In the midst of the global pandemic, when businesses were shutting down and uncertainty loomed over the economy — Jamaican born, Allison Dunn emerged as a beacon of resilience and determination. As the owner of Hibiscus Brew Cafe and Coffee Shop, she defied the odds and founded a thriving establishment that has become a beloved hub for her Brooklyn, New York community.
With a passion for a Hibiscus Brew and a deep appreciation for the power of human connection, Allison set out on a mission to create a safe and welcoming space for people to gather, even in the height of uncertainty. Against all odds, she transformed a vacant space into a vibrant cafe, offering not only exceptional teas and coffee but also a variety of delectable treats and a warm ambiance that instantly puts patrons at ease.
In a recent interview, she shares her insights, experiences, and the lessons she’s learned along the way. Join us as we delve into the story of Hibiscus Brew Cafe and Coffee Shop, and discover the inspiring journey of a resilient entrepreneur who turned adversity into opportunity.
CP: How would you describe the vibe at Hibiscus Brew?
Allison: The unique vibe that you don’t find anywhere else! At Hibiscus Brew, we are a mixture of fun, warmth, and inviting energy with a big emphasis on nourishing you with island flavours. We wanted to create an experience that incorporate my Jamaican culture, so we brought the tropical island vibes to Brooklyn. The cozy atmosphere and friendly staff create a welcoming environment for our customers. The café has a relaxed and laid-back ambiance, making it a great place to enjoy our non-alcoholic sorrel beverage or catch up with friends. The soft background music adds to the calming atmosphere, making it a perfect spot to unwind and enjoy a peaceful moment. Hibiscus Brew is more than just a café, it’s a heart-warming oasis that represents a fusion of my Jamaican roots and my adopted home in Brooklyn. It’s a home away from home for many. It’s a place where the vibe is everything – those who get it, really get it!
CP: Can you tell us about the inspiration behind opening a cafe and coffee shop in Brooklyn, New York?
Allison: The inspiration behind opening a cafe in Brooklyn was simple – I wanted to bring a slice of Jamaica to this vibrant city. The timing felt right, especially during the pandemic when trying something new seemed like the perfect adventure. Entrepreneurship has always been in my blood, thanks to growing up watching my mom try different businesses. I’ve gathered experiences from various aspects of my life, leading me to become a creator and problem solver. Now, I’m here to create a space focused on a traditional Jamaican drink with a strong emphasis on wellness. As a small business owner, I often worked out of other cafes, and I wanted to bring people together to have conversations, connect, and be creative.
CP: What sets your cafe apart from others in the area, particularly as a woman and Caribbean-owned establishment?
Allison: I’ve always believed in colouring outside the lines and doing things differently. Fitting in was never my goal; I wanted to stand out but make a difference. What truly sets us apart is the vibe and the relationship we’ve built with our customers and the community. We’re not just selling sorrel, coffee and smoothies; we’re selling an experience and sparking joy. Our mission is to take care of our bodies and the environment, and our customers resonate with that. We greet our customers with warmth, infuse Caribbean principles into the space, and foster a friendly atmosphere. Being a woman and a Caribbean entrepreneur has been an advantage as there are many organizations that want to support us. I tap into those networks and resources to continually improve our space. We’ve blossomed into something truly special. I wanted to create a space that goes beyond being an average coffee shop or cafe. We wanted our space to have personality.
CP: Can you share any specific milestones or accomplishments that you are particularly proud of since opening your cafe?
Allison: There have been numerous moments that I am extremely proud of. However, the biggest one is starting this business without any prior experience. Running a business involves juggling countless pieces, and stepping into unknown territory can be terrifying for some. But I’ve always trusted myself to figure things out. I am passionate, driven, and always seek advice from others who have been there, allowing me to learn and grow quickly. Some of the greatest accomplishments include being featured in Forbes, becoming the brand face of Adidas’ winter campaign, and now partnering with Tazo.
CP: How do you incorporate Caribbean flavours and culture into your menu offerings?
Allison: We’re blessed to have my mom’s labour of love, her traditional sorrel, being made at the café. This is somewhere that you can get authentic sorrel but we have made it non-alcoholic and swap out refined sugar for agave a natural plant based sweetener which causes little impact on blood sugar levels. Our sorrel beverage is the ultimate Caribbean flavour, and we incorporate it into various offerings. If you’ve never tried sorrel before, you can enjoy it in our iced teas, sorrel soft serve ice cream, lattes, smoothies, and so much more.
CP: What type of atmosphere or experience do you aim to create for your customers?
Allison: Our aim is to create a space that sparks joy! If we don’t bring joy to our customers, then what’s the point? We make an effort to know our customers by name, and we often start preparing their drinks before they even place an order at the counter. We are attentive, every detail is important to us because we want everyone who walks through our doors to feel special and experience kindness.
CP: Could you share some of the challenges you have faced as a woman and Caribbean entrepreneur in the food and beverage industry?
