The opening of a trendy coffee shop has become the canary in the coal mine of rising rents and a dying local culture. Though the correlation between coffee shop openings and gentrification is still hotly debated, a new shop’s presence can still cause an uproar in a working class neighborhood. This is exactly what happened when Weird Wave Coffee opened for business in Boyle Heights. In recent months, the alternative coffee shop has been on the receiving end of anti-gentrification protests and acts of vandalism. In one July week alone, the shop has seen its windows smashed — twice. Gentrification protesters say Weird Wave doesn’t reflect the culture of the community.
But just blocks away from Weird Wave is Primera Taza, a coffee house that's been operating in Boyle Heights for nine years and has earned a loyal following in the midst of the anti-gentrification climate. But it wasn’t until 2015, under the new ownership of Chuy Tovar and his partner Antonio Segoviano, that the Boyle Heights cafe truly became a "coffee house for the people.”
“When we first started, we introduced ourselves to all the local businesses,” says Tovar. “While I ran the shop, my partner went to local gatherings, the neighborhood council, chamber of commerce and community meetings.” Together they set out to create a coffee shop that would give the community a platform and forum for discussion.
“Primera Taza is a business where we can spread the word, leave fliers, where we can talk to community members and even meet them there to have coffee and hear about what issues they’re having,” says Roberto Garcia, a community organizer with East LA Community Corporation. “Chuy is the type of person who should have a business in Boyle Heights because he understands the community. The coffee shop that just opened up on Cesar Chavez [Weird Wave], that’s the type of coffee shop that we don’t need. The owners are not engaged in what the needs of the community are and when given feedback about gentrification, they’re unwilling to listen and unwilling to understand the impact their business is going to have on other businesses and the people who live in the neighborhood.”
ELACC isn’t protesting Weird Wave, instead their focus is set on creating a more equitable Eastside by building grassroots leadership, developing affordable housing and neighborhood assets, and providing access to economic development opportunities for low and moderate income families. Garcia says he hasn’t heard or read anything on their [Weird Wave’s] part that responds to the community's concerns, “I think it’s their responsibility to respond to the protests in a way where they’re clearly making a statement that they’re opposing gentrification and not just saying it’s my right to open up a business.”
Tovar, an Eastside native and an immigrant himself, came to the U.S. when he was five years-old and grew up in the housing projects of Lincoln Heights. “I grew up in the projects just like most of this community, so I can relate to them,” he says. “My dad never passed second grade because they kept pulling him out to work in the fields and my mom finished elementary and that’s it.” After high school, Tovar went to USC’s Marshall School of Business, it was there that he learned his most valuable lesson, a philosophy that he carries with him to this day, “know your customers.” In this community, knowing your customers is going out, getting to know your neighbors and being open to the people around you. “You can’t just create something and build a wall and then invite people in after building that wall,” he says. “You gotta go out there and meet the people and know exactly who you're serving. If you don’t know your customers, there’s no way you’re going to sell anything, no matter what it is.”
Primera Taza is one of the few if not only coffee houses in L.A. using Mexican coffee beans, sourcing his beans from Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Guerrero and Michoacán — from a lady near Uruapan, a woman owned and operated farm. “I want to change the perspective of Mexican coffee because unless you know the history of Veracruz and their famous lechero drinks [a particular style of coffee], you don’t hear about good coffee coming out of Mexico,” he says. Each variety of coffee bean gives off its own unique flavor profile specific to the terroir that surrounds that region. It was also with these beans that he was able to draw in the older generation of the neighborhood. “When I started switching from Western hemisphere beans like Central America, South America to Mexican beans and I started telling customers about them, people would come in specifically just to try coffee from their state,” he says. “I would have people tell me, ‘Oh, you bring stuff from Michoacan’ And I’d tell them from what region and they would puff up with pride. I think when I started doing that, it erased that barrier.”
Here in Los Angeles, word has spread about his amazing cups of cafe de olla, (a recipe that calls for cinnamon stalks, piloncillo, cloves, cacao and Mexican coffee beans) and beloved lonches (filled with Panela, a brie-like Mexican cheese, Mexican crema, avocado, jalapeño or roasted pork loin, Mexican crema, pickled jalapeños, red onion, tomato, avocado and red Mexican chili sauce) — the secret is all in the birote salado, crusty, salty, sour bread that he brings in from Guadalajara. These unique sandwiches have gotten so popular that customers call in to reserve themselves a lonche before they run out. All of Primera Taza’s pastries are made by Homeboy Industries and dropped off fresh-daily.
Aside from coffee, Primera Taza hosts Barrio de Artes, an open mic night curated by lead barista Angel Aguilar. “It gets a really good crowd, there have been two times since January that I’ve had about a hundred people for open mic. It’s really rare that you get a turn-out like that, a hundred people in complete unison, sharing a safe space, expressing themselves through poetry and spoken word,” Aguilar says. Local vendors, artists and designers are welcome to sell a range of merch from Dia de los Muertos, veladoras (candles with religious motifs), prints, stickers, tote bags, essential oils, jewelry, illustrations, to organic coffee scrubs using Primera Taza coffee grinds. It’s a night filled with music, food pop-ups featuring De La Luna Catering, who specializes in Guatemalan and Oaxacan style cuisine, and Carnitas El Momo, 2017 Vendy Cup award winners.
Booked months out is Primera Taza’s interior wall space — what they like to call the Barrio Gallery. It hosts opening receptions for local artists and students who present their artwork in conjunction with Barrio de Artes. The only requirements? ”If you’re a local and have enough pieces to hang on the wall, then come down,” says Aguilar. It’s about safe space, culture, unity and collaboration. “I’m seeing it more and more — people who don’t know each other will start talking to each other — you don’t see that at other coffee shops. We’ve tried really hard to create a sense of community.”
There’s a lot of passion and care with everything that’s put into Primera Taza, especially when it comes to the neighborhood. Tovar, is a local business owner who believes in the city, providing good coffee and creating a space for community members, artists and activists. “It’s been an immigrant community since its inception and hopefully it stays that way,” says Tovar. “Even though people have been here for two or three generations, I hope they always have that mentality that this country was built on immigrants. Hopefully they can treat this community the same way and be a beacon for the rest of L.A.”
Tovar explains that the neighborhood, new and old, needs to come together as a community. “You really got to think stuff through and visualize where this place is going to be, not just tomorrow but ten years from now,” he says. “And what you can do to shape it now.”
Top Image: Coffee Primera Taza Coco Milk | Cynthia Rebolledo