Krystle Rodriguez, the co-founder and operator of Hodgepodge Coffeehouse, had the dream of creating a community space for as long as she can remember. She wanted a space where people could go to simply exist or create or connect. Over time, that idea evolved, but it was never far from Krystle’s mind.
After graduating from Georgia State University with a degree in Sociology, Krystle began working in the non-profit sector in Atlanta, specifically with non-profit organizations that focused on child welfare. She assumed that once she got pregnant and started a family that she would receive the same support she had given to their clients. Sadly, she was mistaken. Krystle was told that she couldn’t bring her child to work, and she had to choose between working (and thus daycare) or staying home. She decided to stay home.
Going down to a one-income household was stressful, but Krystle and her husband made it work. The time also gave her the space to bring her dream for a community space to fruition. Along with two friends, they created the concept, wrote a business plan, searched for spaces, and signed a lease. Due to opening delays, one friend dropped out, which was completely understandable, she had a family, and that was her priority. At that point, Krystle’s mom stepped in as the company’s third partner.
Today, Krystle Rodriguez is one of the founding owners and the current operator of Hodgepodge Coffeehouse in Atlanta, Ga. Splitting from her original business partner four years ago, and with her mother retired, she is now the company’s driving force. Hodgepodge currently has two locations and two more slated to open over the next two years.
But that’s not all that Krystle is working on. She’s also creating other concepts that focus on connecting marginalized groups to resources and each other. Learn more in our interview with her below!
Our Interview with Krystle Rodriguez, Co-Founder & Operator of Hodgepodge Coffeehouse
Why are you passionate about Hodgepodge?
I’m passionate about Hodgepodge, because it’s a place I sincerely wanted to see in the world, and that’s pretty amazing that I was able to create that. Yes, we have delicious food and beverages for our customers, but we are also community-focused. We are loud, and we are unapologetic about supporting and protecting any marginalized community. We have a living wage initiative for our staff. We’re here to be a second home for our customers and also to facilitate change in our communities.
How has the COVID-19 climate affected Hodgepodge – and how have you had to pivot during this time?
When COVID-19 hit in March, our sales dropped 70%. We were scared. But I also knew that if we closed our doors, bills would still be piling up, and our reopening would be slim. I have a compromised immune system, so I was home with our girls, while Daniel (my husband) covered the things that needed to be done. Every time I heard of a new grant or loan, I applied immediately. I put my employees on partial unemployment, and I just observed the businesses from 1000 feet in the air. Hours we were dead, I cut from our hours of operation. We dropped down to one employee per shift.
While this was all happening, we also realized we could still support those who have supported us for so long. We created the Hodgepodge Pantry, so people could buy essentials that weren’t on the shelves in supermarkets but were readily available to us through our vendors. This also included special pricing for people who were economically impacted by COVID-19.
We started selling fabric masks to help keep our customers safe and also help the merchants who have basically lost all their income that they would have gotten from the festivals that were closed due to the pandemic. 100% of those sales go back to the merchants. We just wanted to be a place where people could purchase them.
I didn’t know how we would pull through, but I knew that we were going to. Slowly, the loans rolled in, which helped me start sleeping again, but I was just really f**king proud of how we were able to rally for our neighborhood. We even made lunches for kids who depend on schools for lunch, as well as weekly care packages of food and essentials to families in need. And our staff was awesome about all of it.
Tell me a little about Take That Leap. Are you planning on offering more courses?
Take That Leap was something I created at the end of 2019. My therapist had this running concept that my brain worked differently from others. And my response was, “well sure, if it was a normal brain, I probably wouldn’t be the absolute mess you see before you.”
But, as we got deeper into it, she meant the way I connect ideas and how I connect with people, is different. Also, the way that I go from idea to concept to an outcome when most people stop at the idea. I always assumed people thought the same way I did; they just had the good sense not to do all the sh*t I end up doing. But, apparently, that’s not true.
Over the years, I have sat down with anyone who has wanted to pick my brain about an idea or business concept. The feedback was always positive, so I decided to start consulting. Since my focus continues to be on those with fewer resources, my pricing is pretty low. However, there’s something about paying for something that makes you take it more seriously, and I want people to come to me with something they’re really passionate about, that they really want to see in the world.
