South LA coffee shop closes its doors, but might be back

Sept. 5, 2012, 4:01 p.m.

Primera Taza, whose staff etches designs into the milk foam of some of its drinks as seen above, closed its doors on September 1. (José Martinez/OnCentral)

Primera Taza's Central Avenue location shut its doors for the last time – or at least, for now – on Friday.

The coffee shop had been one of the storefronts on the historic thoroughfare for just over a year, until it officially closed down, effective September 1.

Juan Romero, the owner of Primera Taza, said it was a financial decision.

"It was partly because we were in the red pretty much when we opened it," he said. "Just trying to sustain it – we got to the point where it got too expensive because of the rent."

Romero owns another Primera Taza location in Boyle Heights, a community he likened to South Los Angeles. He said sales "had gone up 25 percent in the past quarter," but people weren't buying the shop's moneymaker: specialty drinks.

"People were just buying more coffee than specialty drinks," Romero said. "It wasn't covering my overall costs." It also didn't help that Primera Taza's gourmet coffee was sometimes a few dollars more expensive than the coffee sold by other shops, restaurants or convenience stores in the area.

"People want healthy food and they want quality stuff," he said. "But they weren't paying for it."

Part of the reason for that may be because many residents of the area aren't used to the idea of coffee shops – there certainly aren't very many in the area.

"It's a new concept for a lot of the residents in the area," admitted Romero. "We did get some local folks that would come in and buy the coffee but I think, for the most part, coffee chains – they don't really come to [this] community [because of its] income level."

Vivian Bowers, chair of the Central Avenue Business Association and owner of Bowers & Sons cleaners on Central, pointed to the attempt of a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf to open up shop on Central Avenue in recent years. That didn't last either, she said.

"I would say that our area has not yielded that type of client yet," she said. "I know from my clientele here at the cleaners that the area is changing. The residents are changing – we are seeing a sea change, in other words, of younger, more savvy individuals."

Those folks are the ones, she says, who will "begin to patronize boutique-type coffee shops."

"[The area] hasn't turned that corner yet, but you can see it when you shop at the Fresh & Easy," said Bowers. "That customer is here."

In the meantime, Romero plans to remain involved with the community and maintain whatever partnerships with southside organizations he can. He says he did everything he could to keep Central Avenue's Primera Taza afloat, particularly because he'd envisioned the shop as a cultural hub for the surrounding community.

"It was a difficult decision [to close] because for me, it would have been easier to close six months ago," he said. "But we made a sacrifice to keep it open six more months to see if we could make it happen." That sacrifice turned out to be financially unsustainable.

But Central Avenue hasn't seen the last of Romero, he says. He's looking into perhaps reopening the shop or handing ownership over to a partner who knows the community.

"We want to continue serving a quality product over there," he said.

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