Coffee With A Stranger Cup 119 Eli Winkelman

Cup 119: Eli Winkelman – Challah maker, citrus lover and CRAFTing queen bee

Coffee With A Stranger Cup 119 Eli Winkelman
The Place: CRAFT

The Cup: Eli enjoyed a little coffee in her most favorite mug in the whole universe. And she’s not the only one who thinks so. Eli tells me this mug is so incredible, it has its own Facebook page! What?!? That’s some mug! Here’s a first — no coffee for me. But, we might call this session “Citrus With A Stranger,” which we’ll get to in just a bit. And here’s another first – Eli and I are joined by a third person, Hannah, who works with Eli at CRAFT and is a super cool and crafty chick herself! She adds a lot of fun and humor to the conversation.

The Background: Eli showed up on my radar a year ago when I had an interest in taking a screen-printing class at this terrific little studio called CRAFT in an old bungalow in my neighborhood. Time got away from me and when I finally got around to signing up for the class, the studio had closed! Heartbreak! But then I noticed it was going to be re-opening in a new location, so I did a little digging. In the process, I discovered more about the business model and the gal behind it all, and I knew I MUST meet this woman!

Eli and Hannah
Eli and Hannah

If you know me, then you know I have roughly 27 new business ideas every day. It’s ridiculous, and if you’re married to me, probably a little exhausting. But my ever-flowing creativity is kept in check by equal parts fear and aversion to risk. Thus, most ideas are snuffed out in the very space they were born, on the pages of notebooks, the backs of napkins and random scraps of paper tucked into desk drawers and books, or buried at the bottom of purses.

Occasionally an idea is pervasive and, like a toddler, simply will not be put to rest without a fight.

CRAFT - Austin Coffee With A Stranger One such idea is, in many ways, quite similar to CRAFT – which calls itself, “Austin’s creative hub for DIY crafting, workshops, and events.” Or my favorite description, which I found on a glitter-covered board against a window in the shop: “We hoard, so you don’t have to.” YES! In a nutshell, they have all the crafting supplies you could ever need. You show up, with an idea (or not), and you pay $10 an hour to craft to your heart’s content. Sometimes there will be people all around. Other times you may find yourself alone. But it’s a community of crafters, makers and people creating something from nothing. It’s my mecca!

And this is how this meeting came to be. I reached out to Eli and asked if she’d be willing to have coffee with a stranger. She said, “Sure!”, and ta-da!

We’ll get into Eli’s truly remarkable journey to CRAFT, but first, we must cover a few:

Common Grounds:

  1. What is the best gift you’ve ever given? Travis gave me a Snuggie. Which at first I was like, “Really? A snuggle?” But then I realized it was really thoughtful of him because he knew I always get cold.
  2. What’s a food you can’t live without? Citrus. I am loving oranges right now. Each little segment is like a little present. I’m also loving the pomelo. {Which I had never even heard of, let alone eaten. Eli happened to have one in the kitchen, so she hopped up and got it and we shared the delightful fruit.}
  3. What is the best way to unwind? Eating a pomelo. You have to eat it slowly and yet it’s not like cooking, where you have to wait until the end. I spent a lot of time in Israel, so I ate a lot of them then. And they were special. But then I found them at Whole Foods, so now I eat them more often.
  4. What book should be required reading for all humans? We Should All Be Feminists, or something about being vegan.
  5. Who is your celebrity doppelgänger? People love to say Kate Winslet. It’s always a redhead. People are always like, “Oh my god, you look exactly like the other redhead I know!”
  6. How did you make your first buck? I worked at the bicycle sports shop. I walked in with my dad, who was going to buy a bike, and I persuaded him to buy a whole bunch of stuff he didn’t need, and the manager offered me a job. My family is in retail, so I’ve always been entrepreneurial — so I definitely had lemonade stands. In third grade, we had bartering day where we had to bring things to barter. Some kids had their parents bring things like ice cream, and I thought that was cheating. So my bartering was paperclip jewelry — which could be made any length; it was very versatile.
  7. What’s the best movie you’ve seen recently? Mad Max.
  8. What’s your guilty pleasure? I turn the TV on in the background a lot. I love Castle and Murdoch Mysteries.


