It has been almost a year since Cafe Dulce served up its first cup of coffee at USC Village, and the coffee has been flowing nonstop since. Undeterred by the constant long lines, I spent a semester (and a whole lot of money) waking up every day to a Dulce iced mocha.
Living at USC Village is a bit of a trap in forming a coffee habit, but after countless cups, I finally feel qualified to award Dulce the prize for best Village coffee — Starbucks’ endless customization options can’t compare to perfectly roasted beans (its beans have a reputation for being a tad over-roasted), and BBCM should stick to making food instead of overcharging for food coloring on lattes.
Dulce is the closest cafe to campus that employs key characteristics of cafe culture — plentiful seating, a focus on coffee before food and an ambient space for anyone to stop in. I popped in on a busy Friday afternoon to have a chat with one of the shop’s baristas to understand the cafe’s culture better and how Dulce’s employees interact with the USC community.
The baristas were all eager to chat with me, despite the apparent busyness of the cafe. “It’s always like this,” one of them laughed at my concern. And as I sat outside at one of the wooden tables, sipping my usual iced mocha, Jordan Pedersen, a USC alumnus who works as a barista at Dulce, took the seat across from me, eager to talk about his experiences at the cafe.
DT: How [has working at Dulce] been since it opened? Did you work at the Little Tokyo location?
JP: No I didn’t. But I looked at what places were coming into the Village, and I saw Dulce on there … The influence I’ve seen them leave on their customers in Little Tokyo — they’re quite active in the community there, in doing fundraisers for Little Tokyo and things like that.
DT: What’s your favorite drink on the menu? What would you recommend, and what is your personal favorite?
JP: Mood, weather, all these things play influence … Most of the time I default to the iced Hong Kong milk tea … The assam they use is really delicious — I love that one. Another backup, would be pretty much any of the iced matchas.
DT: Dulce has a new summer tea, right?
JP: We started offering the rose iced tea! I think that might be for a limited time though. At the beginning of the summer we were also doing a raspberry matcha, with our blueberry and regular.
DT: So whenever you have something new, do the other locations also make it?
JP: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. They offered these summer refreshers that we didn’t have, that were really delicious, and I think our food menu here is more expanded than theirs is. I don’t think they have the dinner. Part of that is for experimental reasons, but also because of our demographic here.
DT: What is the best conversation you’ve had with a customer?
JP: Over the years, I’ve learned a little Armenian. Sometimes a customer will come up and I think they’re Armenian, or I’ll see it from their name, or something that gives it away … There was this couple that came in, and as I was helping them with their order — we already were having a great time talking — I said, “[in Armenian] Are you Armenian?” and they were like, “WHAT?” and they were just blown away. I went out of my way to do a couple of things for them, and they really appreciated it. And they were like, “We want to come back and see you sometime.” That was a really great time.
DT: What else would you say defines your experience here?
JP: I would just be remiss if I didn’t talk about our staff. There’s a lot of diversity in our staff, and they’re really cool … They love the customers, and we’re constantly sharing with each other ideas of how we can better … everyone is very welcoming to take advice. The owner, James Choi, [is] a really sweet guy. He’s just got an incredible vision for his company … They really care about the quality of the ingredients that they’re using. Every time I see Eugene [the manager here], he’s making something new. [He’s] very much [thinking], “No, we’re going to serve what we want to serve, based on quality, not how efficient it is for us to serve it.”
DT: What roasts do you guys currently use?
JP: Right now, we’re playing a lot with Ritual, with a little bit of Grace, with lots of Sweet Bloom … [We use] Copa Vida as well. Those are the main guys we rotate through.
DT: What do you guys do with all the food at the end of the night?
JP: We usually pack a box for DPS, and on our way out we’ll give it to them. But other than that, whatever’s left over, we let the staff take, and toss the rest of them, and make fresh ones in the morning.
The people are just as important as the product, but sometimes as customers we don’t consider the other side of the interaction — Pedersen took a moment to recall his best moments at Dulce.
As we wrapped up our talk, he left me with a helpful tip for my quest of trying everything on the menu: “One thing: If you’re worried about powerful coffee at any time, watch out for the cold brew. We make crazy strong cold brew. I remember my first time trying it … Oh man, I was wired.”
Breanna de Vera is a sophomore majoring in English and journalism. She is also the chief copy editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Cool Beans,” runs every other Thursday.