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Brewing For Success In Downtown's Coffee Scene

Katie Chen |
February 19, 2014 | 1:59 a.m. PST

Staff Reporter

(Katie Chen/Neon Tommy)
(Katie Chen/Neon Tommy)
Nestled in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles, Handsome Coffee Roasters is a trendy hole-in-the-wall that attracts creatives and coffee connoisseurs to taste (and equally as important) experience the espresso that they have to offer.

Sitting in the factory-shop combo store is a crowd that doesn’t include anyone under 40 (or anyone who looks it at the very least) talking about the muted tones and sweet aftertaste in Handsome’s San Vicente Late Harvest brew. There are people with friends, and there are people with MacBooks. Either way, this culture of coffee-speak and camaraderie is what part founder, part wholesale manager, and at times, part barista, Anthony Carnazzo of Handsome Coffee is trying to convey – a place that induces thought and attracts creatives, but without the pretention. 

Formed in 2011, Handsome Coffee Roasters attributes most of their success (past, present, and future) to their location in the Arts District.

“When we looked at downtown L.A., what we saw was an evolving community,” said Carnazzo. “It’s really catching momentum and getting critical mass. And now, people want to live here because they are close to amenities, and the more people who live downtown there are, the more amenities are required. And we are an extension of that, albeit a more intrepid part of that.”

Right now, the downtown area is a hodgepodge of vacant, decrepit buildings, financial skyscrapers, and the streets of Skid Row. But the city has big plans for the area. And as Carnazzo said, coffee shops are tagging along for the ride.

In 1999, the Los Angeles City Council passed an Adaptive Reuse Ordinance (ARO), which “allows for the conversion of commercial buildings to new uses including apartments, condos, live/work lofts, retail and hotels,” according to the Adaptive Reuse Program Handbook, which details the objectives and procedures that downtown will undergo revitalization.

This means that the old industrial buildings in downtown that stand vacant are now being turned into living spaces that the city expects to be filled by a demographic of young people. And if all goes well, young people who will eventually come to travel to coffee shops like Handsome Coffee.

Independent coffee shops are not coming to downtown out of coincidence. Since the ARO passed, Los Angeles has been making efforts and leaps to make downtown a “destination,” as said by Nina Decker of the downtown Los Angeles Business Improvement District.

READ MORE: "Bestia Heats Up The Culinary Scene In The Arts District"

An area in major flux, downtown and the Arts District is simply incomplete still. Coffee shop success in downtown hinges on the impact of incoming residents and the development of the area becoming a tourist destination, according to Decker.

But, the coffee shop kids of downtown have been getting more than enough pie and only expect to get more. The fact is that while the current development of downtown poses an issue of nonexistent customers, in the long-term, this is the coffee shops’ greatest asset. And while downtown coffeemakers are very aware of the development issue, they are blazing towards it head on. And, on top of that, they feel they are of a rare kind and an expansion of coffee shops is inevitable.

James Choi of Café Dulce in Little Tokyo said, “I believe that downtown L.A. is incredibly under serviced when it comes to coffee shops.”

Not only do coffee shops not see competition, they don’t even think it’s enough to be competition.

Carnazzo sees downtown and its resident consumers to be like a pie. Only each coffee shop is going to get so much of the pie. But, as time has gone on, Carnazzo has seen Handsome only succeed overall.

“I’m not going to lie, when Stumptown moved in, our business took a hit, but in the very next month, we were right back to where we started,” said Carnazzo. “Competition moving in down the street is actually benefitting our business, and I’m seeing it in our numbers.

Any outsider looking into downtown seeing eight new specialty coffee shops that just opened up within blocks of each other would see demise in the making. With any industry, the fixed pie is always going to be a challenge. And when there are more kids to feed, everyone’s going to get a smaller piece of the pie.  And on top of that, the pie in downtown is small. 

 “We are pretty confident. Certainly for the first six months or so, it was pretty quiet, but we are doing five times the business now than we were when we first started. It took people a while to understand what we were doing here and to be willing to drive down here,” said Carnazzo.

That’s a big chunk of pie, downtown. And, taking the words right out of Decker’s mouth, Carnazzo said Handsome is, “making a destination.”

For now, the downtown area is still very much a work in progress. But within the next decade, L.A. residents and coffee shop employees only expect for more shops to open up, more customers to drink coffee, and for the downtown community to grow.

And for the likes of Handsome Coffee roasters, Café Dulce and every other specialty coffee shop in the area, they can’t wait.

This story is part of a Neon Tommy special on the revitalization of downtown Los Angeles. Click #reviveDTLA for more.

Reach Staff Reporter Katie Chen here. Follow her on Twitter here.



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