreigner, to all these very intimate dinners, weddings and ancient ceremonies. I remember one where the guys made a step ladder for me with their hands so that I could climb onto this man’s shoulders where he then hoisted me in the air and everyone who was gathered there immediately started chanting the word for flower. It actually took me a little bit to realize that they were directing it at me.
I just kept having beautiful experiences like that as I traveled around the country, once I got done with my consultant work during the day time. As I did I saw some things that really put life into perspective for me, like seeing a man with no legs, who was dragging around his torso with his hands. Suddenly that $25 parking ticket you get when you didn’t see the sign doesn’t seem that important anymore. It dawns on you that sure, you may have bad days, but you don’t have a bad life, not like that.
RVP: So how did that experience lead you down your current course?
Joya: Well I came back to my home in Hillman and I reevaluated my life. I was “successful” at least by the traditional measure anyway, but what was I really doing with my life? I had a need to somehow make a difference. It was actually during this reflection period that I traveled up to Mount Baker, as I’m an avid skier, and while on my way up there another car lost control and we had a head-on collision at 60 mph in the snow. My car completely flipped over and at that moment my life literally flashed before my eyes. I later found out that had I not reflexively turned my steering wheel just before we collided I would have died.
I was actually able to walk away from the wreck but I had hit my head badly during the accident and I soon began having problems. I had a loss of memory, trouble making executive decisions, 7 to 10 panic attacks an hour, any kind of light would burn my eyes. I couldn’t leave my house, I couldn’t even spell my name. It was like a there was this 2-year-old living in my head.
RVP: I can’t begin to comprehend how difficult that must have been.
Joya: It was very. To top it all off I was actually involved in 2 more accidents within 5 months of that one. So I continued having setbacks. One of them actually happened when I was walking in a parking lot and a lady hit me as she was backing out. You definitely start to think that life just has it out for you.
RVP: Wow, it certainly would have been easy to throw in the towel at that point!
Joya: Yes, but I just kept telling myself that, “Joya you’ll get better,” and I tried to focus on the small victories, like being able to actually smile again. I started thinking that, “correlation doesn’t equal causation,” that just because I was going through a terrible patch in my life didn’t mean that it was over.
So I started thinking about things that I could do and I always had kind of dreamed about owning my own coffee shop, as I love coffee, and Ethiopia immediately came back to my mind. I had visited the birthplace of coffee, and then things started to come together for me. Why not combine my two loves in a place that brings Ethiopian coffee to the world, while supporting the farmers who grow it?
RVP: But why open it in Hillman City? For better or worse many people think of it as just the intermediate stretch between Columbia City and Rainier Beach?
Joya: Well I’m thankfully not one of those people (laughter). I’ve lived in the Rainier Valley area for 10 years and Hillman for 7, and I’ve always wanted something that “belonged” to Hillman. People who live in our area and want coffee have to walk to Starbucks in Columbia City or somewhere else that is a decent distance away. I wanted to do something in Hillman that wasn’t just a store, but a place that mattered, where the community could come and have a type of sanctuary to hang out in.
I wanted a place where neighbors can come and converse and maybe even meet each other for the first time, and where we can feature our own homegrown artistic talent, as there are so many artist in Hillman City. I wanted to create a place that can really function as an unexpected treasure for this area, as I truly love it. Where else can you go and have 100 different conversations in 100 different languages (laughter).
RVP: Is it your hope that your shop will act as a turning point for Hillman City and that it will eventually match the vibrancy that is currently associated with Columbia City?
Joya: I don’t know if it will lead to a revitalization of the area. I just know I wanted to do something so that we feel good about this community. Having a shop here really makes me feel great, even just as a someone who lives here because this is Hillman’s shop, it’s “ours.”
RVP: It’s tough to start any business. However, the degree of difficulty for a coffee shop is that much more in our area, as we happen to be home to the most well-known coffee franchise in the world, in addition to its 424 locations in our surrounding area. As the only independently owned and operated coffee shop in the south Seattle area, how do you hope to compete?
Joya: Well I don’t have billions of dollars. I have Joya Iverson and my community, and I’ve put everything I have into my shop, financially, physically, and emotionally. I do think that the amazing support I’ve received from the people of Hillman will go a long way towards us being successful, as well as how we differentiate ourselves. We actually roast our own coffee and we will soon begin a bike delivery service that will bring coffee and pastries right to your door!
RVP: You have obviously been through several challenging ordeals in your life, and have emerged as a local entrepreneur. Is there any advice you can offer to anyone, business minded or not, who is currently going through their own duel with adversity?
Joya: It doesn’t make sense perhaps, but I’d say keep walking into fear, and that road may be difficult and you will definitely have moments of hardship, but that’s the only way you’ll ever be able to find out what you can really do with your life.
There’s certainly days that I’d like to stay curled up in the fetal position but I tell myself that, “I have to do the thing I can’t not do,” if that makes any sense. There are days that I work 17 hours, when I’m my own PR firm, painter, and demolition crew (laughter) but I couldn’t imagined not doing this. I couldn’t imagine being back consulting with a laptop.
So finally, I’d tell everyone that if you can find your passion in life, and pursue it with everything in you, then do it, and don’t put it off until you’re 85. The time is now, and I don’t regret a day that I pursued mine!
[photo of Joya Iverson/ www.facebook.com/tinumbrellacoffee]