As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close, we checked in with Sandra Flores, owner of Azukar Coffee, a small business percolating on the South Side of Phoenix that shows just how important a local gathering place can be to a neighborhood.
“Coffee, culture, life,” in Spanish, is the tagline for Azukar, a flourishing café in South Phoenix which in just two years has evolved into a beloved social and cultural hub, as well as a purveyor of fabulous coffee, for a neighborhood in need of safe and inclusive public spaces.
For Sandra Flores, Azukar’s proprietor, opening a coffee shop in her native South Phoenix was an urgent act of faith—in herself and in her community. “I NEED to create this business so I can empower myself to help the community where I was raised,” she wrote on her KIVA loan crowdfunding page. “Without this business, I am working on someone else’s vision and I believe my vision and mission could be very impactful for South Phoenix.”
Flores’s instincts were right on. As a student putting herself through college, she spent long afternoons in coffee shops and appreciated the role cafés have always played in social and political life across cultures (she spent 10 years doing social work before becoming an entrepreneur). Flores also sensed there was a market for Latino-inflected coffee drinks, and a need for a culturally attuned social nexus in a historically under-invested area that is nearly 70 percent Hispanic.
Azukar’s menu plays on the tastes Flores grew up with: aguas frescas with flavors like mango chile and cucumber, agave mesquite coffee (all the syrups are homemade) and a super-popular caramel latte concocted with cajeta, a traditional browned sugar confection. “It’s nonstop with that drink,” she says, laughing. “Without it, I’d probably be out of business.” To the contrary, business is growing: Flores has paid back her Kiva loan, which LISC supported with a $5000 match, in full, and is thinking about expansion.
As beloved as Azukar has become for its delicious renditions of morning Joe, the café’s role as community gathering place has placed it firmly on the map of South Phoenix. Flores has made a point of offering the space to local artists looking to mount an exhibition, and to community groups in need of a welcoming meeting place. She hosts Day of the Dead and other cultural celebrations, and is delighted that a local youth political group has been planning voter registration drives at Azukar’s ample tables. “It’s so inspiring to see their passion,” she says.
Flores has also hosted teachers and their students who come to learn about entrepreneurship and marketing. “I want them to know that they can use their talents to make money,” she says of young people in the neighborhood. Part of Azukar’s business plan is to provide a job-training platform for area young people—a goal Flores is still working toward. “Everything that happens here is very grass roots,” she says. “We planted a seed in the community, and now lots of other seeds are growing, too.”
“With Azukar,” Flores adds, “I think we’ve shown that a place can be modern and relevant, and rooted in culture at the same time.”