For Allison Dunn, the Jamaican-born owner of Hibiscus Brew cafe in Brooklyn’s Prospect Lefferts Gardens, “vibe” is everything. Opened in September 2020, Dunn’s cafe is all about bright colors and positive energy. “Sometimes people don't understand when I say ‘It's a vibe,’ she says. “That term is used so much in the Caribbean, meaning it's good, it's entertaining, it's fun.”
Stationed in Dunn’s neighborhood of 12 years, the place is a true community hub. Carlos Farqui of nearby Floratorium takes care of the floral arrangements, and in large part, the staff resides in the area. During the day, joyful, reggae-inspired playlists spill out the door. And while the daily, ever-evolving menu is replete with fresh smoothies, salads, and artfully made lattes, regulars know that the cafe serves an unrivaled jerk chicken sandwich exclusively on the weekends.
That said, Dunn is hardly a seasoned restaurateur. In fact, prior to 2020, she helmed her own home organizing business, Neat Rules (which is still in operation), consulting with clients to help declutter their homes both virtually and in person. But at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when business was dwindling and home consultations were off the table, she saw a cafe space go up for rent in her own neighborhood, and it felt like a sign. “I've always wanted to have a space where I could provide healthy options for the community. I just jumped at the opportunity without any prior experience,” she says.
Of course, opening a venue mid-quarantine was no easy feat — even with Dunn’s background as an entrepreneur (not to mention the fact that the tropical-themed cafe opened its doors right before a bleak New York winter). But fortunately, with weather warming and lockdown restrictions lifting, business has been picking up — which means Dunn is finally able to realize her dream of providing her community with healthy food, a space to gather, and a little slice of her own Jamaican culture.
For a closer look at how Hibiscus Brew is bringing some much-needed post-pandemic joy to New York, we partnered with small business-oriented graphic design platform 99designs by Vistaprint to chat with Dunn about cultivating “vibes,” welcoming failure, and keeping a business afloat in the midst of a pandemic.
How did you find the confidence to open Hibiscus Brew without prior hospitality experience?
“Having founded my own business previously, I’d already been taking marketing courses for years while trying to expand, and learn the ropes as an entrepreneur, which definitely helped instill a sense of confidence in me. Also, I’ve always been a big believer in the idea that you can’t let fear hold you back. No matter what, you're going to have to fail, get up, and try again. So I was just like, Ok, this is what I'm doing.
“Everyone keeps asking me if I was afraid and the answer is yes, a little bit, but for the most part I was just like, It's time to pivot and try something new and get this done. I really believe in failing fast, getting up, and going again — and I think, a lot of the time, everything comes back to your mindset. Once you have a winning mindset, so much is possible. At least, that's what I tell myself every day.
“Luckily, our customers make it easy to stay positive. A lot of people don’t know that the business is Black-owned or even Caribbean-owned, so when they come in and find out, they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I'm coming over to support all the time.’ And they do.”
What was it like opening in the midst of the pandemic?
“Throughout the course of quarantine, people haven’t been walking around or commuting or taking the train they way they used to, so that lack of foot traffic definitely impacted the business. But we're hoping that, with everyone getting vaccinated, things will continue to get a little bit better, and we'll see a lot more people in the store. Things are looking positive. We're definitely seeing a lot more foot traffic coming in, and we’re so grateful for that because we’re still on the tail end of a pandemic.”
How was Hibiscus Brew inspired by your experience growing up in Jamaica?
“The vibe of the Carribean is just fun, it's exciting. It's rich in culture and that's something I take with me. If you look in the store, there's a little Jamaican flag hanging up top. I’m super proud of where I'm from so I want all my customers to know this place has Jamaican roots.
Even the name, Hibiscus Brew, has Jamaican roots. Jamaican ‘sorrel’ is technically a Hibiscus blossom that can be steeped to make tea: A lot of the food and drink in the Carribean has sorrel in it, and it’s sweet and nutritious. Back in Jamaica, we'd normally drink sorrel in a punch made with ginger and rum around the holidays, so I use sorrel in some of my smoothies. Turmeric is also used a lot in Jamaica and we have a turmeric latté. On the weekends, we serve this jerk chicken sandwich which is a Jamaican food staple. I'm not finished with the decór, but I'll have some Jamaican art up soon.”
