Skip to main content

Brewing Community: Nirvana Soul’s Mission of Connection

Season 2: Episode 40


Listen here

Nirvana Soul in San Jose isn’t your ordinary coffee shop. It’s loud, vivacious, and encourages community expression, whether in their regular open-mic nights or the colorful art on the walls. Sisters and co-owners Jeronica and Be’Anka created their coffee shop to serve up unique flavors like the White Rose Latte and a Hazelnut Mocha. But the more important mission is to combat one of the big epidemics facing our country—loneliness. Customer Camy shares what she loves about Nirvana Soul.

On the Yelp Blog: Discover 5 ideas for creating a small business ambiance that stands out

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. On Behind the Review, I pick a review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur and the reviewer about the story and business lessons behind their interactions.

This week, we’ll hear from Be’Anka Ashaolu, who along with her sister Jeronica Macey, owns and operates Nirvana Soul, a coffee shop with two locations in San Jose. Their business plan revolves around using the power of coffee and tea to bring people together in community, and the result is a bustlin, noisy, soulful coffee shop where talking and engaging is encouraged.

One of those people brought into the Nirvana Soul was reviewer Camy T., who happens to be a community intern at Yelp and attends college nearby Nirvana Soul.

CAMY: I’m always looking to search for BIPOC owned businesses in San Jose to meet people, study, create, especially as a student at San Jose State University. And when researching more about Nirvana Soul, I learned about their unique flavors and the community events and vibe they bring to the heart of downtown San Jose.

And I believe downtown coffee shops were missing that community aspect, but when Nirvana Soul came into town, things kind of shifted in my perspective, and it became a hub for many college students, including my friends and I, for studying, creating art, showcasing their talent at open mic night, and meeting new people, especially creatives.

And there weren’t a whole lot of mom and pop coffee shops near campus at the time, so I was very excited.

EMILY: We’ve heard from so many of our reviewers and Yelp users that they are actively seeking out small businesses in their communities. Then visiting their establishments, and leaving reviews of their experiences.

Let’s listen to Camy’s review of Nirvana Soul:

CAMY:  Nirvana Soul is one of my all time favorite spots to study, hang out with friends, or work on my art. Their excellent music taste always gets me grooving in my seat, and the baristas are exceptionally kind and welcoming. If you aren’t a coffee drinker, my go-tos are the Happy Soul, London Fog, or Turmeric Latte.

For all my coffee connoisseurs out there who enjoy unique coffee flavors, the Ube Latte, Lavender Latte, and White Rose Latte are all my favorites. You can also ask for a lower percentage of sweetness if you want to taste that extra punch of coffee.

The drinks are always a bit too sweet for me. And all their espressos are also delicious. And certainly keep me going for the day. Their waffles are scrumptious and have unique flavors. After trying all of them, I usually get the chorizo waffle. I’ve been popping in since they first opened. I recommend a spot for local students, downtown SJ employees, and anyone looking for a quick treat.

EMILY: There once was a popular show where a group of friends hung out at their local coffee shop, talking and laughing for hours. But the reality of coffee shop life these days is quite the opposite. So many shops are quiet, with people working on laptops or phones. Not really interacting with each other much.

That is not what Be’Anka and Jeronica had in mind when they opened Nirvana Soul. Not many business owners think about creating a community space when they first open. It’s mostly about making the finances work and keeping the quality of the product high.

But community is crucial to Nirvana Soul, and the entire reason that the coffee shop opened up.

BE’ANKA: The interesting thing for us was that when we initially set out to do this business together back in 2018, really, the idea was that we wanted to sort of be, not a cure, but kind of, for loneliness. Because at that time, loneliness was at an all time high, right? And this is pre-pandemic so of course what happened after that it just exploded when people really couldn’t leave their house. So in our minds it was always a space for belonging. We always wanted people to know ‘hey if I feel lonely or if I feel like I need to be around people – and there’s no one I can reach out to – you can come to Nirvana Soul. And you can make a friend or you can feel like you’re vibing with a community of people around you.

That is reflected in, we talked about our team and how they are friendly with you. And willing to talk to you and explain things. All the way down to the fact that we table tap. We go to individual tables and we ask people how they’re doing, we’ll offer water. We just try to put in little joyful moments in the experience that people are having.

So they have great coffee and a great experience at the same time

EMILY: I noticed that in Camy’s review, the coffee doesn’t get a mention until her fourth sentence. She told me that ambiance is one of the first things she notices and one of the most important parts of her reviews. She wants people to understand the community aspect—or lack thereof—of each small business she reviews.

