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By CNote, Small Businesses

Small Biz Story | Mamacitas Cafe

A Different Startup, With a Quirky Mission

Mamacitas Cafe, a specialty coffee and baked goods retailer in Oakland, is different. A lot of other coffee shops may say the same. Be it their brewing methods, the coarseness of their grind, or the music heard playing in the background, this cafe is on a mission to elevate women of color.  This coffee shop offers it’s employees professional training, community building, and the ability to directly take part in day-to-day business tinkering and planning.

Impact First. Profit Second.

As with any coffee shop, Mamacitas Cafe was not immune to the challenges of a newly formed business. From payroll, equipment purchases, and construction to the unexpected removal from a commercial space it took serious commitment and foresight to stick to their guns and forge their own path. According to founder Shana Lancaster, at one point cash flow was barely enough to cover the rent for a temporary space let alone afford milk for the next day of business! Regardless, the founder’s resolve remained strong as taking on debt was not going to be an option. 

Why? Well, to start, they knew they wouldn’t qualify. But most importantly, traditional sources of capital would have put too much pressure to focus on what did not matter, such growing way too fast. So, Mamacitas Cafe went the alternative route and successfully completed two Kickstarter Campaigns and took out a Kiva Zip loan.

The co-founders are equally invested in their Oakland community as they are in their business. Growing up in the city and having participated in a variety of women and other minority groups, they have a clear point of view on the community issues. Young women of color are clearly a forgotten pool of talented, creative, and driven people who are continuously challenged to prove themselves time and time again. And the Mamacitas’ focus on empowerment, love and growth is what has put them on the map.  All the while tripling their revenue in just two years!

Success by Partnerships

Mamacitas Cafe, although awaiting their first commercial kitchen space, has been successful for the past two years due to their strong relationships in a values aligned community. From a subsidized shared kitchen space in exchange for food retail training to women of color to pop-ups around the East Bay this business will always do good for its community.

Small Business is Good Business

In the end, we should be remembering what it is a company does outside of its’ concrete walls. Mamacitas Cafe can do that in so many words that it is hard to choose the right ones. Growth. Empowerment. Resiliency. Earned Income potential. Education.

It doesn’t matter though. Because no matter what you or I think of them, they will always put their Sisters first. With quirky, heavenly donuts on the side.

By CNote, Small Businesses

Small Biz Story | Z011 Coffee Roasters in San Francisco

A whole new coffee experience

For San Franciscans, coffee drinking has become a ritual and an experience to be savored. And discovering coffee shops offering new flavors, aromas, and brewing methods has become a popular pastime in the city. In 2015, Belen and her husband decided to offer a completely unique coffee drinking experience to the San Francisco coffee-loving community. Combining their passions for baking and coffee, they opened Zo11 Coffee Roasters on Fillmore St. While starting the business meant a major step into the unknown, Belen believed that because they were doing what they loved they would be able them to face and overcome any challenge together. And they did exactly that.

A founder driven by passion

“Follow your passion” became Belen’s compass to navigate. And for Belen this meant working tirelessly and taking deliberate steps towards attaining her goal. Upon arriving from Ethiopia in 2001, Belen embraced her love for style and clothes and enrolled in a San Francisco-based program to become a fashion designer. After her first son was born, she exited the fashion profession to spend more time with her family. But her new job at the dental office was not satisfying to say the least. This is when her husband Alex started conversations about opening a cafe.

Local business offers an authentic experience flavor

For Ethiopians, coffee is not just a drink that wakes you up in the morning to prepare you for work. Coffee is ingrained in their identity and culture. The couple envisioned a space where they could replicate the atmosphere and the magic of the coffee ritual as it is experienced in Ethiopia. Alex has been supplying authentic Ethiopian coffee to local farmers markets for years, so finding high quality beans was not a problem. Belen, who had basically lived in her mom’s kitchen since she was a child grew up baking and experimenting with recipes. Banana bread became her specialty.

