The Coffee Shop Issa Rae Helped Turn Into a Community Destination Hilltop Coffee's Yonnie Hagos and Ajay Relan talk about creating a community space, partnering with Issa Rae, and how coffee is a ritual.

By Shawn P. Walchef

Key Takeaways

  • Good tech gives staff more opportunities to provide the “human touch” and makes them more accessible to provide high-quality service.
  • Hilltop Coffee created a new community spot for people looking to spend extra time at their establishment.
  • People see coffee as a comforting ritual. That ritual isn’t just about what’s in their cup at Hilltop — it’s about how the entire environment makes them feel.
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Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen founders Yonnie Hagos and Ajay Relan were intentional in creating a mission-driven space.

The Hilltop team (including entertainer/entrepreneur Issa Rae) consistently exceeds guest expectations with welcoming community spaces and family-like hospitality that is enhanced by new restaurant technology.

You can expect good food and good vibes when you settle into your seat at Hilltop Coffee.

Hilltop Coffee has been mission-driven from Day 1. The "community-driven cafe" was founded to help people "Keep Climbing."

"We've both found a way to give back in the community where we grew up," Ajay said.

After the men became fathers and their lives changed, they started thinking about all the time they had started to spend at coffee shops.

"A lot of things that kind of advance humanity often start inside of a coffee shop," Ajay Relan told Shawn Walchef of Cali BBQ Media on a visit to the coffee shop/restaurant chain. "So we were thinking about the space that we wanted to create, something that had this energy built into it."

Find Your Hilltop

Both Ajay Relan and Yonnie Hagos were raised in the Los Angeles area. They each found hospitality and entrepreneurship early on. The pair cemented their partnership at The Parlor restaurant and sports bar in Hollywood.

The Hilltop name came to Yonnie and Ajay while standing on top of a literal hill outside their first location in Inglewood. It soon took on a more metaphorical meaning.

"We thought about what Hilltop actually meant. It was this thing that connected us all as human beings. We're all climbing something," Ajay said during recording for the Toast Family Style streaming series.

"We all have goals and we all have obstacles that we need to overcome to achieve those goals. We're all climbing our own Hilltops."

Issa Rae got involved with Hilltop Coffee as a partner because of her shared love of coffee shops, business, and community. She also grew up in Inglewood. Issa is such an important part of the community that she was even given the key to the city in 2022 by the mayor.

South LA was chosen for the first Hilltop location because both Ajay and Yonnie knew it deserved more options for places where people could spend their time.

"We wanted to create a place for people to come and do coffee shop stuff," Ajay said.

They knew they wanted to offer quality ingredients. They knew they wanted to hire locally and develop new leaders. And they knew they wanted a place that people felt welcome to call their own.

Hilltop Coffee is far more than a coffee shop. For example, how many coffee places offer an extensive menu and a full liquor license? On top of its unique offerings, Hilltop sets itself apart from its sincerity of intent.

"You just have to give the customer all the credit in the world… they could be spending their money anywhere. And if for 1 minute they don't feel like you're authentic then you start to lose them," Ajay said.

Technology like Toast has given a great advantage to Hilltop in terms of making sure they can connect with as many customers as possible. They provide the human touch on a large scale with the help of tech tools.

Hilltop found success because the founders built something for themselves.

"Everything we built we built for ourselves," Ajay said. "A lot of it has come from our lived experiences… It passes our taste tests, both from a product standpoint, but also from an experience standpoint."

Yonnie said the Hilltop team is built slowly over time to ensure that the right environment is being fostered. You have to manifest the culture you want, he added.

"We're very slow to hire. We take our time, we make sure we have the right people. Every hire matters."

They are proud to say that every store manager at all four Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen locations started off as an entry-level barista or cook.

"It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it," Yonnie said. "Like, we're actually living out this mission.

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About Restaurant Influencers

Restaurant Influencers is brought to you by Toast, the powerful restaurant point of sale and management system that helps restaurants improve operations, increase sales and create a better guest experience.

Toast — Powering Successful Restaurants. Learn more about Toast.

Shawn P. Walchef

Founder of Cali BBQ Media

“Be the show, not the commercial.”

Cali BBQ Media Founder Shawn Walchef helps brands and leaders leverage the new Business Creator Economy with strategic Smartphone Storytelling and Digital Hospitality.

His Cali BBQ restaurant company has generated more than $35 million since opening in 2008. They operate numerous locations in San Diego and beyond.

Shawn’s weekly video series Restaurant Influencers (published by Entrepreneur Media and produced by Cali BBQ Media) has been seen by over 25 million people.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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The Coffee Shop Issa Rae Helped Turn Into a Community Destination

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