A few weeks ago I went to Santa Cruz (California) for the beautiful wedding of my student Sarah. Carl and I were driving to our hotel when I spotted the familiar green and yellow colors. I basically yelled: “Eita, Brazilian place, I am hungry, stop the car!”
The place was Samba Rock Açaí Cafe and they do, well, açaí bowls, shakes, and coffee drinks. Samba Rock was founded by Vanessa Holanda Wilkerson — a friendly, energetic Brazilian from São Paulo — and her husband Ron. During our 1.5-day stay in Santa Cruz we ended up going to Samba Rock three times. We had coffee, pãozinho de queijo, and açaí, of course.
The açaí was delicious! Besides the traditional açaí na tigela, Samba Rock offers various flavors in their bowls and shakes — I had a bowl called Ayrton Senna that was made with peanut butter and was super yummy. They also have hot coffee drinks made with açaí. I had never seen that before.
I asked Vanessa if she would talk to us about the Samba Rock. Below is our interview. I included links to videos by some of the artists that inspired the name of the Cafe.
How did Samba Rock begin?
In 2006 I was studying ESL, but I really wanted to do something more than just ESL, I wanted to do something where I could grow as a professional. Then my husband came with the idea to open a Açaí shop. I thought that this was a crazy idea because I didn’t have any experience managing a business. I thought that would be pretty challenging, but he totally insisted — he really helped me to reach this goal. Then things started to happen. I got all the recipes and created the names for them, checking and comparing prices. Ron (my husband and partner) was working day and night on the construction and getting the necessary licenses. We also had friends helping us with the construction. The decoration is the idea of a good friend of us, Rich Hansen. His inspiration came from the “favelas” in Brazil, and that is why we have the plywood all over the place — it is all recycled. Opening “Samba-Rock” wasn’t easy; it took us 1 year with all the process and the papers with the city council and paying for licenses that we didn’t expect at all (that was the most difficult part). It was really a nightmare! We finally opened in March 2009. I had just one employee, and he helped me a lot.
Brazilian culture seems very popular in Santa Cruz. Is it really?
There are many Brazilians in Santa Cruz. I think that with the Brazilian band Sambada, capoeira groups, Samba classes, and three Brazilian spots to eat, yeah, Brazilian culture has grown in Santa Cruz.
Do people know what açaí is? Do you get many questions about it?
There are a few people who don’t know what açaí is yet. If they don’t know, I give a little explanation and a sample. Most of the times, they buy right away after the sample. We also have a binder at the Cafe with good info about açaí.
I love the name Samba Rock. What inspired the name? What does Samba Rock mean to you and to your business?
I named it “Samba-Rock” for a few reasons: First, Samba-Rock is a type of music and dance really popular in São Paulo. In Rio de Janeiro they call it “Gafieira”. I grew up listening to this music. In addition, the two names “Samba” – our original rhythm and dance – and “Rock” – American music and dance (that I really love as well), I think are perfect for a business in the USA. The thing now is that we are educating people to say “Oh, Samba-Rock the açaí cafe?!” Some people still just call us the “Açaí Cafe”.
What are your favorite Samba-Rock musicians and bands?
Jorge Ben, Bebeto, Originais do Samba, Trio Mocotó, Wilson Simonal, Clube do Balanço, Farufyno, Os Opalas… and many more. I wish I could remember all the names right now.
It is a wonderful idea to create different recipes based on the original açaí na tigela recipe. How did you have this idea? How do you create new flavors?
Last time I went to Brazil I saw all the possibilities to make different recipes with açaí, so when I came back to the USA I started making açaí with different fruits and giving it to friends to try. It was really fun.
How about the hot drinks with coffee and açaí? I had never seen it before. How did the creation process happen?
The hot açaí ideas actually came from my brother Max (he lives in Brazil). He’s really creative to invent crazy things in the kitchen. He gave me all his secret recipes for those drinks; really cool of him to do so.
Do you feel that people show concern about the nutritional content of what they eat? How do you approach the issue of healthy eating at Samba Rock?
Yes, especially in Santa Cruz people are really conscious about what they eat today. I like to eat healthy and I bring the same idea to my cafe.
What tips do you have for those who are visiting Santa Cruz and have an interest in Brazilian culture?
If you guys would like to know a little bit about Brazilian culture, you should stop by at Samba Rock on Sundays and watch “Capoeira de Angola” com o mestre Valter. That guy has an amazing energy and his class is really fun. There’s also mestre Papiba on Wednesdays at project 418 with capoeira. On Tuesdays at the same place Marcio and Amber teach Brazilian Drums for only $10.
When you think about Brazil, Samba, and Rock what three words come to mind?
Saudade, alegria, cerveja.
Samba Rock is located at 291 Water Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060. You can find them on Facebook to keep up with events and more.
To prepare your own açaí at home, check out our açaí video filmed in Boa Viagem beach, Recife, Brazil!
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