South LA

A safe space for coffee house creatives

Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen opens another location.

[One-sentence description of what this media is: "A photo of a vaccine site on USC campus" or "Gif of dancing banana". Important for accessibility/people who use screen readers.]

Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen, made famous by actress Issa Rae’s partnership and flagship store in Inglewood, recently announced a pop up cafe in Downtown Los Angeles.

Co-founders Yonnie Hagos and Ajay Relan created Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen in the summer of 2018 as a way to bring new energy to an area of predominantly mom-and-pop shops and fast food. Their Slauson location served as a community oriented space where locals were hired and taught “leadership and entrepreneurship through entry level employment,” Relan said.

Having a Black- and people-of-color-owned business in a predominantly POC area allowed Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen to quickly become a place for local creators, entrepreneurs and organizers to connect with each other. The co-founders understood this purpose. They made sure “every design, detail and menu item was reflective of the community that had lived through there for the past few decades, while also understanding that the demographics of the neighborhoods were changing.”

The success of Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen comes not only from Hagos and Relan’s background in restaurant management, but also from their friendship. The two met when Hagos was a security guard at The Parlor, a sports bar in Hollywood that Relan frequented. The two became friends and eventually bought The Parlor in 2013, creating a culture and brand identity as one of Hollywood’s hotspots.

Although The Parlor was closed in February 2022, Hagos and Relan’s mission did not end there. Their partnership with SoLa Contemporary allows local artists to show their work at their restaurants to reflect the community around them. As the art travels from their original Slauson location to the rest of L.A., there is a pride in representing L.A. as it is home for Hagos, Relan and Rae.

“This area is one of the most culturally rich in the country. So we just wanted to intentionally put our roots down there,” said Relan. “And it’s amazing to see the reception that we’ve been able to get and the support that we’ve been able to get, not just from the local communities that we’re in, but we’ve really become a destination for people across the city.”

Many USC students frequent the Inglewood location of Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen. The cultural richness and design plan is evident to graduate student David-Earl Russell, who remarked that he frequented the shop for “the vibe.”

“You don’t want to be somewhere where you are not comfortable … The music and what they might have there to eat are tailored to your culture, so it’s not just [going] to a space where you don’t feel comfortable or you’re not represented,” said Russell.

Russell called for attention on Black businesses, even when it is not Black history month, commenting, “I think [the expansion is] great because a lot of Black-owned businesses don’t really see that much attention unless it’s during this month. And hopefully this energy can continue on beyond just this time.”

Rae stated in the second Hilltop press release that she has personally written her work in coffee shops, so it always disappointed her that there weren’t any that were Black-owned or even POC-owned coffee shops in her neighborhood.

Black-owned coffee shops and safe spaces are especially useful for students. Sammy Austin, a senior from Georgia, had never been to a Black-owned coffee shop before Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen. Austin is a the president of Kó Society, a social club for Black women on campus. Kó Society held a study session at the Inglewood location during finals season, and the atmosphere blew Austin away.

“It was really neat to walk into a space where everyone else looks like you and no one’s really judging you. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly,” Austin said. “When we walked in, some of us ordered food, some didn’t, but it wasn’t like we got bad looks or glares because we weren’t spending money. It was kind of just normal that we were sitting down to do our work.”

Ko Society’s time there was to support Black-owned businesses, but Austin is happy about the media’s push of Black-owned businesses, calling it a “step forward in representation.”

Hilltop Coffee + Kitchen has already made a mark on its community, but they are not done. While their new Downtown L.A. pop up will be a temporary fourth location, they are also opening up at Los Angeles International Airport through a partnership with United Airlines. They hope Hilltop will become a national brand rooted in “bringing people together for the right reasons and preserving the richness of the community.”

Relan has a message for aspiring creatives who will do some of their best work at their coffee stop: “Creation is such a beautiful thing, and as long as you create from the heart and it’s something that you’re being sincere about, somebody will take notice of and those are the people that really matter to you and your mission.”

The pop-up store will be located at 718 S. Hill St. from February 22 through the summer and will be active on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Downtown menu will feature favorites like the Bangin’ Breakfast Sandwich, Soul Bowl and Hilltop “Droptops”; signature drinks like the Matcha Chata and Lavender Latte and locally roasted coffees. The space will have 279 interior seats, 22 reserved for private meetings and 30 patio seats.