I’m so interested to know how the CRAFT genesis story, and Eli warned me, so I will warn you, it’s got a sad beginning.

She explains, “In college I started a non-profit called Challah For Hunger (which we’ll get into later on) and I ran that for about a decade, until 2013, when the person I thought I’d spend my life with, Travis, died. After that, I quit doing what I was doing and I stayed in bed. Two months later the only thing I wanted to do was make stuff. It was green glitter, well, it was a lot of things, but green glitter was the big one.

Six Shades of Green

CRAFT - Austin Coffee With A Stranger“I was working on a project and I decided I needed six shades of green glitter. I thought to myself, ‘No, you already have four shades, that’s good enough.’ But it wasn’t. I needed all six. But all I needed was a tiny amount. I was so annoyed because I had to go out, buy it, and then store it when I was done. I would pay more to not have to do all that. What I wanted was somewhere to go that already had what I needed. From that moment on,  the only thing I could imagine doing was opening this place.”

CRAFT first opened in a little bungalow in South Austin, but recently relocated to a terrific space on the East side of town. Eli tells me that vision was always an old warehouse. She said people like the old house because it felt like crafting at home, so she want to recreate the homeyness aspect, but be able to have bigger events. She explains, “The space should be in the background, not intruding on you.”

Happy Place

In Eli’s words, the mission is “to be everyone’s craft room”. As I look around I am struck by all the jars of odds and ends, this and that’s, bits and pieces. She calls it a mini-junkyard, adding, “It’s all the random stuff you might want to use, but you don’t want to keep.”

We talk a little about how Travis would be happy and proud of her and I tell her she seems incredibly happy here and that she exudes passion for what she does, and contentment. She tells me that the same is true of the people who come to craft or for class. According to Eli, people look different when they leave. Which we agree would be a very cool secret project to snap pics when people arrive and again when they leave and compare the two. I feel the same way about my coffee meetings. I’d say, with rare exception, something shifts in the 75 minutes my stranger and I spend in conversation. And at the end, the energy is totally different.

Lost and Found

What is the most significant thing that’s happened for Eli in the last 30 days? She says, “My brother came home from Israel after being gone for about a year and I really missed him!” Eli spent a considerable amount of time in Israel too, so I’m curious what the trip was all about. She says, “He was finding himself.” How cool is that? I could use a trip like that roughly once a year.

If she had a year to get really good at something, Eli tells me she would learn art, adding “I have no formal background in any of it and I don’t have an innate talent. But art and skills can be learned by anyone if you have the right person teaching you and if you practice. I would like to learn the basics. Let’s call it ‘Studio Art 100′.” Hannah reminds Eli of a term she uses frequently and a mindset, if you will, “expert beginners,” explaining, “we want to be really good at a lot of things — but at a beginner level. Screen printing, for example. We are excellent at the beginner-level screen printing and we teach workshops that are really accessible. This girl emailed us and said we changed her life because she learned to screen print with us and then she started a t-shirt business after the class. But anything technical about screen printing…I don’t know.”

Making Room

I’m curious what Eli wants less of in her life? She says, “Clutter. At home and here and in my car. And less getting in my own way. I am disorganized, so sometimes it’s the clutter getting in the way. But also, I don’t always do things on time and then I get mad at myself. Or because I’m disorganized, then I can’t find something and I’ll spend half an hour trying to find it.”

I wonder if this is something she’s working on, or something she’s accepted. She says, “I’m sort of working on it, but then there’s the whole ‘strive to be great at what you’re good at, don’t strive to be mediocre at what you’re bad at’ thing. But I read a statistic about how much time executives waste looking for things on their desks and how much money we waste buying a duplicate of something we already own. Like a phone charger. It’s crazy.”

