Over-Caffeinated: Can Figueroa Street Handle this Much Coffee?

Newcomers vie for a space in Highland Park’s soon-to-be-crowded specialty coffee scene

When Monique Maravilla decided to open her upcoming Kickstarter-funded coffeehouse Kindness & Mischief on Highland Park’s North Figueroa Street, she thought she had a novel idea. “We always wanted to hang out on Figueroa, but at the time there was such a lack of specialty coffee shops. There was no place to hang out unless I wanted to eat, and I didn’t always want to eat,” says Maravilla.

When she found out that she wasn’t the only one who’d noticed the void—and that there were actually multiple coffee entrepreneurs planning to open shop on the street—Maravilla felt blindsided. “We signed the lease Valentine’s Day last year, so we had that space for a long time, and there was no news.”

And by “no news,” Maravilla means that she’d not yet heard that Tierra Mia, a local, Latino-themed coffee chain, was opening a few blocks away on Avenue 50; or that Intelligentsia would be part of a new multi-concept space in the works on Figueroa. Even more relevant—and troubling—for Maravilla were announcements from Civil Coffee and Verve that they, too, would open on Figueroa within walking distance of her location. On top of that, there’s also La Monarca, the pan dulce chain with a full menu of specialty coffee drinks, which just soft-opened on the street last week, along with the considerable coffee offerings at Kitchen Mouse and Antigua Bread.

“It was a shock to the system,” Maravilla says. “It was, like, oh my gosh, is this a good idea? Am I in over my head? Then, I took a long hard look at it. I made my husband drive me straight there, and said, ‘Let’s walk around, let’s figure this out because I don’t want to give people something that they’re not going to want.’ But, we put way too much into it to say let’s not do it.”

Alex and Alan Morales, the brothers behind Civil Coffee (Tyler Wells, a founder of Handsome Coffee Roasters, where the Moraleses got their start, is a consulting partner), set to open later this year, were also surprised when they found out they were entering a crowded caffeinated field. “We had no idea,” says Alex, who admits that the impending onslaught of coffeehouses speaks to the kind of gentrification hyperbole that Portlandia skits are made of.

The pair happened across the space, a former bootleg Hello Kitty store, that will house their new shop last summer while hanging out with a friend who lives in the neighborhood. After running their mobile coffee cart business, which Alex describes as “fun but exhausting,” they thought Highland Park would be the perfect spot for a brick and mortar.

“We thought this is a great opportunity, it’s a fantastic neighborhood, and there’s a lot we can identify with here, having a Hispanic background—it’s a big Hispanic community—but also the creative, entrepreneurial aspects of some of the folks coming in here that we really respect,” says Alex.

To differentiate themselves from the pack and introduce themselves to the area, the Moraleses have been running free coffee pop ups throughout the summer in front of their shop, which is still under construction. They’ve also paired the drinks with free pan dulce from Panaderia Delicia (a Mexican bakery just a few blocks down from the shop) and vegan tacos from Plant Food for People.

“The coffee pop up came from the idea that we wanted to connect with the community, the people who are around here” says Alan. “It seemed kind of wrong to build out a place, open the doors, and say, ‘Hey, everyone we’re here.’ Whereas opening the gates, letting people see the process of the build out…it almost includes them in the project.”

Maravilla says that she thinks the unique vibes of each of their shops will also attract regulars. All the operators, she contends, have something to different to offer, but are working toward the same goals, including building community. “We want to give people a place to have those random collisions with other people and those connections….all while serving an excellent cup of coffee,” she says.

As the Moraleses and Maravilla vie for a place in the soon-to-be-crowded scene, there is some good news for the newcomers. Earlier this week, Eater announced that Verve has decided to pull out of Highland Park to focus on their new Melrose location (soft open is scheduled for September 15) and their Arts District roastery. Verve confirmed this to Digest via email, adding that they are also focusing on new locations in Santa Cruz and San Francisco. At this time, they say, the Highland Park shop is on hold, and while they are not ruling it out as a future project, currently they are not moving forward with it.

In the meantime, Tierra Mia appears to still be going strong, and La Monarca’s butterfly-clad cups are suddenly ever-present on Figueroa. Civil Coffee, Kindness & Mischief, and Intelligentsia have yet to announce official opening dates.

For her part, Maravilla is staying positive and viewing Figueroa as a coffee corridor of sorts. “It’s no longer just a coffee shop. It’s really going be a bigger picture of Figueroa being a coffee destination, and it’s exciting because, you know, in other cities, like New York, you have a coffeehouse every other block or on the same block, and they thrive,” she says.

Civil Coffee will be holding its last coffee pop up this Saturday (from 9:30am to 1:00pm at 5629 N. Figueroa Highland Park) with Smile Frozen Goods and Plant Food for People in tow.

This post was updated to include Verve’s official statement as they were unable to answer before publishing time.