Interview with Patricia Neale: Swork Coffee

Swork Coffee in Eagle RockYoung Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Urban Sociology course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities.

Patricia Neale is the owner of Swork Coffee, which opened in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles in 2001. It is seen as one of the the catalysts in transforming the formerly sleepy neighborhood into a vibrant area that is popular among young, hip families looking for an affordable, small town experience.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself, Swork, and your vision for your business?

Well I'm a very creative person, so that's why I wanted to bring an "uber" coffee bar into Eagle Rock. I wanted to bring good coffee, a place that supported families, especially toddlers, and a place that was nice and comfortable and community friendly. That's why I launched Swork in 2001.

Did you have any inspirations or influences on your work?

Nothing specifically. I was in a desperate need for good coffee, and there were't any. So I felt like it was more of a need. I was also in need for community. The design and the inspiration came because I love Europe, and Switzerland in particular. I remember visiting a place in Switzerland and seeing how beautiful and clean it was, and that was how Swork evolved.

How did you initially enter this role and how has your role developed over the years?

Again, I entered the role because there was a need. I'm more of an entrepreneur. I've owned a business since I was 22, so I've always loved creating something out of nothing. I have a hard time working for other people. My role has changed in the fact that I've grown my love for coffee even more. Not just the coffee drink, but the way of all the origins. It's like wine. Once you really understand and develop your palate -- it's like falling in love with a new man every year.

Yes, and I love the way that coffee can connect people.

I love the social aspects of coffee, how you can have such a diverse selection of people here in the store. And it really bridges people, it really really does. It's also a haven for people because some people are bored to death being at home, and they need a couple of hours somewhere else, even though it's chaotic, and noisy. They need a place to unplug, and I think that's what Swork provides to people.

What would you say is the identity of Swork to the community?

I think a lot of people wonder who we are because we've got the question mark as a logo. To the community, we're an "uber" coffee bar.

Could you define what you mean by "uber"?

Different, utilitarian, design-oriented, funky. There's a lot of different meanings for it. It was penned a long time ago. I don't know by who though. Somebody said it about my store and I thought, "Oh, yeah that makes sense." But I think the community sees us and respects us, and that's something that I'm grateful for. We have a lot of loyal followers. It's great. I feel like the community loves us and we love them.

How would you say that identity has affected the Eagle Rock community?

I definitely think Swork started changing this area. This corner here was dead. In fact, when I was applying for my permits, the city said that the parking lot in the back was the most under-used parking lot in all of Los Angeles! And when we opened Swork, it inspired a lot of entrepreneurs to come and open here. So it has slowly but surely been transitioning Eagle Rock. Which eventually raises property values, and its better for the community to have a nicer town.

Yes, it's kind of like what Highland Park is going through right now.

Exactly. You can't get a house here. It's impossible to find a home like it used to be. People are just fighting for these two-bedroom bungalows. But it's really "hip" to live here.

Do you think that Swork attributed to that "hip" feeling that you get here?

I think so, yeah. When L.A. Times Magazine did an article on us when we opened, they put us on the cover, and they called it "Hipster L.A.," and it talked all about how because we brought this "hip" coffee bar, people were starting to come around more for the homes. In fact, after that article hit, there was a bump in real estate here. In fact I was at a restaurant once, and somebody recognized me and said to me, "I want you to know that I bought a house in Eagle Rock because of that article." And then he and his boyfriend paid for my dinner! And I was eating steak! [laughter]

How important is social media to your work?

I think it's really important because my staff loves it. We have a Facebook page, we have Four Square, we have the whole thing. We also have Twitter. I think it's the way of the future, and I believe that is an integral part of the future of Swork as well. There are so many new apps that are coming out that have so much to do with coffee, connection, and people. There's a social media project that we're joining which allows you to stamp card your visit. You show up, you take a picture of your receipt, and after 10 of these you get a free cup of coffee. So, that will be coming very soon.

I also noticed the pictures you have on your wall that have words like "dream," "coffee," "love," and "people." What is the purpose of those pictures?

The purpose is to inspire, because the word Swork is actually a combination of the words "work" and "success," which has been my motto for years. I fill my whole life, my mirrors, my steering wheel with positive affirmations. I just love the way they sound. Of course, my favorite word is "yes." I just think there's something really great about that word. It has endless possibilities.

Would you say that Swork caters to all sorts of people?

Yes, we actually have a funny demographic. I'm still discovering it and it's been 10 years. I feel like our demographic is broad because we have "uber" moms, we have hipsters, musicians, artists, writers. I feel like I got lucky, and I think a lot of it has to do with putting in a kids space here.

Yes, I was going to ask you about that. Does that space help connect the moms here?

Yes, it sure does! And the dads! You'd be surprised at how many stay-at-home dads there are here, and they're fabulous. There's a dad's group that meets here, and its adorable. They're such great dads. It's a pleasure to provide them a community where they can meet, and enjoy their children.

What do you think about the hipster scene here?

We have it. I like it. It's good. There's a lot of tattoos and piercings. I think half my staff is tatted and pierced. Every time I go out and try to hire a new candidate, it's always 50/50. Its pretty fun and pretty creative. In fact, I was a hipster at one point in my younger years when I had a black mohawk. Everyone has a moment to go through their stage in life.

Are there any other ways that Swork connects with the people? You mentioned the children's space, the paintings.

We connect with a newsletter. We'll usually have a topic about what's going on in the city. We'll usually have a topic about what's our new single coffee roast origin for the month. And then we'll talk about something health-oriented that might have to do with caffeine or pastries, because we bake our own pastries here. We like to keep it short and sweet. Its great; we get a lot of feedback from it. We also try to do fundraisers (for charity), and it makes a big impact because we usually put Swork's logo on all of our material, so people know where it came from.

What are your plans for the future?

Due to the recession, my plans for Swork are reinventing it right now. And figuring out the things that are working, and eliminating things that aren't. We're going through a facelift. In the future, I want to open more Sworks, but I don't see that happening in the next two to three years, but perhaps after.

What things aren't working?

Well, some things just don't connect. I think it's hit or miss. One of the hardest things about business is really understanding what you are selling. How do you define yourself? So that's been something that I constantly fine-tune, and when I look at and do my five-year projections, I ask myself, "What am I doing?" and "What can I do differently?" Things are changing in business so fast now that you have to stay on top of everything. I do a lot of reading about the coffee industry and people. What makes them happy and what doesn't. It helps a lot.


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