Incarnate Coffee fuses Nigerian culture with third wave coffee

Photo courtesy of Karen Katz

Photo courtesy of Karen Katz

Bearing Fruit

by Emily Kovach

Adesola Ogunleye moved to the United States from Nigeria at age 6 and spent her childhood moving around the East Coast. She attended high school and college in North Carolina, where she studied textiles and printmaking, moved to Baltimore after graduating and then came to Philly in 2012 following some friends who’d moved here. Food-related jobs had always appealed to her, and she worked at a Whole Foods in Annapolis, Maryland, where she learned whole animal butchery and was exposed to all kinds of specialty foods. 

Curiosity about cheese, beer and wine eventually led her to coffee, which she delved into as a barista at Bodhi Coffee in Philly. “The owners [at Bodhi], they want everyone to be self-sufficient and bring their own strengths to the shop, to make the shop better,” she says. “It gave me courage to open my own space.” 

Ogunleye’s first concept was a brick and mortar shop, specializing in fine foods as well as art, and the owners of Bodhi helped her put together a business plan and steered her clear of a shady landlord offering her a lease. This was back in 2013, and just as she was making some headway, her partner in the plan decided to leave, derailing her progress.  

In trying to reimagine her business plans, Ogunleye became introspective, trying to pinpoint what made her vision special. 

“I didn’t want to play the ‘immigrant Nigerian’ card, but there’s nothing here, no hip spaces, owned by a person of color,” she says. “Coffee is a white culture. You see baristas, but you don’t see people bringing their own culture to the space.” 

She says the pieces began falling into place when she decided to bring her strong perspective to the coffee concept with arts-focused, women-empowering, minority-empowering values and the addition of Nigerian pastries, including puff puff (doughnut-like snacks) and chin chin (sweet, crunchy, deep-fried dough).  

“That’s what I grew up eating and drinking, and since I decided to do that, so many more doors opened for me,” she says.

One of those doors has been her involvement with local food champion Judy Wicks’ investment and mentorship program, the Circle of Aunts and Uncles, aimed at helping underserved entrepreneurs secure funding and create business plans and strategies. In July, Ogunleye learned that Temple University-based Cloud Coffee was selling their coffee truck, a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter fully retrofitted as a tiny café-on-wheels.

Over the past year, Incarnate has functioned by serving hot and cold coffee at pop-up events and selling cold brew through their website. But Ogunleye knew this van was her opportunity to create a sustainable full-time business. Wicks helped her secure the down payment funds in three days, and Ogunleye quit her job at Bodhi. 

Now she’s working with a marketing specialist, navigating the logistics of getting the truck licensed and inspected, and booking events for the fall. She’s also getting the truck wrapped, which will feature Incarnate’s logo of a roaring bear.

“I’m Nigerian and we’re to-the-point people—I’m very forward, kind of like a bear,” she says. “Cute and cuddly but with a tough side. Strong, in your face, but also with their family.”