Alex and Belen had the skills and experience to pursue their passion, but getting the actual real estate seemed impossible at times. Having lived in the Fillmore neighborhood for a few years, Belen knew exactly where she wanted to have her cafe. However, the spot was owned by the local Ethiopian church and renting it out was not an easy task. It took two years of negotiations, lots of patience, and many repairs before they could even step foot into the space.

Difficult decisions for a local business

When it came to funding their business, Belen and Alex decided not to take any outside money because they were scared of being taken advantage of by a complex financial system. Instead, they maxed out their credit cards and put their life’s savings into the business. It was a risk they were willing to take, which ultimately enabled them to open their cafe. Belen was waking up every morning at 4 am to make pastries with freshly sourced ingredients from local farmers markets, getting inspiration from Youtube and Pinterest, and modifying recipes to make them healthier with her unique twist.

Lessons of a small business owner

Now, almost two years later, Belen says that despite the hardships she would not change a thing. Through her experiences she has noticed that life is all about learning. You can’t change the past so you’d better treat it as a lesson, brush off negative feelings and carry on. Today, Belen and Alex continue to dream big and are planning to expand with a second floor of seating and to redesign the whole cafe area.

A business that fosters community (and delicious donuts) 

With a confident smile, Belen proudly shares that the coffee shop for her and Alex is not just a business – it is a community they built through their determination and compassion. They genuinely care about their customers and cherish each conversation and interaction. And Z011 customers especially love Belen’s authentic donuts made every Sunday. Hope you can try them soon too!


By Borrower Stories, CDFIs, CNote

Ingrid Murray – Prospect Cleaning Service – More than a loan, an investment in mutual success

Community lending – Helping small businesses grow

Running a small business is a huge challenge. Even with the best-laid business plan and capital to spare, if you want to follow the long road to success you are going to need some help. Be it financial planning or access to skilled employees, a small business’ ability to leverage this help is critical to surviving and growing. We spent time with Prospect Cleaning Service to learn more about their experience working with Pursuit, one of CNote’s CDFI partners. Read More

By Small Businesses

Small Biz Story: MAFIA Bags, a small business with big ideas about sustainable design

MAFIA Bags is more than just a series of stylish, functional, and sturdy bags, totes, backpacks and accessories. It is a company which represents community and cohesiveness around two inspirational goals. To give new life to materials and to transform the way we do business.

Started in 2012 by brother and sister Marcos and Paz Mafia, MAFIA Bags began with an idea to upcycle used sails into backpacks. Their idea originated from the need for a durable backpack to carry their wetsuits while traveling to surfing locations around the world. And since day one, as they have perfected the design, MAFIA Bags has also fostered the tradition of community by bringing on friends and employing locally to scale the business. Even as the business has expanded from their hometown in Buenos Aires to a small rented garage in Outer Sunset and multiple locations around the world, MAFIA Bags has remained dedicated to maintaining its core values of sustainable design with minimal impact.

If you spend thirty minutes at their store in SoMa you will see this immediately. Your jaw will drop at the colorful variety of bags and totes hanging on the walls, which will make you doubt that these are made of upcycled materials. You will likely spend too much time exploring exhibits of past design collaborations with major brands like Airbnb, or you’ll marvel at the boxes of sails from around the world ready for assembly by any of their talented designers. It will be hard not to feel inspired.

For a small business based out of the bustling SoMa district in San Francisco, California, to continue their journey as a challenger brand may feel like a tall order. Yet, it is difficult to say that MAFIA has not lived up to the hype just yet.

Beginning with a successful Kickstarter campaign, MAFIA Bags has collaborated with many global brands. These include Patagonia, Sperry’s, Vans, the Stanford Design School and more local groups like On your next trip to Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Shibuya (Japan), San Francisco or London make sure to check out one of their retail locations where you can admire the innovative and stylish design. And if you don’t find yourself in any of these cities, you can check out each unique product line at one of their partner retail locations thanks to the past collaborations.

At the end of the day, amazing brands like MAFIA Bags give us hope that there is still opportunity for a small business to make an impact and grow through a sustainable business model. We thank the innovators at MAFIA Bags for leading the way.