The idea of visiting KFC is about as appealing as a stick in the eye, but by swapping two letters, and with a little cosmetic surgery, Tierra Mia Coffee founder Ulysses Romero managed to make a bygone Pico Rivera branch of Colonel Sanders’ concept more approachable. The entrepreneur behind a burgeoning chain of Latin-tinged specialty coffeehouses made clever changes to the former poultry factory. He transformed a giant bucket of chicken into a coffee mug, KFC into TMC, and retained the drive-through, only now the aroma is of fresh-roasted coffee instead of fryer grease. This isn’t the first time Romero rehabbed a fast food outlet, and it probably won’t be the last, and South L.A. is better for it, and not just because he’s supplying underserved neighborhoods with high quality coffee.
Romero, who earned an MBA from Stanford University, now has five Los Angeles coffeehouses, primarily in South L.A., and has come as close to vertical integration as any specialty concept in the city. He tasks a Hobart mixer named RoboCop with producing pastries daily in Huntington Park, roasts coffee on a Pico Rivera-based Probat named Sophia, and doesn’t bother distributing beyond the various Tierra Mia walls.
José Rodriguez is Tierra Mia’s Roast Master and helms the company’s Quality Control program. He still works one bar shift per week, but spends the bulk of his time behind a 1957 Probat LG12 roaster with twin handles, to control each burner.
Pourover bar produces coffee like Mexico Cup of Excellence Winner #3, featuring earthy Oaxaca beans from Finca La Lagunilla and farmer Andres Martinez Leon.
Tierra Mia had some good looking pastries that reminded me a lot of Porto’s, with good reason. Romero explained that Porto’s originally supplied Tierra Mia with pastries and consulted on his company’s program, so you’ll find familiar looking guava and cream cheese creations, plus Tierra Mia originals like dulce de leche muffins.
Since my life typically involves two laptop writing sessions per day in various coffeehouses, it’s a little strange not to see WiFi, power outlets, or work station style tables at Tierra Mia, but I can appreciate the premium Romero places on socializing. That way, he won’t clog up Tierra Mia seating with long-timers like me, and people from the neighborhood can congregate. Apparently the South Gate original is a total scene on weekend nights, which is great, since people in South L.A. don’t have many options, outside of movie theaters and bars. That they can also get increasingly good coffee, Latin-flavored specialty beverages, and pastries is a bonus.