Semilla Café + Studio Co-Owners Aimee Chambers and Elijah Hilliman combined their passion for coffee and creating a community space. The two spent years forming a friendship, which began when Elijah was a barista at Story and Soil. Over coffee and conversation, they discovered their similar goals, discussed future possibilities for opening their own café, and decided to go for it.
The Hartford community, including MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price, is glad they did. Soon after the Hartford Chamber of Commerce ribbon cutting, she stopped by the café to chat with Aimee about the café’s startup journey.
NAN PRICE: When and why did you decide to open a coffee shop in Hartford?
AIMEE CHAMBERS: I’ve always wanted to create space for underrepresented people to gather, feel at home, and embrace their community. I’ve been involved with different events and initiatives over time to support that. Elijah basically grew up in La Paloma Sabanera, his family’s café on Capital Avenue in Hartford, which closed in 2013. He’s spent a lot of his adult life learning about coffee.
As Elijah and I became friends, we realized how much his goal of creating a coffee shop dovetailed nicely with my wanting to support local, in particular Black and Brown, makers and artists and to provide a space that for community.
About five years ago, as we were talking we thought: Should we do this? After many conversations, we decided we should and began to work on it. When you set out to do something of this magnitude, sometimes it can feel like a mountain just getting started.
NAN: As far as facing that mountain, how did you get over some of those initial hurdles? How have your backgrounds helped?
AIMEE: Both of us grew up in family-owned small businesses. Elijah spent a lot of time in his family’s shop. My family owned a grocery store on Albany Avenue and owns some commercial property on Blue Hills Avenue. When you have a family that owns small business, a lot of your life becomes engrossed in that.
As a kid, I remember learning math through unit pricing and things like that. My grandparents did all the books for the business themselves. I spent a lot of nights sitting at my grandmother’s feet while she was at her desk doing the accounting for the shop. Obviously, that doesn’t teach you everything about running a business. But it helps to have that starting point, so it doesn’t feel as foreign. Now owning this business feels home. It feels like my childhood.
It’s no secret that I’m the Planning and Zoning Director for the City of Hartford. Having that skillset helped with the hurdle of understanding a lot of what the process involved. For a lot of small businesses, I think understanding the process and all the different players and entities involved in terms of permitting, paperwork, and licensing, both at the state and the city level, can be daunting. That’s not even to say I knew all of it, but I recognize that we were fortunate to know about things like having to go to City Hall and register the business and knowing we needed to get a food license if we wanted to serve food.
NAN: How did you become aware of the space on Main Street?
AIMEE: In our own capacities, Elijah and I were both aware of the San Juan Center, which has been a staple in the North End for several decades. It was Elijah’s idea to approach them about space. Our first conversation with Executive Director Fernando Betancourt was more than three years ago.
When we started on this journey, Elijah and I both said we wanted to be in or proximal to the North End because we both grew up there. It was important to us to create a space like this and feel that we’re serving not only the city as a whole, but our direct community.
We felt this space made sense from the standpoint of wanting to add some service to this block, which already has a lot of vibrancy. Also, part of the development of this concept in this space was about going back to our mission of highlighting all the wonderful things that have come out of this city and from people of color in this city.
In particular, we wanted to do it here. We recognize the sensitives and concerns about gentrification and new services and new people using space that don’t necessarily serve the people who have been living here. We wanted to make sure that the space feels welcome to people who are here on this block and who have been in the North End as they see development encroaching in that direction.
NAN: Semilla has created more than just café. It’s like a community hub.
AIMEE: We use the tagline, “a neighborhood living room.” The café aspect of it is integral to that. At the same time, the goal is to fill out the space with programming in a way that allows people to feel like they can come and use the space and just be themselves. We’ve already had a lot of people reach out to us about wanting to use the space for things like artists talks, gallery openings, movie nights, and open mic nights. In the future, we hope the space enables all of those types of uses.
NAN: The café is also elevating Connecticut-based Black- and Brown-owned bakers and makers.
AIMEE: Yes. Another goal for the space was to create additional opportunity for Black and Brown makers to be highlighted and to collectively show all of the really cool things people are already doing in this area. So, for example, our pastries are made by Lisa Bakes Bars, we sell juice from Juicy J Juice Bar, Big Up Brew coffee beans, candles from North End Rose, and clothing made by several Hartford natives and Connecticut-based vendors such as demuerte and Radar Vision Boys. We’ve partnered with Cafeteria Radio in furtherance of this goal.
I’m just glad that we’re able to do what we’re doing here and grateful for people wanting to utilize and interact with the space and being supportive of the way we’re trying to go about operating the space. I’m also grateful for resources like the Hartford Chamber of Commerce. Director of Small Business Development Shannon Mumley has wonderful energy. She’s a great resource and has also been supportive of our initiative and of the business. When I mentioned to Shannon that part of our goal is to bring visibility to makers who are people of color operating in and around the Hartford area, she knew of a whole list of vendors. She said: Let’s fill the space. That’s a great example of the community’s support of the business and of this space—and of Hartford.