Moving in, Moving Up: Nirvana Soul at the King Library

by | Jun 10, 2024 | Community Engagement, Featured

Nirvana Soul ribbon cutting at the King Library. (L-R) Councilmember Omar Torres, SJSU President Cynthia Teninente-Matson, Be’Anka Ashaolu, Dap Ashaolu, Jhoselin Milo, Jeronica Macey, Sammy Spartan. All photos in this story by Robert Bain.

San José’s rising coffee scene is defined by the love and dedication local entrepreneurs pour into each cup and the adoration residents have for these homegrown businesses. At San José State’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library, an anchor institution in the heart of downtown, specialty coffee connoisseurs have a new home to get their caffeine fix: Nirvana Soul. For sisters and co-founders BeAnka Ashaolu and Jeronica Macey, the third brick-and-mortar expansion of their renowned cafe is about much more than specialty coffee.

Following over 20 years of professional experience in the coffee industry, Ashaolu and Macey took the leap to finally open a shop of their own in 2020. In the midst of the pandemic, the sisters and San José natives opened up the first Nirvana Soul in downtown’s South First Area (SoFa) District to wide acclaim. Social and political upheaval, paired with the frustration of seemingly endless days at home helped make Nirvana Soul a welcome hub for the community. The sisters attribute their early success partly to the unique circumstances and timing of their opening.

“It was a dark time and we were deliberate and intentional in creating a light and joyful space – people were drawn to that,” said Ashaolu. “They showed up for us and we showed up for them.” 

As the years moved on and lessons were learned about scaling up and running a business that quickly became a defining fixture of downtown, the sisters were ready to elevate their endeavors. Together with Ashaolu’s husband and SJSU alumnus, Oladapo “Dap” Ashaolu, ’05 Management, Nirvana Soul eyed an opportunity in a vacant space at the King Library. Eventually, the founders’ long-term goal is to open and maintain 20 total locations. 

San José downtown’s “post-pandemic” recovery has, as with many cities’ in the Bay Area, been an ongoing process. Conversations between the founders and SJSU began in 2022 to turn an empty cafe space on the library’s ground floor into a thriving community gathering hub.

“[University Library] Dean Michael Meth and I wanted to reactivate the King Library’s corner at 4th and San Fernando for some time, to fill the empty cafe space and breathe new life into this key campus connection to the downtown neighborhood,” said Charlie Faas, Vice President for Administration and Finance and Chief Financial Officer. “The first business that was considered and made the most sense was Nirvana Soul – a local, small business, appreciated and loved by the community already. Years of discussions and collaboration later and we are proud to open up a new home for them on our campus.”

A Tall Order: Entrepreneurship, Representation and Community

In addition to conventional cafe offerings, unique beverages like banana chai or ube and coconut lattes, Nirvana Soul brings a distinct flair and freshness to the local coffee scene. The scents of fan-favorite foods like waffles with a range of both sweet and savory accompaniments fill the air at Nirvana Soul’s existing locations in the SoFA District and the second cafe in Cupertino’s Main Street plaza. The menu at the King Library now offers all that and more. 

The library location shares the aesthetic of other Nirvana Soul locations with vibrant colors and showcases of local artists’ work. A bold and dramatic mural called “Hermanas” by Ricardo Gonzalez depicting the owners as a double-sided head adorns one of the main walls in the cafe. Marked by Nirvana Soul’s defining range of bold pink and purple hues, the mural is a statement piece on sisterhood and unapologetic, proud existence. Over the main entrance, a unique SJSU Spartans-inspired installation by graphic artist Emilio Cortez welcomes visitors with empowering phrases. With the help of SJSU’s Facilities Development and Operations and Finance and Business Services departments, Nirvana Soul sourced the materials and permitting necessary to make the space their own. After over a year of tireless efforts, SJSU fully opened the location in May 2024.

“It has been such an amazing opportunity to help a family owned business expand their footprint and impact on downtown San José. We couldn’t have done it without our commercial partner, Chartwells Higher Education and our internal Facilities, Development and Operations team,” said Sara Bonakdar, senior director for Business Services. “It felt like a long road to get to a successful opening, but we are finally here and thrilled to offer Nirvana Soul to the SJSU community. We are confident that this partnership will have a positive impact on our students, faculty and staff for years to come.”

The sisters hope to bring the same kind of distinct vibrancy and sense of community seen at their other locations into the library space by infusing it with both the Nirvana Soul and SJSU design heritages. With a seamless connection into the library, students and visitors alike have a lively venue after their time enjoying all the library’s services and spaces. As time goes on, the founders aim to bring in artists, live and musical performances and other community-oriented programming to the space and are happy to hear what ideas students and SJSU employees have to suggest.

The founders are still grappling with the speed of Nirvana Soul’s growth, but what remains and keeps the sisters going is the store’s core mission: the drive to inspire. 

“We want to help other people who may look like us who don’t have supporters in their life rooting them and their dreams on,” said Macey, “whether it’s baristas behind the bar of artists who have their work on display in our shop, I want people to see that it is possible to keep going.” 

The library cafe will employ at least, for the initial opening months, a dozen current SJSU students who will work part-time. Their staffing goes beyond slinging Nirvana Soul’s craft beverages, however; the founders aim to instill a culture of mentorship and entrepreneurship that student employees take beyond their tenure. 

In a special, full-circle moment, Jhoselin Milo, a manager for the King Library location, once served as Macey’s own supervisor during their time together working at LinkedIn. In those days, Milo’s encouragement and support for Macey’s and her sister’s dream to open their own coffee shop was a major driving force that helped begin Nirvana Soul. That uplifting culture and familiarity remains a hallmark for Nirvana Soul and its student employees at the library. 

“How amazing will it be for these students to be able to say, one day, they got in on the ground floor, that they were a part of our success story, wherever and how far it goes, from the beginning,” said Macey.

“San José State has been a supportive partner already; many of our baristas go to school here, and my husband is an alumnus. We are so surrounded with and involved in the SJSU community as it is, so this expansion made the most sense,” said Ashaolu. “This franchise was a heavily-driven initiative by university officials telling us ‘we want you in this space.’ It means a lot to us to be officially a part of the university now.”

Visit and enjoy Nirvana Soul at the King Library on Mondays to Thursdays from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 7 a.m. to noon. Nirvana Soul’s other locations in downtown San José are the SoFA District cafe at 315 S 1st Street and a small pop-up in the DeAnza Hotel at 233 W Santa Clara St. 

Visit the Nirvana Soul website.