How did you first decide to start your own business?
“After I earned my bachelor's degree in International Relations about 10 years ago, I left Jamaica to enroll in a masters program in marketing in the U.S. But once I got here, I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. I started off working in marketing, but I’d always wanted to start something of my own — and now, here I am, a full time entrepreneur with two businesses to call my own.
“At the time, I was working the first corporate job I could land. But I was laid off a few months after going back to work, after giving birth to my now three year-old son Khison. I wasn’t in the best space and I was suffering from postpartum depression — but sometimes we can use these periods of struggle to make changes for the better. Fortunately, that period gave me the time and the space to sit down with myself and say, I’m not happy where I am, so maybe it’s time to try to do something else with my life. And that's when I decided to launch my first business as a home-organizer: I wanted to be doing something that really brought me joy, and I loved organizing almost as much as I loved the feeling of my space being organized.”
What did you learn from home-organizing that you later applied to Hibiscus Brew?
“I learned how important it is that everything you surround yourself with sparks joy. That’s the guiding principle behind Hibiscus Brew: Decór-wise, there are all these flowers out front, and when people see them, I hear them say things like, ‘Oh my god, this is so beautiful. It adds some joy to my day.’ I want you to come in and immediately feel happy. Like, if you don't want to be in your own home, you come here, because it’s the next best thing. The people are great, the service is great. Everyone talks to you and you really feel that sense of local community.
“With my home-organizing business, when I go to see a client, I always tell them, ‘This should be your sanctuary. You should feel happy being here!’ And it's the same thing at Hibiscus Brew: It's a place where you can relax, have great conversations, and just...feel good. The energy of the place is as important as the food that you eat.”
Can you tell me more about your experience “branding” the cafe?
“From the start, I’ve tried to work with a lot of local people from the community — so this amazing artist, Travis Fitzsimmons, handpainted the storefront. He came up with the idea that I should paint the place pink — and I think that was an amazing decision because it really brightened up the street. There’s not much else that’s particularly vibrant on our block, so right now, when we talk about Hibiscus Brew, everyone's like, ‘Oh! That little pink store!’”
“Later on, I got Carlos Farqui from Floratorium to come in and do the flowers, which are super bright and bold, and that really enhanced the place. It brought in that Jamaican-inspired island-y feel I’d really wanted to create.
“That's my personality too. I'm bold and bright and take up space. You'll see a lot of that energy on my social media — both personally, and for the store. If I'm at the store, I'll ask the staff to get pictures of people interacting with the food and we just try to find natural ways to feature the business. I also encourage people to post and tag us to help showcase how we're serving the community.”
How do you balance being a mom and being a business owner?
“It's definitely tough, but you make it work. I try to make sure I have time for [my son]. I set aside days where we make sure to do stuff together. And of course, he spends a lot of time with me at the cafe. Honestly, he might be our biggest brand ambassador. If he’s in the cafe with me, he’ll talk to everyone. He's very much part of the brand and he'll tell you, ‘I love the red smoothie.’ Can't even say ‘hibiscus’ yet. He's only three. But when he's at the shop, everyone knows him.
“I think being a mom is one of the toughest jobs there is, but I’m definitely working really hard to maintain a balance between spending time with my son and keeping up with work. It helps that he goes to daycare super close to home and the cafe. All of our places are right here.”
How do you plan to make use of the design and marketing support from 99designs by Vistaprint?
"I'm thrilled about the grant. I plan to use that money for marketing purposes so Hibiscus Brew can gain a little bit more public exposure. I'm going to update my website, bring someone in to help with SEO, step up my email game, and update all my graphics. Speaking of which, I love my new logo from the 99designs by Vistaprint team. It's simple but distinct, and it truly does speak to the ethos behind this place.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.