In describing her initial impression, it’s easy to see why Nirvana Soul is so memorable.

CAMY:  So when I first walked up to it, there’s a bunch of seating outside, enough for you to head on out there if you wanted to sit down for coffee outside.

And when I walk through the door, it’s immediately, you see plants lining the walls. They’re super luscious. There’s art everywhere. Very BIPOC driven art from local artists. The art that really brings the flair to the business essentially and they even have murals on the wall, which I think add a really special element. And it showcases the business owners within the art as well. So I think that is very, very cool.

EMILY: A review focused on the atmosphere might not be important to some businesses, but in this case, I think it’s actually pretty brilliant that Camy started with the vibe of Nirvana Soul. If you’re going to use both nirvana and soul in your name, you have to deliver on both. Nirvana is a place of peace and perfect happiness, and soul has many meanings, including a strong positive feeling, and emotional fervor.

Unless you are a sole proprietor, though, owners have to rely on their employees to keep that vibe going, and it can be difficult to find the right staff at the right time. A coffee shop is usually a series of quick interactions, and even if many of the customers are regular, it can be hard to convey something like “soul” to each person who walks in the door.

That hasn’t been an issue for Be’Anka and their team.

BE’ANKA:  I have to say, this team is just naturally cool, right? A lot of people who come and work with us, they came for a reason. They wanted to work for Nirvana Soul. Some of them because it’s Black, woman-owned. Some of it because it’s just, the rest of the team is really cool.

And my sister really set the tone for the culture – in any shop that she’s ever worked in, she has been very personable. She loves talking to people. She’s an extrovert! And her energy, I think, is reflected in what people experience at the shop. So we don’t want to be a transactional shop.

We know that other coffee places can be that way. And of course there’s a time and a place for everything. Sometimes you do just want to get in and out, but we’re probably going to have a conversation with you. We’re probably going to walk you through some drinks. We’re definitely going to be open to your questions.

And the whole point was that we want it to be accessible and not intimidating. And I know Camy had mentioned that too. Sometimes it can be overwhelming and doesn’t feel as comfortable. And we just want to eliminate any possibility that someone would feel uncomfortable in our space.

CAMY:  The baristas are always really lovely. They have a unique style and are very personal. I think even when they are busy, they do take the time to exchange a conversation with you if I ask how their day is going and stuff. And they don’t just bypass those questions and bypass you. If they were busy, and it’s important when I go to a new business that they are kind and welcoming.

And I think my conversations with them are always very interesting and they always keep it real. So I think that’s really special to be helped out by a barista that appreciates the person that’s walking through the door and giving you some direction in the menu. And one of my favorite things to do is if I don’t know what I want in a day, I’m always like, ‘give me a surprise.’

And they always surprise me with something that I really enjoy. And it’s a fun exchange

EMILY: Business owners can get frustrated with negative reviews. Especially about things they can’t control. Camy mentioned the vibe, and Be’Anka agreed that it can get a little loud in Nirvana Soul – between the relaxed atmosphere and the regular open mic nights. If that’s not your vibe, that’s ok with Be’Anka.

BE’ANKA:  Change is hard, right? So like coffee shops have historically and even currently been very quiet and the music they play is very different than the music that we play. So sometimes it’s almost like a culture shock, oh, this is not what I think a coffee shop is. And we’ve had reviews where people say, this is not what a coffee shop is supposed to be.

And we’re like, yeah, okay, I hear you, but maybe it’s just different than what you’re used to. And we can be a little more open minded. And so people do come and they’re like, yeah, this is different from any coffee shop I’ve ever been in, but I really like it. That’s what we’re hoping to happen with folks who are used to another experience.

It’s a party in there. And so I, we always say it’s a bit of a turn up when you’re in downtown and it’s like a cool down in Cupertino. So you can get a little best of both worlds, but wherever you go, it’s going to be a party.

EMILY: In this case, if someone is writing what looks to be a negative review about the noise level, it can actually be a positive for the business. By including atmosphere in her review, Camy set expectations that this isn’t your typical coffee house. It’s more.

What’s important for business owners is to know how to take reviewer feedback into consideration, and use it for clarification to potential customers, or to make a real change in your business.

BE’ANKA:  I read just about every single review. As our marketer, I am the one who’s engaging on all of our social channels. When a review comes in and it needs to be responded to, I’m the person who’s responding. I love reading them. I’m someone who will take it if it’s praise or criticism. I just feel like all of it helps us become a better company.

