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City Bean Makes The Best Coffee You've Never Heard Of — And That's By Design

(Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash)
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In 2003, Carlos Figueroa got a job slinging lattes at a kiosk in the Fox Plaza mall. Back then, it was just another beverage. He hadn't discovered the magic of coffee. Now, he's the head roaster at City Bean Roasters. You may not know the company's name but you've probably tried their coffee. From Trejos Tacos to Nate n Al's to Habitat, it's served, literally, all over the city.

Before it was a coffee shop, City Bean was a twinkle in Sol Salzer's eye. In the late 1980s, he was the frontman for a traveling circus. Tromping across the country, he noticed the burgeoning coffee scenes in Seattle and Chicago, which were teeming with specialty roasters. Los Angeles had nothing like it, not even a Starbucks, so Salzer decided to fill this gap in the market. In 1992, he and business partner James Marcotte opened a City Bean cafe in Westwood.

They eventually had four cafes, although never more than two at one time. The business was successful but Salzer decided, in the early 2000s, to shift the company's focus away to roasting beans for restaurants and other coffee shops. Today, City Bean operates out of a single location in West Adams, where you can buy gourmet beans or Chemex coffeemakers but not a cup of brewed coffee.

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Artisanal coffee roasters have a reputation for snobbiness. In this rarified milieu, City Bean aims to be the friendly — and affordable — cousin. Sure, they source their beans from sustainable farms around the world, and yes, everything they sell goes through a weeks-long cupping process where they identify flavor notes and ideal roasting temperatures. But when the beans hit the shelves, you can grab a standard 12 oz. bag for about $10, almost half the price of their competitors.

"There's so much stuffiness in coffee," Figueroa says. "We try not to take ourselves too seriously. It's coffee; it's a beverage. We never wanna be the cool kids, because eventually the cool kids get played out."

That anti-stuffiness ethos also bleeds into corporate structure and policy. Salzer, a staunch anti-capitalist, shares 20% of the profits equally with his seven employees then reinvests the rest into the company. City Bean's hiring process is unique. After a preliminary interview with Salzer, candidates work a half-day with all seven employees. At the end of the day, the employees vote on whether or not they should hire the applicant.

"When we say we're coffee for the people, we mean it," Figueroa says.

About a decade ago, an employee suggested City Bean start selling leftover beans from wholesale batches at wholesale prices to walk-in customers. What began as a way to reduce waste and increase brand awareness became central to company's ethos. Now, Figueroa estimates 15% of their beans are sold through their "wholesale to the people" program.

I happened across City Bean by chance because I live a few blocks away from their West Adams roastery, their last remaining brick and mortar outpost. The shop is easy to miss from the street. The nondescript black building blends in with nearby metal fabrication and floor-supply shops, and the only noteworthy marker is a foldable sidewalk sign touting their wholesale prices.

You have to press the doorbell and wait for someone to let you in. Inside, the tiny retail space is lined with framed newspaper clippings and awards. Near the back, an open door reveals a massive, 1926 Probat roasting machine.

A single shelf showcasing dozens of colorful bags of coffee occupies most of the space. Almost everything is single origin. I had never tried coffee from Timor, so I grabbed a bag, along with another from Ethiopia — $20 for both. It wasn't until I returned home that I realized what an absurdly good value this was. The beans from Timor produced the single best cup of home brew I had ever made. That's not due to my brewing skills; that's because of Figueroa's attention to detail.

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He and his team roast sample batches so they can compare each bean they sell with several other green, unroasted coffee beans from the same region. Once they land on a certain bean, Figueroa spends weeks dialing in the roasting time and temperature to bring out the flavor profiles he wants. It's a skill he has spent years honing.

In 2005, when Figueroa was promoted to manager of City Bean's new downtown L.A. coffee shop, Salzer offered to pay for classes at the Specialty Coffee Association in Long Beach. "It was like sleepaway camp, but you're drinking your friends' coffee until 2 a.m. every night, then waking up at 5 a.m. to start up again," Figueroa says.

He fell in love with coffee and discovered how a skilled roaster could bring out subtle flavors in the beans. Soon, he was roasting full time. "When you get in front of that machine, the pressure's on. It's vintage, it's temperamental and if you mess up, that's 150 pounds of coffee in the trash," Figueroa says.

Within two years of his promotion, despite all the practice and dedication, City Bean was on the brink of going out of business.

