LAMILL Coffee was one of the forerunners of specialty coffee in Los Angeles. A 20-year-old Craig Min took over a company that his father started, rechristened it in 1999, and has built LAMILL into a wholesale power that is just now ramping up retail efforts. They’ve got a cafe with Michael Mina confections opening in the Four Seasons Baltimore on November 11, and as many as five retail locations scheduled for the Los Angeles metro area. The company occupies a 22,500 square foot facility in Alhambra, sourcing beans from 17 countries to produce 400,000 pounds per year on a 60-kilo Probat roaster. As Min said, “We like to accentuate the character of the coffee while maintaining an elegant balance.” He also operates a sister company called Sun Garden, which was evidently the “largest importer of organic, free trade tea in the country” last year. We met at LAMILL’s Alhambra headquarters on October 26, and Min shared more insights.
How important is retail to what you’re doing at LAMILL?
Today I think that retail is a very important component of our growth. We want to be able to touch each and every market in each and every city throughout the country with our style of coffee and our style of beverage.
Now that there are more coffee roasters emerging in Los Angeles, how does that change your approach, or does it?
For us, I think we’re one of the pioneers of Los Angeles. We’ve been here since the late ’90s and we’ve seen a lot of change over the last decade. I think the change is all for the better. With more passion, more creativity and more sets of heads thinking about a better cup, I think that’s going to up the game and bring more awareness to consumers, so I think it’s all to the benefit, because at the end of the day, every consumer will choose their style of coffee and what they like.
What’s the biggest challenge about opening up and operating multiple cafes, now that you’re opening up in Baltimore?
People and execution. It’s something where we’re very fortunate to be working with the Michael Mina Group, and so their expertise in operations and starting and opening new restaurants and food service environments, we’re very much relying on as an operator for being able to execute quality, and that’s one of the reasons that we feel confident in being able to go out to the market and open more LAMILL stores.
How did that partnership come about?
It’s more of a friendship, from the beginning. Michael experienced our coffee, he enjoyed it, he started using it in all his restaurants, and after we opened our retail store, he came in one day and looked at everything, and that’s just kind of when the light bulb went off; we’ve got to do something. That philosophy towards quality and execution in food is very like between us, and that’s what inspires the relationship and pushes it forward.
So it’s a modern interpretation of a coffeehouse that serves beignets?
Exactly, and confections, and anything we think goes great with the beverage during that season, or at that time, whatever that may be. A lot of what we do is inspired by our travels or different cultural environments. We’re exposed to quite a bit, so to bring something from a different country is just a beautiful thing, to be able to share a flavor that somebody is enjoying somewhere far away.
Why did you start that concept in Baltimore? You had talked about doing it in Orange County at some point.
Well, the LAMILL coffee cafes that we’re building now, our initial plan was to be able to launch them here in Los Angeles. This opportunity came a little earlier than the others, so we committed to it. It’s our second store, it just happens to be on the East Coast.
So it’s been about four years since you opened your first café?
Three and a half years. We opened January 2008. It’s been three and a half years. Number one, we’re really thankful to the community, because they’ve really supported us throughout our challenges as a small business. Fortunately we’ve grown in the year that we’ve been there. Throughout the recession we’ve grown as well. As people are more aware of how they spend their money, they’re going to choose to spend their money in places where they see value. That’s something that’s evident to us, even throughout these hard economic times.
What was your goal with that first café, and do you feel like you’ve accomplished those goals so far?
Yeah, I think the goal was to just speak our mind, and show how we see coffee, and how we see food, and we like to go…That’s our interpretation of what we enjoy. We’re just glad that people liked it.
You have five more cafes opening in Los Angeles?
An exact number hasn’t been determined yet, but there are a few cafes that we are very close to announcing here in the Los Angeles area.
How would those differ from each other and from the original?
It all depends on locale and geography, and what that space is set up to do. We can go from our fuller concept where we can light lunch fare and other things, and in our smaller concept, we can just have our beignet bar and our coffee bar. It just depends on our locale, and what that area needs is what we will build.
Will Michael Mina be involved with all of those?
Will he become involved with the Silver Lake location too?
That I’m not quite sure. We haven’t thought about it yet.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work behind one of your coffee bars?
One of the biggest things that we look for is someone who’s teachable, and somebody who has humility in what they do. Those two traits, we can really help mold someone in doing the best that they can do, in whatever facet we put them in.
What’s a typical coffee consumption day like for you?