I’m a big fan of Yelp. I read the reviews, no matter where they come from. And yes, we look at them all. I do think there are some common things that’ll come up in our reviews, right? So there could be some things like on one side in downtown, we’ll get that it’s loud. And in the beginning, I’d be like, okay, I should respond, I’m so sorry about that. And then I was like, no, we’re just loud and we’re not gonna change that. So this is what our shop is. Our shop is more vibrant than maybe the shop where you’re there to just quietly do your work.

We think that people are energized by noise. And so that’s what you’re gonna get downtown or we talked about earlier with Cupertino. There’s not as much seating. So that’s gonna come up sometimes but I think we’ve also just been fortunate to be able to lean into our mission and our values and our objectives and have that sort of manifest in the shop and through our team that we get really positive reviews. And I’ll respond to those sometimes, you know? I’m just like thank you. It’s just really nice of people to take the time to write something kind about our business. We all need the reviews. They mean so much to small businesses. And like Camy mentioned, they are offering a lot of direction even. It’s a big part of our business

EMILY: I think what Be’Anka describes is a natural evolution that a lot of business owners go through, when they start to realize that sometimes they’re getting negative reviews because they just aren’t the right fit for that person. And it’s helpful for other people to see that in the response. It gives credibility to who you really are as a business.

Normally our reviewers have given five stars, but in this case, Camy only gave Nirvana Soul four.

CAMY: So I think the four star for me is mainly because the flavors are really overpowering and I do think that they could be more well balanced. So it’s not so much about the environment and like all the other aspects that I really, really love. I think it’s more about finding that balance in drinks. And maybe more so the barista aspect and focusing on hearing from customers, how they can make their drinks a little bit differently or how to adjust the scale of what other customers enjoy versus over sweetness and overpowering certain flavors that you can’t really get the coffee aspect.

I think when you get into that realm of overpowering with sweetness or with special flavors, I think it takes away from the coffee punch sometimes that I really enjoy.

EMILY: That’s another review hiccup business owners encounter—complaints in reviews about things that could have been fixed in store. Camy talked about the sweetness of her drink, but that’s easily addressed by a barista, and that kind of feedback can be really frustrating for business owners.

BE’ANKA:  We always want that from people that they would feel comfortable enough to tell us if the drink isn’t working for them. We would so much rather that, than to read about it on Yelp later because, oh, now you’re out there in the world with a drink that you hate and we could have gotten you something better and you’re already gone.

I’ll always respond to that and just let the person know, you can always ask us on the spot. We will just make it over or adjust the sweetness or get you something else you like. So hopefully you’ll give us a chance to do that.

EMILY: If the atmosphere is comfortable enough, consumers should feel comfortable speaking up and giving a business the opportunity to correct a problem in the moment. But no matter how relaxed and open the vibe is, it’s still up to the consumer to make the issue known, and that’s not something a business owner can always control.

CAMY:  I personally think like being a good consumer is being thoughtful of the people around you and the places that you’re going to. And being mindful of yourself and the way that you interact with them because, not liking something and just going about your day thinking about “oh, man this one thing went wrong and i’m frustrated because I paid that money” and it’s not to my liking There is nothing wrong with going up to your barista when they say “oh, do you like it?” To say, ‘you know what? It is a little bit too sweet for me. Do you mind fixing it up and concocting it again or something?’

And I think people get a little bit into the realm of people-pleasing. You don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. You want to make people feel good, but you’re also sacrificing your own needs as a consumer by not letting a business or the baristas or people know if something could be changed. Because I think people love to improve. We’re in an era of improvement, of growth, and I think it’s important to critique every now and again, in a thoughtful way that makes people feel like you’re paying attention to what you’re being given.

EMILY: There’s no arguing the fact that social media is important to small businesses. It’s free, or almost free, marketing. It’s visual, and relatively easy to use. It builds brand awareness, can drive traffic to your website, and even create sales for you inside your business. It’s another way to communicate with your customers.

What it is not, however, is easy for everyone. Sometimes social media is a business owner’s jam, and sometimes it isn’t. Be’Anka runs social media and marketing for Nirvana Soul, and her best advice is to start small.

BE’ANKA:  I come across this a lot too when I talk to other business owners, they’re like, ‘Oh, it’d be great if I had you on my team so I can focus on my real stuff.’