What does she want more of? “Besides organization?”, she jokes. “My brother. Exercise. Healthy food. Again because of time management, I feel like I’m always grabbing whatever is around. I also want more art, and time to learn about art.”

Our Home

Something Eli would like to see fixed in her lifetime is the environment. Although that was a tough question for her to answer, because there are so many global issues she is deeply passionate about. The treatment of animals, women, poverty, hunger, consumerism… She says, “There are a lot of things. But I have to say environment. What good is a home if you don’t have a planet to put it on? That’s the most important because everything else is secondary to that.”

Owning Our Talents

What’s something Eli feels she is ridiculously good at? She thinks for a long time about this one. Hannah offers several suggestions. Like any good friend, she’s quick to name off all sorts of things her pal is terrific at. But Eli considers each one and ultimately dismisses them feeling it’s not quite true enough for her to claim. Starting a business is the perfect example. Hannah feels she has evidence of Eli’s awesomeness at this. But Eli explains that when someone needs ideas or solutions in their business, she’s always got a ton of ideas. But for her own business, she feels like she’s all over the place. And then I wonder  — isn’t that how we all feel? From the outside looking in, there is this clarity that doesn’t appear when the focus is from the inside looking out.

Hannah is Eli’s number one Challah Cinnamon Roll fan and she offers that up as a possibility. Eli again isn’t sure she’ll accept the championship title on that one. Ultimately, she comes up with, “Not getting nervous when speaking publicly.” She says she can get up in front of anyone and talk and she never gets scared. I have to agree — that’s a pretty incredible talent. Superpower, really.

Letting Go

A lesson Eli wished she had learned sooner, she says, is, “How to break up with people. Or how to end relationships, in general. Ending them and then letting go. Making the decision and then sticking with it.” Not easy, that’s for sure!

I ask Eli about a habit or ritual she does daily or frequently that she feels contributes to her overall happiness or well-being and she says she’s not great at rituals or habits. But she does take the dogs out every day for a walk and they definitely make her happy. She also says Fridays are important, explaining, “I’m Jewish and Friday is the Sabbath. I’m not religious, but my friends and I have Friday night dinners. The nice thing is that beginning Friday at sunset there is no more work. And no matter what’s going on, it can’t be changed. It’s the sun. You can’t change it. Or control it.”

What would you say if I told you Eli was interviewed by a US President and that she had dinner with Bono in France and during that dinner she did an impression of Bono…to Bono!?! Would you believe me? Have a listen for yourself. I promise it’s a story worth listening to!

Eli Winkelman In Her Own Words

What a story! What a life! What a human being!

Eli is the embodiment of the maxim, Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. She works, of course. Hard! But she is absolutely in love with the business she has created, the people she gets to meet along the way, and the projects she gets to watch take shape in this magical place.

Eli’s story is a reminder to all of us to listen to the call of our hearts. Her life has been a series of whispers of the heart and her answering the call. When she missed home and felt the urge to bake Challah – she baked. And others joined her. And she started a non-profit to feed the hungry with the proceeds from that baking. Then she smuggled a tinfoil-wrapped loaf of that bread past Secret Service security to the President. And it paid off!


When the life of someone who mattered dearly to Eli was suddenly cut short, she grieved. She laid down and let her heart take the time it needed to fall apart completely and then begin, piece by piece, to come back together. Her heart whispered, “Make stuff.” She listened. And she got glue under her nails and glitter everywhere. And slowly, with time, the glue and the glitter filled the cracks in her broken heart and again it whispered, “Make a community where people can come together and craft. Where they can celebrate, collaborate, commune and create.” And once again, she listened. And thanks to Eli, we can all CRAFT!


To learn more about Eli and CRAFT, check out their website and follow them on Instagram!

If you enjoyed this interview, “Like” the Coffee With A Stranger Project Facebook page and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming interviews with new strangers and other fun stuff. If there’s someone in Austin you think I need to have coffee with, let me know and I’ll do my best to sweet talk them into having coffee with a stranger.

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