The Lakota are known for their strong cultural beliefs and traditions, their respect for all creatures – especially the buffalo, their sense of humor and their love of gatherings – large and small – that revolve around food. Always present at these gatherings – regardless of the season, is coffee.
Today we visit with a young woman on the Pine Ridge Reservation who decided to honor her own love of the coffea shrub – and that of the Lakota people – by establishing her own coffee company.
It’s a short drive off the main road to Sharice Davids’ house. Her home looks like that of any other nice middle-class family on the Pine Ridge Reservation: there are a few vehicles outside, several dogs running around the property, a lawn mower in the yard.
But it’s what’s below her house, in the basement, that sets Sharice’s home apart from the rest.
Coffee…bags and bags of it. Still that’s not really a surprise once you realize that this is the home of the Hoka! Coffee Company, founded by Sharice Davids in 2013..
“We’re trying to build a very community oriented company…that meets the needs of the community because this is what the community says it wants,” explains Davids. “Not, say, a large coffee chain coming in here and saying ‘Here’s the kind of drinks you guys should like. Here’s how the coffee should taste. Here’s what you should want.”
The idea for a coffee company was a natural progression, says Davids, a Ho-Chunk attorney from Wisconsin who loves coffee and moved to Pine Ridge to be with her domestic partner. Working with the staff at Red Cloud Indian School to help develop an entrepreneurship program for their students, Davids spent most of her time exploring ways to address economic issues on Pine Ridge and hearing people talk about the type of businesses they’d like to see on the Rez.
“You know, a lot of people want to start retail…just a brick-and-mortar retail,” Davids observes. “And Hoka would do great as a coffee shop, I think. But I was thinking I don’t wanna just be the very end of the supply chain. And then wouldn’t it be great if when people think of Pine Ridge…instead of thinking low employment rates and then just a lot of the things that people always say about Indians or people in Indian Country…wouldn’t it be cool if people thought…’Hey, they make really great coffee out there in Pine Ridge.”
After discussing the idea with her friends, Sharice decided on her business plan: use coffee from small Indigenous farms in South and Central America, use a reliable company to roast the beans, then package and sell the product herself…through internet sales, through distributors and by direct sales at community events such as Pow Wows.
Sharice says credit for the company name goes to her domestic partner, Alisha.
“We started talking about coffee,” Davids recalls. “We came up with all kinds of things…like Native Grounds, and just a whole bunch of (stuff). Pow Wow Grounds and all kinds of things like that. Alisha was like…’Oh. my God. We should call it Hoka!...cause coffee has caffeine in it, gets you going. And you drink Hoka! and you’re like…Yeah, let’s go!!”
Hoka’s first outing was at Oglala Lakota College’s graduation ceremony last spring in Kyle. Sharice says it was pretty much a fiasco…from not having enough product or a company sign to the storm that hit. But it was a positive learning experience and made Sharice and her team more prepared for their next venue at the Oglala Lakota Nation Pow Wow in August. Although people didn’t quite understand why they should be paying 2 or 3 times more for coffee they buy at other vendors, Sharice says that by the second day Hoka’s customer base was already growing – especially for their cold brew.
“I sold maybe 15 bags of coffee during that whole weekend,” comments Davids. “But we did sell a ton of iced coffees and cups of hot coffee…because by the second full day of the Pow Wow we had quite a few people who were coming up and saying…’We heard you have really great coffee.’...’Hey, what’s that iced drink I’ve been seeing everyone drinking.’…stuff like that.
”That word-of-mouth success kick-started Hoka’s sales, which have since expanded to on-line purchases with finding distributors as the next goal. Sharice is also considering mobile sales. Meanwhile, just what is Hoka! like? Not being a coffee drinker, I can’t comment. So, I brought my wife along to Sharice’s kitchen for a sampling.
“Wow, that’s rich,” comments Wila Kent. “It’s a very, very nice cup of coffee.”
High praise from the woman who calls herself a “coffee snob”.
But as much as Sharice Davids wants to hear similar comments about her “Indigenous from the ground to the cup” coffee, she also wants to see her company help the community. Not just economically, but in how the Pine Ridge Reservation is viewed by others. So that someday when coffee fans think about a great brew, the new “Star” on the corner will be the Hoka! brand.