Its been a little over three months since the city of Sacramento effectively re-opened its doors to the public. Early morning coffee drinkers are out seeking their first fix of the day while neighbors are pausing on sidewalks as they walk their dogs to catch up. Traffic is back to getting on all of our nerves, and Kenny the Dancing Man is free to dance where he pleases. For better or worse, things are starting to feel the same as they once did. One business owner in Sacramento is coming back with a whole new outlook, a whole new business, and a continued mission to make a difference.
Leo Hickman, the owner of Classy Hippie Tea Co., has expanded his vision and business, having recently acquired Oak Park mainstay Broadway Coffee. While coffee and tea may not seem like that far of a stretch of the imagination, it is what Hickman is choosing to do with the new space that sets it apart.
"COVID made a big impact on a lot of people. You saw groceries stores running out of food because people were scared and starting to stockpile. People were isolated from their routines. Businesses were closing left and right, including Classy Hippie. But in that, I was able to find a different purpose, and that's what's fueling me right now."
That purpose is centered around using his business to play a role in solving the very prevalent, and decades-long food desert crisis that has plagued the predominantly Black and Brown neighborhood of Oak Park. A historically marginalized community that up until recent 'beautification projects' (see gentrification) has been left by the wayside.
While it may not seem that a coffee shop would act as a solution to a food crisis, Hickman isn't your typical business owner. In less than two weeks, Hickman and his team will break ground on a site that will house a fully functioning indoor hydroponic food grow. A space that will furnish microgreens, teas, herbs, and flowers used in food and holistic healing, for anyone in the area to access affordably.
WHAT IS A FOOD DESERT, AND WHY HAVE WE NOT HEARD ABOUT THEM
A food desert is defined as a low-income census tract where a substantial amount of residents have low or no access to supermarkets or grocery stores. Oak Park has been considered a food desert for decades, and even the swath of fancy new businesses and new (overly-priced) housing developments that have sprung up along the Broadway corridor hasn't been enough to entice a grocery store to open its doors.
According to Sean Cash, a research professor with the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, grocery stores are more reticent to show up in places without other grocery stores already present. While that may seem counterintuitive to what logic would dictate, according to Cash, the logic just isn't that simple.
"Sometimes there seems to be a bit of inertia for stores to overcome because they see that their competitors haven't moved in either. Then they suspect that their own analysis of the situation might be overly optimistic. The amount of money they have to sink into stocking a new store isn't something they take lightly."
With most major grocery stores at least 5 miles away from the center point of Oak Park, many residents not having access to reliable transportation, and most city busses running every 30 minutes to an hour, it can be more than difficult to find sustenance. With the situation as it stands, many residents are forced to find alternatives, most of which include heading to the corner store in hopes of finding what you need. Unfortunately, while these smaller markets are heavily prevalent in areas where food deserts exist, their selection of food that contains any nutritional value is severely lacking, or severely expensive when the options are available.
That's where Hickman and his team plan to come in.
FROM THE GROUND UP
Twice deployed military veteran.
If you laid out some of the pieces that make up the puzzle that is Leo Hickman, you'd never assume the picture would equal out to tea sommelier. But we all know what happens when you assume.
"I went backpacking around the world after I was out of the military and through that I found my way. I discovered tea. I discovered the healing it could offer and the medicine that it acted as for thousands of years. It gave me a new outlook on what I wanted to do."
Despite his newfound passion, he was still working as a biomedical engineer at the time. Slowly but surely saving his own money as he could, he spent his days learning about the medicinal, emotional, and physical healing properties that tea could offer.
"Our ancestors knew about the healing that herbs and flowers gave for years, but the access to the knowledge was never there for us in these modern times. Tea felt like something meant for someone else. It was oddly foreign. Now with these projects, I'm getting the opportunity to spread that knowledge and make my people aware."
After months spent researching he knew it was time to find a way to introduce his love of tea to his communities. With no real help and only one investor, he created what would come to be known as Classy Hippie Tea Company. Slowly but surely, he built a name for himself, and for the work, he was doing. It wasn't long before Hickman went from serving tea at private events and farmers markets to operating a fully functional tea shop replete with a sitting area, outdoor venue space, and an attached yoga studio.
