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The LAist Interview: Angel Orozco, The Coffee Cellar

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The quest for satisfying coffee is never-ending for true coffee fanatics. As a result of the vast wasteland of product served up by most coffee vendors, this search can also prove to be routinely frustrating. But thanks to local producers, including the Coffee Cellar/La Bodega de Café operated by Angel Orozco (located within Mama's Hot Tamales), we've got some exciting alternatives here to the Starbuckization of the world.

The Coffee Cellar's superior product and the amazing array of tamales at Mama's do more than just satisfy the appetites of caffeine-jonesing and hungry Angelenos. These enterprises are joint ventures with the Institute for Urban Research and Development, and are examples of how job training, community economic development, and progressive environmental policy can be effectively brought together while meeting market demand for delicious consumables.

LAist urges folks to head over to Seventh Street near MacArthur Park and try out these goods. And in the process, support businesses that make use of innovative grassroots business models.

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1. Age and Occupation:

30. Self-employed by choice, urban planner by training and humanitarian by conviction.

2. Where are you from?

I was born in Guatemala and came to Los Angeles in 1982.

3. What neighborhood do you live in?

I live at the Los Angeles Eco Village, an environmentally intentional community in East Hollywood, Koreatown adjacent.

4. What type of business model does the Coffee Cellar/La Bodega de Café use and how is it different from the conventional, purely profit-driven approach?

The Coffee Cellar emerged as a result of three reasons. One, I consider myself a coffee connoisseur, that is, I roast coffee at home and engage in several preparation methods to extract the optimum taste from coffee. This way I can enjoy coffee that is freshly roasted and brewed and healthy, as opposed to drinking the stale coffee that one finds at the supermarket or even the franchises. Recognizing the lack of establishments that roast their coffee on site, I decided to offer this experience to the LA community. The coffee I source, I assess first its quality, second its origin (high altitude), third its growing method (organic) and lastly, whom it comes from (small grower or progressive coffee estate). I roast the coffee on site and in small batches to ensure its freshness.

Two, conventionally grown coffee is environmentally disastrous and small coffee growers are not receiving a fair price for their coffee. As a result, the coffees I source come from small growers and have either fair-trade, organic, shade grown and/or bird friendly certifications. This is an integral component to the business plan of The Coffee Cellar. There are few establishments out there that do this and I pride myself in having done it from the beginning rather than after the fact. As business grows I may be in a position to purchase directly from the growers I have relations with to assure them a better price for their coffee without passing on the benefits to intermediaries who could care less.

Three, I wanted to become a stakeholder in the MacArthur Park community. I carried out research for my M.A. work in this community, looking at the potential of intensifying mixed-use development in this area with the park, metro station and the area’s cultural history serving as anchors. Currently, I am working an establishing a committee that will work toward making MacArthur Park an example of environmental stewardness in the city.

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The Coffee Cellar is still a work in progress and probably will continue to be that way, especially given the current volatility of the coffee market and not to mention the larger economy.

5. Do you patronize any other purveyors of hot beverages in Los Angeles?

Urth Café, Pete’s and Tullys. The latter two do a good job at preparing coffee.

6. What are some pros and cons of operating a community based, environmentally sustainable business in LA? Where else is this happening around the country?

I think one of the pros is the satisfaction of being able to provide opportunity to members of the community in which I work. I am not generating hundreds of jobs, however, one or two jobs helps and contributes to the local economy. Another pro is providing a venue to the local community, which includes both residents, students and those who work in this area, who tend to be largely from the non-profit sector, where they can find high-quality and healthy products, products that have positive benefits even internationally.

The cons, especially in this area, is that although this is one of the densest areas of LA, the purchasing power of its residents is not sufficient to afford the products I sell. I have priced my products to be competitive with similar establishments in the area, but the coffee I have is of higher quality and thus has to be priced accordingly. I try to engage with customers and explain to them the difference between the coffees I serve and 50 cents coffee they could get somewhere else. It helps, I believe.

Another con is that the culture of environmental sustainability from a business perspective is not well grounded and some of the ideas I have brought to my establishment, such as recycling and especially composting, have been looked at with questionable eyes. So has the patience I take in selecting products, especially in determining the ingredients that are used in processing. I have garnered converts though.

There are other examples, mostly in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

7. What's your preferred mode of transportation?

Bicycle first, public transportation second and car as a last resort

8. How often do you ride light rail?

If you mean the Blue and Gold Line, occasionally; however, the Red Line I use frequently.

9. What are your favorite LA-based movie(s) or TV show(s)?

Heat, KCET, "Roka Mole".

10. Share your best celebrity sighting experience.

Maria Elena Durazo President of HERE Local 11, Maria Guardado, Quetzal.

11. What's the best place to walk in LA?

MacArthur Park, Broadway, Venice boardwalk, LA River.

12. It's 9:30 pm on a Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?

I am coming from my coffee shop and on the way to a good night sleep.

13. If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?

Before the Spaniards arrived. I imagine constantly how the landscape looked before agriculture and pavement, when the LA River ran its natural course.

14. What's your beach of choice?

Leo Carrillo, because of the hike and bike campsites.

15. What is the "center" of LA to you?

This is a hard one to define, though I would say the center of LA is where I currently live and work, because that is the area that I tend to see the most of. It is the densest and most diverse, and I love it. Like many other Angelenos, however, I have lived throughout LA; El Monte, Monterey Park, City Terrace, El Sereno, Pasadena, Westwood, Palms.

16. If you were forced to live in a neighboring county, which would you choose? Ventura County is a wussy answer.

Probably Kern County. I love camping at the Kern River.

17. What is the city's greatest secret?

Its parks; the LA River; public transportation.

18. Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?

I am an occasional drinker but mostly at home. If I take the bus or train somewhere then I may indulge.

19. Describe your best LA dining experience.

I like C&O in Marina del Rey, an Indian food place on Vermont and Shatto Place (can't remember the name), Casablanca in Venice and the Oak Tree Inn in South Pasadena.

20. Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?

At a park or anywhere that is open.