When you think of the Los Angeles food scene, there are countless restaurants, lounges and cafes that come to mind. From Downtown, to the Westside, to Silver Lake, Angelenos have a multitude of options to choose from in terms of dining, drinks and overall sense of lifestyle. None, however, carry the clout and gravitas of one of Los Angeles’ most iconic locations, Urth Caffe.
Urth, to its very core, personifies Los Angeles. With world-class organic coffee, delightful pastries and desserts, and an incontrovertible sense of posh L.A. brass, Urth is the intersection of trendy and quality. Whenever someone who is new to L.A. asks me where should they go to eat, I invariably tell them to go to Urth. It’s the perfect stepping stone and an ideal introduction to what the City of Angels is all about.
I had a chance to catch up with the co-founder of Urth Caffe, Shallom Berkman, and discuss all things Urth. His personal story and the story of his café have truly taught us heaven is a place on Urth.
A: Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you grew up.
SB: Well, I was born in West Hollywood, CA so I’m a Southern California native. I attended Hollywood High School, but never graduated.
A: Urth has a long history, from its humble beginnings to its current fame. Could you describe briefly the genesis of Urth Caffe?
SB: I’ve always had a desire to sell natural, environmentally conscious products; home products, consumer products and the like. My wife, Jilla, a University of Tehran graduate, always had a strong passion and dream to open up a café. She’s a phenomenal business manager with a refined acumen and propensity for excellence. Urth initially began as a catalog for healthy living, selling organic coffee beans from the farms of Peru. By the late 1980s, the catalog had witnessed some success and in 1991, the first Urth store opened in Manhattan Beach, CA. It was the first organic coffee roaster in the United States. In 1994, another location was added on Melrose Ave. Pastries, snacks, and food were added to the menu, creating the contemporary rendition of Urth Caffe. The name of Urth Caffe comes from an old Welsh spelling of the world “earth” and Caffe is Italian for coffee.
A: When you set out to create Urth, what did you envision it to be?
SB: My wife and I initially had some differences. She dreamed of a full-fledged café. I saw more of a retail business. What we both wanted, and really, what Urth is all about, is a dedication to coffee. I travel around the world teaching farmers how to grow the perfect coffee bean. It’s the attention to detail and passion for perfect tasting coffee that Urth is built on.
A: With Urth being an iconic location in Los Angeles, did you ever imagine Urth reaching this amount of success?
SB: Who could not have possibly known what was to come. We took things one at a time and stayed dedicated. We’ve been proud and happy of our business, but we could not have foreseen the popularity.
A: Do you stay involved with all the celebrity promotion, if you will, of Urth on social media platforms, such as Instagram?
SB: We’re not involved at all with that. It’s great that people love our café and have positive experiences, but we don’t go out and ask people to post or promote. All that is as organic as our coffee.
A: Do you have any plans for expansion?
SB: We’re currently renovating an old, iconic restaurant in Laguna Beach called The Cottage. Laguna Beach is a great town with a lot of culture and galleries. It’s ideal for another Urth location. We were unsure of the status of the property, but the owner was actually willing to sell. It was almost like destiny how things worked out. We’re hoping to preserve the rich history of the place. We’re finishing up restorations and look to open May 2015.
If we find other locations, such as this 1888 building we’ve seen near Chapman University, we’ll consider adding other locations if the timing is right.
A: Are you interested in franchising?
SB: No. We have two shops in Tokyo and I visit them when I can, but we’re not interested in franchising.
A: With a boom in independent cafes and coffee shops in L.A., how do you feel about the increased competition?
SB: We have some unique qualities that differentiates us from other establishments. We have organic, heirloom crops. It’s non-GMO, ancient-variety coffee. Other shops are more in this new style of coffee: under-roasted, light, dark flavor, very low heat, watery, acidic. The coffee isn’t being fully utilized properly and its not satisfying. In a sense, you lose the character of the coffee that way. We’re more organic oriented. We don’t use hybrid trees to produce more, those tend to lessen the quality of products. Actually, there’s really no interest in exclusively organic coffee like us in terms of competitors. We’re sort of left alone in our niche.
A: Besides your own café, what is your favorite restaurant/café to visit in L.A.?
SB: Joan’s on Third. It’s a great little café and they’re doing an awesome job over there.
A: Any advice for budding entrepreneurs and businesspeople?
SB: Apply a lot of passion. You can’t give up, always stay with the path. You have to be in it for more than the money as well. Hard work ethic is key, be service-minded because there is a loss of appreciation nowadays in quality service and that culture is disappearing. If you work hard, stay focused, apply your passion and never give up, things will work out.
Athanasius Georgy is a sophomore majoring in economics. His column, “Food n’ Frame,” runs Tuesdays.