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The Little Coffee Shop That Asks Customers Not to Be Quiet At Nirvana Soul, creative decor and friendly staffers aim to help the community take their coffee with a spoonful of connection.

By Emily Washcovick

Key Takeaways

  • Stay true to your vision and the right customers will find you.
  • Make customers feel comfortable talking about service or product issues in person instead of waiting to hear about it in a review when it’s too late to correct the problem.
  • If social media feels intimidating, start small. Even posting one photo a day can help build engagement and your audience.
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Courtesy of Nirvana Soul

Nirvana Soul in San Jose, California is not a place you go to bury yourself in a book or work quietly on your computer. Colorful artwork lines the walls, and upbeat music fills the air. You're bound to meet someone new during your visit as the conversational baristas and owners float around tables to chat with customers.

Sisters Jeronica Macey and Be'Anka Ashaolu started the coffee shop in 2018 to create a space for belonging. They wanted people to have a space where they could experience community or come to make a friend. From day one, they've poured their efforts into curating an energizing and welcoming environment at the shop.

Related: How This California Hot Spot Grew From Delivery-Only to Pop-Up Shop to Storefront

Nirvana Soul's tight-knit community feel is a huge appeal for customers, including Yelp Elite and Community Intern Camy T. A local college student, Camy frequents Nirvana Soul to study, work on art, and hang out with friends. "Downtown coffee shops were missing that community aspect," she said. "But when Nirvana Soul came into town, things shifted in my perspective. It became a hub for many college students for studying, creating art, showcasing their talent at open mic night, and meeting new people, especially creatives."

Be'Anka and Jeronica's team laid the foundation for the shop's accessible and inviting feel. Their friendly staff is eager to answer questions and make an effort to "table tap," walking up to every customer to ask how they're doing and offer them water. "We just try to put in little joyful moments, so [people] have great coffee and a great experience at the same time," Be'Anka said.

The owners acknowledge that their departure from the coffee shop's traditional head-down work environment can lead to misunderstanding and sometimes critical feedback. They've had to learn how to respond when critiques come from someone who might not be in their target audience.

"Change is hard, right?" Be'Anka asked. "So sometimes, it's almost like a culture shock. We've had reviews where people say, 'This is not what a coffee shop is supposed to be.' And we're like, 'Okay, I hear you, but maybe it's just different than what you're used to and we can be a little more open-minded.'"

Related: The Owners of This Texas Farmers Market Took a Big Gamble. Here's How It Paid Off Bigger Than They Dreamed.

Reviews like these can actually be a useful way to set expectations for future customers about the shop experience. By clearly communicating how your business operates, future patrons will have a better sense of what to expect and can decide if it's a right fit for their needs. In her time running Nirvana Soul, Be'Anka has learned the value of all feedback, both positive and critical, in helping her optimize the customer experience.

Be'Anka also stressed the importance of sharing your feedback in the moment. While Camy loves the environment and food at Nirvana Soul, she mentioned in her 4-star review that the sweet flavors in her drink were overpowering. Critiques like these are easy fixes that Nirvana Soul's baristas are happy to accommodate in the moment.

"We'd so much rather [hear in person] than read about it later because now you're out there in the world with a drink that you hate. We could have gotten you something better, and you're already gone," Be'Anka said.

As a consumer, Camy feels a responsibility to provide thoughtful feedback, always striving to help businesses improve.

"I think people get a bit into the realm of people-pleasing," she said. "You want to make people feel good, but you're also sacrificing your own needs as a consumer by not letting a business know if something could be changed. We're in an era of improvement, of growth, and I think it's important to critique every now and again."

As a business, in addition to being responsive to feedback, creating touchpoints with your customers on social media is an important way to make them feel like a valued part of your community. As Be'Anka builds up Nirvana Soul's social media presence, she makes an effort to reshare posts from customers whenever she can. These expressions of appreciation go a long way with regulars like Camy.

Related: This Mom and Pop Ice Cream Shop's Success Comes Down to This Simple Phrase

"I think it's really beautiful to exchange that back-and-forth with a business," Camy said. "I come here frequently. You recognize that, you appreciate me as your customer, and I'm dedicated to your business."

Be'Anka also emphasizes the importance of being consistent and active on social media. If you find social media intimidating, start small. It's better to post one simple photo every day than to let the need for a "perfect" feed hold you back from posting.

"I just snap pictures of anything. It doesn't matter what it is. It could be a drink, it could be artwork, it could be a scene in the shop. You don't have to say much. You can describe what's in the photo. You can say 'good morning.' It doesn't even matter because tomorrow's another day and you should probably just post the next picture."

Above all, Nirvana Soul is a space for community, a key part of which is representation. During their six years in business, Be'Anka and Jeronica have featured the work of over 65 artists, including female artists and artists of color, with the intention of creating a space where diverse voices are seen and uplifted.

While the shop celebrates its role as one of a handful of Black- and woman-owned businesses in San Jose, Be'Anka recognizes that the quality of the Nirvana Soul experience is what shines through to customers at the end of the day.

"We know there's going to be people who find us because we're Black-owned," Be'Anka said. "We also know that it's not going to be a one-and-done with them because they're going to come in, love the experience so much, and know that this is a Black-created experience. And then they'll come back and bring more people—because after a certain point, it's just awesome coffee and a great experience."

In addition to staying true to your mission and vision, Nirvana Soul believes in:

  • Engaging customers during their visit to your business. Create a space where they feel comfortable chatting, asking questions, and raising any concerns they may have.
  • Maintaining an active social media presence. Consistent posts and reposts welcome customers into your online community and show your appreciation for their support.
  • Using online reviews to understand, optimize, and set expectations for the customer experience. Learn when to implement critical feedback and when to accept that you can't provide what a certain customer is looking for.

Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Be'Anka and Camy, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pandora and Soundcloud.

Editorial contributions by Callie Morgan and Kristi Lindahl

Emily Washcovick

Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

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