Café X mom, daughter on quest to build Black wealth, by any ‘Beans’ necessary
Cynthia Ajani and Khea Pollard will use their new co-op coffeehouse in Sherman Heights as a community-building space
Cynthia Ajani and Khea Pollard are experts on the custom-roasted, fair trade organic coffee they serve at their Sherman Heights business Café X: By Any Beans Necessary. But don’t ask the mother-daughter business partners how their coffee tastes.
Neither of these Southeast San Diego natives likes to drink it. Instead, they see coffee as the tool they’re using to build community with the customers who have been pouring into their shop, which held its grand opening last month in the 1835 Studios building at Imperial Avenue at 19th Street in San Diego.
Café X is a co-operative project designed to bring together members of San Diego’s Black and other communities of color for conversations, education, sharing of resources and — most important — building community wealth.
“There used to be a thriving Black community on Market Street that was known as Harlem of the West, but it’s not like that anymore,” Pollard said. “I saw a Starbucks down there and thought we should be a part of that space so I can see my culture reflected back at me. We started thinking about how do we transform the Black community? We have a lot of collaborations and nonprofits, but they’re not generating wealth or passing it down to the next generation. We don’t own and operate. Café X is how that wealth that can be passed down. It’s an economic force.”
Pollard has a long history of community-building in San Diego. After earning three degrees from the University of San Diego, including a master’s in nonprofit leadership and management, she spent six years as health and human services policy adviser to former county Supervisor Greg Cox. Then, after spending a year as justice program manager for the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C., she joined Jewish Family Service of San Diego last fall, where she’s now director of San Diego For Every Child, a program that aims to cut child poverty countywide in half by 2030.
Pollard said she plans to use Café X as a “convener” space where she can hold meetings for a cross-section of the Southeast San Diego community to research ideas on how to help lift mothers and their children out of poverty.
Pollard is also an alumna of the RISE Urban Leadership Fellowship Program, a program at USD that supports urban leadership training for people of color and in disenfranchised communities. She has taken the lessons she learned at RISE to create a Café X internship program, where young people can train as baristas and learn entrepreneurial skills so one day they can buy into the co-op and open their own Café X coffee carts in other parts of the city.
Ajani also has a history in community organizing. She has worked for many San Diego nonprofits, including the Urban Collaborative Project and San Diego Black Health Association. She also managed a finance-related department at Rady Children’s Hospital. Ajani now runs Café X full time, while Pollard oversees community outreach programs.
Café X is named after Pollard’s personal hero, Malcolm X, who was himself a model of self-transformation. Before he was assassinated at age 39 in 1965, Malcolm X grew from teen burglar to prisoner to prominent national civil rights leader in the Nation of Islam to, finally, a unifying Islamic leader who preached the power of brotherhood among races.
One of the drinks Café X serves is a carbonated beet and raspberry juice beverage called Detroit Red. That was Malcolm Little’s street name before he went to prison and later emerged as Malcolm X. The café's signature coffee drink is the Shabazz, which is drawn from El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, the final name Malcolm X adopted before his death.
Café X got its start in 2018 as a pop-up stand at farmers markets and community events. In October 2019, Pollard and Ajani opened their first store in the College Area, but it closed six months later when the pandemic hit. They were forced to sell all of their equipment and furnishings and start over after the landlord sold the building.
In mid-2020, the partners relaunched Café X as an e-commerce coffee retailer, selling Ethiopian and New Guinea beans roasted and packaged by Daymar Coffee in El Cajon. Then, when the opportunity to take over the large anchor space at 1835 Studios became available last fall, Pollard and Ajani signed a lease and held a soft opening in November and a grand opening on Feb. 28.
Janessa Mamaradlo, community manager for 1835 Studios, said Café X was the final puzzle piece for the 7,000-square-foot multiuse project, which opened two years ago and houses three retail boutiques, a gallery, barber shop and climbing gym.
“They hold space where we can create community. They made our house a home,” Mamaradlo said of Café X. “Their core values line up perfectly with our four pillars, which are culture, community, creativity and collaboration. Our goal is to have a safe community where our tenants can learn from each other and learn from their mistakes.”
Among these tenants is local fashion industry veteran Joseph Ortega, who opened his first retail space at 1835 Studios in September. His Creators Only shop sells unisex streetwear geared for young artists, entrepreneurs and actors. He also markets clothing and food items from other local entrepreneurs, including Ubemama, Legendaire and Against the Grain. Ortega said that since Café X opened, a lot more foot traffic has been coming into the building.
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