The specialty coffee Gold Rush is on in Los Angeles, with roasters and cafes vying for Angelenos’ caffeinated affections. The latest roaster to stake a claim is Caffé Vita, which debuted on February 11 by the Vista Theatre in Los Feliz. Serial entrepreneur Mike McConnell’s company debuted in 1995 in Seattle and now has additional locations in Seattle, Portland and New York. Their first L.A. coffee bar occupies the former home of Uncle Jer’s, which now has a mezzanine, a vintage four-group La Marzocco espresso machine and a trio of Kyoto style cold brew towers. Owner Mike McConnell was in the house on opening day, along with green coffee buyer Daniel Shewmaker, New York manager Bob Prince and L.A. manager John Hornall. They shared insights about their connections to coffee, Caffé Vita in particular, and the chances for L.A. roasting (impending) and Neapolitan pizza (possible).
What was it about Los Angeles and this neighborhood in particular that appealed to you?
Mike McConnell: I think it just felt like home. We’ve been hanging out here for a couple years and we really like it. It’s a good mix of people, artists, great community. It just kind of felt right.
Why was this the right time to join the Los Angeles coffee community?
Bob Prince: Is there a wrong time to join it? I don’t think so.
John Hornall: The timing was right for us. The space was right. The space spoke to us. That’s a big reason. We need to find the right space. And we get it here.
Were you always thinking about the Eastside?
Mike McConnell: Yeah, definitely.
How would you say that this location is similar or different from what you’re doing up in the Northwest?
Mike McConnell: It’s actually very similar to our location on Capitol Hill, which is our flagship in Seattle. Very similar vibe.
Same menu, same equipment?
Mike McConnell: Similar stuff, yeah.
What would you say are some of the characteristics that distinguish Caffe Vita?
Daniel Shewmaker: The approach we take in getting our ingredients and buying our coffee, everything’s community oriented, from what we do at home, working in the community, and also, the way we work in coffee, developing relationships with farmers. We’ve been doing it for a long time, so year in, year out, building mutual sustainability. If we’re successful, they have to be successful too. That theory of business.
What does a coffee have to be for you to serve it at Caffe Vita?
Daniel Shewmaker: For one, it has to be unique. It’s got to have a lot of character to it. We want to have a range of coffees that really represent where they’re from. It has to be a coffee that’s grown in a way that’s sustainable. We keep getting feedback, and we can have a dialogue with the farmer as well. We can get coffees and explain what they’re after. They can, in turn, deliver. It’s a relationship where every season is highly anticipated.
For somebody to work behind your bar here, what are you looking for?
Bob Prince: We’re really looking for somebody who loves coffee. You have to love coffee to work, not only behind the bar, but in any position at Caffe Vita. We’re looking for friendly people who know how to welcome a customer into our home, because this is like our home. This is like our living room here. It’s like we’re sitting around this table. When someone walks through the door, we want them to feel welcome. And then they have to prepare a really badass cup of coffee.
What are your feelings on things like WiFi?
Mike McConnell: We like it when it works. We have WiFi. We have free wireless. We’re cool with it. We want people to enjoy the space. We have the space and the room here to have it.
John Hornall: It brings people in. It’s a necessary…thing. It brings a lot of people in. People will sit here on their laptop and say, “Hey, I’m at [Caffe Vita], and then three more friends will show up. It works good, especially if there’s space to carry the people that are all sitting. It makes an area look busy. It makes it look full, and that’s useful.
This space was a retail shop before. What was your goal with the design and the vibe?
John Hornall: Make it pretty. Make it feel like you’re in any of the Vitas out in the country.
Daniel Shewmaker: It’s definitely got a very similar vibe to all our other locations. They’re comfortable spaces to be in and just hang out and enjoy yourself, and not feel…
Bob Prince: It’s not so much the same that you think you’re walking into a cookie cutter. We take on the feel of the neighborhood, hopefully, as it grows up and we grow into it.
Did you always know that you would work with coffee for a living, or did you think about other careers and work in other careers?