Allison: As a woman and Caribbean entrepreneur in the food and beverage industry, I have faced several challenges. Since being here one of the things I hear is “We don’t look black owned” simply because our café is well put together. The question then arises: what does it mean to “look black-owned”? Why do we have this notion that for a business to be black-owned, it cannot be aesthetically pleasing or well-maintained?
But not only are we black owned, we are woman owned and Caribbean owned. This notion is something that I want to challenge and dismantle. We should celebrate and showcase that black-owned businesses can embody all the qualities we often associate with success and beauty. Our dreams and purpose can thrive right here in our community, and people should feel welcomed and encouraged to support this space because it is a safe space for us. Together, let’s break down these stereotypes and embrace the diversity and excellence within black-owned establishments.
Additionally, making decisions when no one agrees with you can be quite challenging and requires a strong sense of determination and confidence. But as a leader I have to be able to make a decision and lead my team. I have stopped second guessing myself and make a decision and move on.
CP: How do you ensure that your cafe is inclusive and welcoming to all customers, regardless of their background?
Allison: To ensure inclusivity and a welcoming atmosphere for all customers, regardless of their background, I have taken several steps. Firstly, I have created a space that I personally love and shared it with others. This helps customers feel comfortable and connected to the cafe. Additionally, I prioritize values that resonate with customers, such as wellness, sustainability, eco-friendly practices, and protecting the planet. For example, we offer a $1 discount if customers bring their own cup, which is a practice many relate to. We also ensure that our products are sustainably sourced and support local farmers. Furthermore, we actively participate in community initiatives, such as back-to-school bag drives and supporting local activities, which fosters a sense of community. These efforts attract like-minded individuals who come together in our cafe.
CP: In what ways do you collaborate with other local businesses or organizations to create a stronger sense of community and promote mutual growth?
Allison: I collaborate with other local businesses and organizations in various ways to create a stronger sense of community and promote mutual growth. Currently, I have partnered with five entrepreneurs to create a marketplace called “Common Ground Marketplace” that aims to support small businesses and bring the community together. Additionally, I volunteer my time as a mentor for the Goldman Sachs One Million Black Women program and SCORE. I also serve on the Flatbush and Empire Merchants Association board in my community. These volunteer efforts are important to me because I believe in giving back to my community and building a strong ecosystem where everyone can thrive together.
CP: You are also a mom. How do you balance being a mom and your life as an entrepreneur?
Allison: Balancing motherhood and my life as an entrepreneur can be challenging. My 6-year-old son has high expectations of me, expecting me to show up at every school event and accompany him to playdates every weekend. He has a full social life while I juggle running a business, mentoring, and managing multiple ventures. To find balance, I have designated work days from Monday to Friday and take weekends off. I avoid answering work-related emails or texts on the weekends unless it’s an emergency. I prioritize my family time and empower my staff to make decisions without me.
CP: What are some of the popular dishes or beverages that customers frequently enjoy at your cafe?
Allison: Some of the popular dishes and beverages that customers frequently enjoy at my cafe include our sorrel beverage or some of our sorrel-based options including smoothies, iced teas, lattes, soft serve as well as coffee, matcha and vegan pastries.
CP: How important is sustainability and ethical sourcing to your cafe’s operations?
Allison: Sustainability and ethical sourcing are incredibly important to our cafe’s operations. We strive to source ingredients and products in an ethical and sustainable manner. This includes supporting local farmers and suppliers who share our values and minimizing our environmental impact through eco-friendly practices.
CP: What future plans or aspirations do you have for Hibiscus Brew?
Allison: For Hibiscus Brew, our future plans and aspirations include expanding into the distribution and manufacturing of more hibiscus/sorrel-based beverages. We are actively seeking experienced partnerships that are interested in investing in a legacy company.
CP: Do you have a favourite Caribbean saying/ bible verse or quote that you would say that you live by?
Allison: I find myself drawn to ones that resonate with me at different stages of my journey. Currently, one saying that I repeat often is “nuh wait till drum beat before you grind you ax” meaning you have to stay ready for every outcome. I am always planning for the future and I want to be prepared when opportunities comes.
CP: Who are some female entrepreneurs from the Caribbean that you admire and why?
Allison: There are so many women entrepreneurs that I admire. I wish I could name them all but 3 that consistently motivates me are Karen Mitchell, True Indian Hair, Felisha Noel, FeNoel and Yvette Noel-Schure, Schure Media Group. Karen is an innovator who continuously reimagine her business to meet the needs of her customers. Felisha showed me that it is possible to bring your culture mainstream in a way that is appealing to a wider audience and Yvette is humble, smart, and down to earth and I am always amazed with her.
CP: Reflecting on when you first opened, how have you grown as an entrepreneur?
Allison: Reflecting on when I first opened, I have grown drastically as an entrepreneur. I have gained valuable experience navigating the challenges of the food and beverage industry and making tough decisions even when faced with opposition. Building a strong team and creating a welcoming and inclusive environment has also contributed to my growth. Overall, I have become more confident and successful in running my business.