I get that. I’ve been very lucky that I have my sister and she’s actually in the shops and she’s the coffee person. And so I get to just do the marketing stuff. But the advice that I often give is that : consistency takes you a long way. I just snap pictures of anything. It doesn’t matter what it is, a drink, it could be artwork, it could be a scene in the shop, an angle, just take the photo and just store them in your phone and then just post them.

And don’t be afraid to post it! You don’t have to say much, you can describe what’s in the photo. You can say good morning, like it does not even matter. Because tomorrow’s another day and you should probably just post the next picture. And so I think people respond to that kind of consistency, at least it worked for us, we would just post every day. We would just put up a picture or something. We’d share posts from our community, from our customers. We reshare. I feel like that’s probably the easier thing to do, but I also am so empathetic to business owners that are just awesome at what they do. And this is just not even on their minds.

I completely get that. So if you’re able to get help. Please by all means and if not just store photos and just post them and don’t be scared to post.

EMILY: It might not seem like it’s important, or that people are seeing your content, and that can get frustrating. But just because people aren’t liking or commenting, doesn’t mean they aren’t seeing it on social media and keeping up with your business. Or deciding to stop by.

CAMY: I actually do follow them on social media. I always like to follow a business either before I go and check them out and see what they’re offering, what the vibe is, but I follow them after I went the first week that they opened up and I actually met the owners that first week. It was a really lovely exchange and so I decided to follow them on Instagram and I ended up posting.

I post a lot when I’m at Nirvana Soul to promote the business. I like promoting businesses on social media and they were posted me on their Instagram and I’ve had lovely exchanges with them congratulating them for opening up other shops and they’re actually bringing another shop to San Jose State underneath Martin Luther King library, which is really exciting for students because it’s much closer and accessible for those running around on campus.

I’m also a content creator and focus a lot on social media and photography. So I think being shared on Instagram, whether that’s just a cup of coffee or it’s like showcasing me on their Instagram promoting their product, I think it’s really beautiful to exchange that back and forth with a business. I come here frequently. You recognize that you appreciate me as a customer and I’m dedicated to your business. It’s not necessarily like a reward. It’s more of just an appreciation, a mutual exchange. And it feels good when you comment on a business, especially like Nirvana Soul and they show their gratitude and they show their love for you. And I think that’s really special.

EMILY: Almost every business is a reflection of the owner and entrepreneur behind the business. We’ve been talking a lot lately, about how much representation matters, and it does, but it’s not the only key to success. That may be how customers find your business and may make them want to support you, but it still has to be a great experience or a great product for that return visit.

BE’ANKA: I guess I’ll start by saying we always knew this was going to be like FUBU, like “for us, by us,” we are who we are, we’re Black Women, right? And we are also from San Jose and San Jose doesn’t have a lot of Black-owned businesses.

There’s something to be proud of there in that it’s a hurdle we’ve overcome in the San Jose business community that there’s only four of us in a very big city. So in that sense, we knew this would be special and significant. The other part of it that we are just like, incorporating so much artwork when we may put a call out before we open, we specifically wanted to have more people of color represented and more women represented.

We’re in a SOFA district where there’s art galleries all around us. But most of the artists that have come through our shops, and we’ve had over 65 different artists now, have never exhibited their work before. We’re creating a space where people can be seen. And part of that is understanding the responsibility that comes with that.

We know representation matters. We tried to do a very good job to have diversity at every level of our business and that we’re also investing in our team and in ourselves so that we can be the best coffee shop in wherever – the world. It’s always going to be a thing. We don’t deny it.

We know that there’s going to be people who find us because we’re Black-owned. And then we also know that it’s not going to be a one and done with them because they’re going to come in, love the experience so much and know that this is a Black created experience, which we think is very important. And then they’ll come back and they’ll bring more people because after a certain point, it doesn’t matter.

It’s just awesome coffee and a great experience.

Grow your business with Yelp

Verify my free listing

Explore further


Keeping It Sweet and Simple Makes This Coffee House Stand Out

Between the warm and welcoming atmosphere and the simple but delicious menu, Cream + Sugar owner Taren Kilebrew keeps people in her community coming back for more.
Listen Now

Serving Happiness: Building a Business on Customer Feedback

Learn how Happy Cafe found success by listening to their customers and reviewers, leading to innovative ideas and an expanded range of offerings.
Listen Now

Making Waves in the Community Means Sweet Success

Discover how Sundae Scoop ice cream shop fosters community both within and beyond its walls, providing exceptional customer service, and mentorship to fellow entrepreneurs.
Listen Now