My first course, “Take That Leap” was a six-week course focused on identifying, understanding, and breaking down the mental barriers we have systematically built over the years, especially as women and femmes. I think it went pretty well! And we still speak to each other in our Slack group.
I’m still totally down for virtual one-on-one consultations, and once we can all hang out in the same room, I would love to do courses again. I’ve also thought about online classes, but I have Leaven, a collaborative kitchen, which is my exclusive focus right now since we’re trying to open by September. And the third Hodgepodge will start buildout in August.
So, the courses may have to pick back up in 2021….
How do you balance being a mother, a wife, and running a business– while also taking care of yourself?
Honestly? Not always well! But I’ve learned to give myself some grace, and I think that’s the most important thing.
Know you’ll rarely have enough hours in the day. The days where you wake up, work out, take a shower, work on your business, stop at 4pm to cook dinner, have a family dinner, and then cuddle on the couch with your husband – those happen roughly once quarterly. And that high will hopefully carry you through the next ninety days. Ironically, working on this kitchen means I haven’t cooked more than twice in the last three weeks. My therapist has me trying to only work for 4 hours a day, but when there’s a deadline, there’s a deadline.
Also, I have a couple of chronic conditions that cause Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, so some days I can be knocking things off my to-do list left and right, and the next three, I can barely get out of bed, and my brain fog is so bad I can barely answer emails. So it’s all ebbs and flows.
I worked out twice last week, which was the first time in probably a month. Because of that, I could barely move for the next two days (CFS is the opposite of fun).
And because of deadlines, my insomnia is back with a vengeance. I didn’t fall asleep until two last night, and by 6am, I was up replying to dozens of emails and making equipment lists and signing off on vendor agreements.
There are many times where I have to tell my kids no, because I have to work. It is what it is. But I will say, because I couldn’t always drop everything for my two girls, they are really self-sufficient kids. At seven and ten, they make their own breakfasts, snacks, do crafts, make up games, just all the things. During the day, they only need me if what they want involves the stove. I see parents complaining about not being able to wait until the pandemic is over so their kids can go back to school. I honestly don’t have those feelings. Sometimes their fighting can get annoying, but that’s the dynamic between sisters.
All that being said, I do make sure to carve out space for everyone. A couple of nights ago, we had a dance party in the living room. We’ve spent this time introducing them to all the classic movies like Sister Act II, The Brave Little Toaster, Misery (we have broad tastes), and a bunch of others.
My husband and I marathon things we both like, and sometimes we cook together, even though it stresses me out.
On the work front, I’m a pro at delegating. It was hard once, but that’s the only way to work on these many projects and not have it all fall apart. I have a really great support system around, including the teams at Hodgepodge. My goal is to work really hard now, creating these foundations, and then taking a step back at 40 so I can be really present for the girls when they’re in those awful tween and teen years. But I also have to remind myself that means being here and healthy at that time. Most nights, I stretch, I’m in therapy, I read. I know I need to stress less, but I think that’ll come in 2021 as well.
I know giving back to the community is extremely important to you – from supporting local businesses to offering space for protests to make signs and offering free coffee to those that march. Can you speak a little about the importance of companies giving back to their community and why it means so much to you?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily important for companies to give back to their community. As I know, there are plenty of people who created their businesses for the exclusive point of making a lot of money. If your goal is making a lot of money and not creating waves, then there you go.
I went into business to create a space for people and hopefully be able to pay my bills simultaneously. I never wanted to be super rich, and that’s not how I define success – Success to me is having this platform and these resources and using them for those who don’t have the same.
I’ve been a part of a network that has been supplying the chicken processing plant employees with PPE (since their owners won’t). I made a post about it last week, and people donated to the cause, shared the information, and called representatives to try to make it mandatory that these companies supply the workers and their families with PPE.
And just yesterday, I got a random DM on Instagram from a manager from a manufacturing plant down by Six Flags asking where we got all the masks because they want to order them for their employees. Like that’s f**king awesome, that’s real change. And If I hadn’t taken a stand, that honestly may not have happened.