L.A.'s coffee scene was finally catching up to cities such as Portland and San Francisco, and City Bean was still recovering from the financial blows of a devastating car crash that had occurred at their West Hollywood location in 2000. Marcotte jumped ship and joined Intelligentsia as an executive while Salzer and his employees decided to stop serving coffee and only sell wholesale. In the summer of 2007, City Bean moved into its West Adams location.

After the transition to wholesale, Figueroa says he and his team doubled down on their efforts to make specialty coffee beans that more people could afford. He remembers thinking about the coffee his mom would make when he was a kid. "She'd go to this bakery on the corner of Pico and Union, and she'd come back with a huge steaming bag of french rolls, fill a mug with hot milk, sugar and just a bit of Folgers [instant coffee], and we'd dip the bread in there for breakfast," Figueroa recalls.

Those memories have informed his approach to roasting. He believes everyone should be able to have the best cup of coffee, regardless of how they take it. "Whenever I approach a new coffee that I'm roasting, I try to drink it every way someone could drink coffee. Nitro, black, with sugar, with lots of milk," Figueroa says.

It took him eight years to convince his mom she should try anything other than Folgers, but she has been drinking his coffee ever since. "I put my heart and soul in it, so when people like it, it gives me the fuel to keep going," he says.

When I told Figueroa how much I had loved the beans from Timor, he told me to come by the next morning. He tossed me another bag over the fence — the same beans but this time with a darker roast. These ones tasted like pu'er tea and butterscotch.

City Bean's West Adams neighborhood has become one of the newest chapters in Los Angeles's story of gentrification, a conflict that sometimes pits coffee shops, art galleries and expensive restaurants against longtime residents. Figueroa points out that City Bean has been in the neighborhood for 13 years, and most of its employees live here, himself included.

"You see that guy who was roasting your coffee, and now he's walking his dog around your neighborhood. We're all living amongst each other, so the best thing we can do is make the neighborhood vibe as good as possible," Figueroa says.

Michelle Johnson, an editor at coffee publication Sprudge and a competitive barista, says businesses should strive for that kind of connection to their neighborhood. "What it always boils down to is intentionality and whether or not they plan on reinvesting in that community," she says.

After all, she says, coffee shops are supposed to be community spaces. "How can you create a community space that shuts out the community you're physically a part of?" Johnson asks. "Well, I think capitalism drives that."

City Bean co-founder Salzer says hiring local and giving employees a stake in the business helps make them an active part of the community. "Stumptown and Intelligentsia are owned by the same holding company that owns Pete's Coffee and Keurig," Salzer says, adding that they fail to represent their communities in the way that a local business can.

Tien Nguyen, a best-selling author and food journalist who teaches food writing at the University of Southern California, says City Bean was a role model for the Los Angeles specialty coffee scene. "They proved you can do it here and not be overshadowed by Starbucks. And at the same time, they were being conscious about they treated their workers," Nguyen says.

Salzer's goal is for City Bean to become a fully employee-owned company within the next five years. It means each employee would own an equal share of the company, regardless of rank. "In a cooperative society, everyone is valued," Salzer says. "Why shouldn't we do that at City Bean?"

COVID-19 has delayed those plans but Salzer doesn't know by how much. In the first month after quarantine, City Bean lost 90% of its wholesale clients and has only recovered about a quarter of them. Salzer gave up his salary to make sure no employees were furloughed or lost pay. On the bright side, the number of walk-ins is higher than ever, according to Figueroa. "If I fill the shelf in the morning, I might come back a few hours later and find it empty," he says.

Roasting has helped Figueroa maintain a sense of normality. "We just try to take it day by day. I just did a great batch of Ethiopia and Kenya that I'm really proud of," he says.

He's also training an apprentice who he met at a West Adams skate park, using skateboarding terms to teach him the way of the bean. "You don't have to do a kick-flip the way I do, you just have to land it," Figueroa says. It's code for: "Don't replicate my exact roast. Find what feels right for you."

That collaborative work ethic is why Figueroa calls City Bean his second home. "We're family now," Figueroa says of his coworkers. "And if we can offer a great product in this neighborhood, it causes a chain reaction that shares what we love with the surrounding community."

  • 5051 W. Jefferson Blvd., West Adams.
  • During quarantine, City Bean is open weekdays, 8 a.m. - 2 p.m.
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