But then COVID came, and with it came a whole new world for many small business owners. Classy Hippie, like many others, was forced to close its doors.
It wasn't the end though. Not for Hickman and his team.
It was the beginning of a new journey.
PLANTING NEW ROOTS
I'd been on the hunt for a return back to normalcy, and a little less talking from my over-communicative teenagers, so I decided to find a cafe to write in. Though Old Soul technically was closer to my house, the title of the shop is highly misleading. There isn't a lot of "soul" in the space at all, and while I could see the appeal for people on the outside, on the inside I felt uninspired. And if Old Soul didn't have any soul to spare, then Starbucks definitely wasn't it.
It wasn't until I drove by one morning and saw the "we're open" sign that I realized Broadway Coffee was up and running again, so I decided to stop in. The amazingly friendly staff greeted me with smiles and warm welcomes as they took my order, patiently waiting as I perused the menu until the words smacked me like a ton of bricks. Vanilla Horchata Latte.
"Yeah. I'm going to need that horchata latte as big as you can make it."
As I waited, I set up shop. Hickman, who had also greeted me when I walked in, was hard at work in a similar setup to the one I was creating. Laptop in eyesight, cell phone in hand, juggling a multitude of tasks. I sat myself down in front of my own blank screen and tried to work. Sometimes writing, sometimes researching, but always observing. The entire two hours I spent there one thing, beyond how good the horchata latte was, stood out.
Despite all the work he was doing, there wasn't one person that came into the cafe that Hickman didn't greet with a smile. Not one person who didn't get a "how you doing?" or "how's the kids?" or some sort of question that revealed that Hickman had been paying attention to whatever their last conversation was. People came in to hug him first, and grab coffee second. It was something I hadn't really seen much in recent years. Not since True Love Cafe in Sacramento nearly two decades ago had I felt like I had found such a welcoming space to just... drink coffee, write, and exist.
I spent the next few days coming back, watching the same thing happen over and over again before I decided to ask him for an interview. He agreed, and we made time to get back together later that evening.
"It's interesting how it all comes full circle..." Hickman commented as we took a tour of the building that will soon be a year-round provider of hydroponically grown produce, "...this building used to be a skate shop years ago. When they closed, they put the portable kiosk that they used outside up for grabs. I didn't have one and was pretty much starting from scratch with the company at that time so I snagged it up. It was the first kiosk I ever had for Classy Hippie... and now here we are signing the lease on that same building."
After we took a brief tour of the space, a building without lights currently full of randomness and construction supplies, we walked less than two blocks back to the coffee shop. The weather was perfect, and the excitement in Hickman's voice as he talked about his new endeavor was palpable. While I as the writer had walked through that building seeing nothing but a huge mess that would take forever to clean, Hickman saw a building full of possibilities. He saw a space that would allow him to continue to make a difference.
"I got it as a kid," Hickman responds when I ask him why he does it, "my parents were really supportive, of me and each other. They lead by example. They stuck together and they made the decision to always see things through. I think I got that from them.... this project isn't going to be easy of course but I'm seeing it through. It gives me purpose. It's something that I can contribute that's positive and has an impact. It's the highest version of myself that I know how to share."
And I felt the power of each word as he said it.
He really meant it.
With the coffee shop having only been opened for a month, and the new space expected to be fully functional by January the team certainly has their work cut out for them.
Part of the mission for the new space will be to not only act as a grow room. Over time it will act as a space where the public can come to tour, to learn how to grow their own miniature hydroponic garden at home, and eventually act as the supply house for the modern-day apothecary of teas, herbs, and blends that Hickman will have available at Broadway Coffee.
What began as a typical coffee shop on the corner is transforming itself into a one-stop-shop where previously marginalized communities can come to seek health, wellness, solace...
...and a damn good vanilla horchata latte.
Broadway Coffee is located at 3200 Broadway, in Sacramento and is open from 6am to 1pm daily.
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