When you first open your doors, you’re so worried that they will close again that you don’t want to make waves. Over the last four years, I had to let go of that worry and trust that I was doing the right thing, at least the right thing to me. It’s like, “If I speak out about misogyny, racisms, transphobia, ICE, xenophobia, fascism, and Islamophobia and I lose customers, were those customers I really wanted in the first place? Are these the people I want to throw my staff and other customers in the path of?” The answer is a resounding no. And we’ve definitely lost some customers, but we’ve gained some too.
You recently dealt with a racist act at Hodgepodge in April with a plague that had gone up on your Reynoldstown’s location. You posted to social media about it and had a sizable portion of ignorant comments from people that attacked you. Can you speak a bit about how you handled that and highlight some of the positive support you received?
The magic of social media is that you don’t actually have to read or respond to anyone. I wrote the post about the plaque, I posted that on the neighborhood page, on our business’ Instagram and Facebook, and on my personal page. I made it public so that anyone could share it, as there was pertinent information in it about what to do if you found plaques like it around the city. On the post I said it wasn’t up for debate, I didn’t care what anyone else thought on this topic, and I wasn’t going to entertain any comments. Then I turned off all notifications.
It looks like it was shared in an incel group because they all came flooding. Then it was picked up by VICE, which brought a second wave. But I didn’t read a single reply. I have no idea what those psychopaths said. What I did do, was start making shirts about the stupid things I see the same racist people saying and created an online store. (It’s fun! And since they spread it over a thousand times, I went back in, edited my post to add that link, and kept it moving. Later they noticed and got even angrier, but that sounds like a personal problem.)
Positive support always comes from friends, families, and customers. There were a couple of people who tried to play devil’s advocate in the neighborhood group, which was disappointing, but par for the course when a group of people, who have never been the subject of racism, decide their opinion on racism has any merit whatsoever.
From your own experience, what are some challenges Black women entrepreneurs specifically face, and how can they overcome them?
Access to resources is always incredibly difficult for black women. We’re one of the largest growing sectors of entrepreneurs, but only obtain 3% of the business loans given to small businesses.
I have been in business for almost a decade and have NEVER received a bank loan until COVID-19. And I’m 99% sure the reason I got it was because the local news and NPR interviewed me on the pandemic and its effect on businesses. If you look at the statistics for PPP and EIDL, black businesses were basically shut out of most of the funding.
Mind you, every other time I applied for a loan, I asked the requirements you needed to obtain one, I had everything they needed, seemed like a simple transaction, and then the underwriter would decide no. And when I asked why, the response was that underwriters don’t normally disclose the reasons they deny. At one point I was told “something” in my file made me high risk. Couldn’t think of what that may be.
This is one of the reasons I’m opening Leaven. We’re taking out all of the hurdles that have been put in the way for minorities, but especially women and the LGBTQIA+ community in those groups. There are huge one time upfront costs in the traditional shared kitchen model. It could easily take $2000 in “fees” that you have to drop before you can even step foot in that kitchen to produce something. And that doesn’t include your ingredients, equipment, etc. It’s wild.
How can white women specifically be better allies to Black women and the Black community as a whole?
I think giving Black women and the Black community space is a really big thing. We don’t need our struggles and frustrations translated for us. We need you to rent the auditorium and then give us the stage.
Remember, feedback is a gift. If a Black person tells you you’re out of line or simply incorrect, the fact that they’re correcting you means you actually care. Even if your feelings get hurt, keep showing up. Hurt feelings and the murder of innocent people are not the same.
What advice would you offer to young Black women looking to start their own business?
Just f**king do it. It takes years for any business to hit its stride. So even if where you start isn’t where you want to finish necessarily, it won’t be. Keep your mission and your vision at the forefront. There will be plenty of opportunities to jump ship for what seems more comfortable, but remember why you got in it in the first place. This doesn’t mean you don’t pivot! It means that when you make moves, remember what your definition of success is.
What’s next for you and Hodgepodge?
Well, we have two more Hodgepodges slated to open in the next two years. I also have Leaven opening in early fall and another food concept with an event space named Darling Josephine in a historic school in Adair Park. Both will be intentional spaces created for the enjoyment, comfort, and safety of women and the queer community with an emphasis on women and queer folx of color. So I’m excited about all the things coming down the pipe!