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Hiding in Plain Sight With Leon Li and Williams Miyazaki of Coffee Colab Downtown

Welcome to The Baristas, a regular feature that chronicles the daily lives of some of the most talented ladies and gentlemen in LA who are passionate about serving coffee.

Elizabeth Daniels
Farley Elliott is the Senior Editor at Eater LA and the author of Los Angeles Street Food: A History From Tamaleros to Taco Trucks. He covers restaurants in every form, from breaking news to the culture, people, and history that surrounds LA's dining landscape.

In a city filled with coffee shops, it’s not easy to hide from the caffeinated masses. Yet Coffee Colab, the downtown storefront space tucked into an alley just off 8th in the Fashion District, has done a great job of staying under the radar, and that’s largely by design.

Run by friends and longtime collaborators Leon Li and Williams Miyazaki, the burgeoning shop doesn't try too hard to grab the eye for customers walking past. Instead, they rely on a steady stream of locals and anyone in the know to enough to seek out their $3 Americanos and bright red 1970's La Marzocco GS2. "We want to go into unwanted areas, and make them a destination" says Miyazaki. That includes Xiamen City, China, where the pair plan to open their second location in a couple of months. Not bad for two guys who love downtown and just want to serve coffee together.

What drew you to this space? Miyazaki: I was walking by and just saw it. There was brown paper on the windows, and so I asked around. Being off the beaten path seemed like a better idea than being on some street corner. It’s more intimate for our clientele; this isn’t some dine and dash, take your coffee and get the fuck out operation. I’ve had hours-long conversations here with our customers. It seems a little heavy, but we like that.

It does feel like the kind of place that people want to discover, and then they keep coming back. Li: 80% of our customers, we used to know them before we opened this up. We used to work at a lot of coffee shops, consulting a lot. So basically we’d consult and then stay on and work there to help with business as well, from training to coffee sourcing to designing. Williams built a lot of the wooden things we use here.

While we worked there, those customers who really liked us, would come back. So if we’re not in one neighborhood, they’ll come to another to check us out. They’ll find us, somehow. We’re really grateful.

What it is about downtown that you really love? Miyazaki: I've been here 12 years. Honestly, you've got to really appreciate downtown. You hear a lot from people about downtown, the hipsters, gentrification, things like that. There’s also a lot of jobs being created. The architecture of downtown is pristine, but it’s still got a grimy feel to it overall. Even when it’s polished.

The other day a guy took a swing at me and took a stab at our sign. I called the LAPD and they said it’d take 20 minutes, but then they showed up with a helicopter. I mean, you called a helicopter on a homeless person? It was just unreal the way they dealt with it. They told me he had a $5,000 warrant out and he’d be going away for 60 to 90 days; I saw him across the street yesterday. But that's all part of being downtown.

And were you always drawn to coffee? Li: I grew up in China as a tea drinker. But when I moved here to study, I needed a job because I didn't want my mom to pay for everything, you know? So I started working at a coffee shop in Chicago, washing dishes. Then I started making coffee and thought, this is amazing. I started drinking it more, first with lots of cream and sugar, then less and less sugar. It was palate development.

With coffee, you get to know lots of people, there’s storytelling, sharing ideas. That's one thing I love about coffee: so much flavor, so many stories, with good friends.

There is something about community that’s very specific to coffee. Li: Before here, I was in Turkey. Europeans, they’re drinking coffee like crazy. I'm telling you, like 25 coffee breaks a day. And if you ask them if they know anything about coffee, they don’t know shit. It’s about going with people, and sitting there.

Miyazaki: Some people want to work in record stores, some people are born to be doctors. My dad being full Japanese was always like ‘be an engineer,’ but man, that’s not gonna happen. I intended things to go the way they’re going, and I’m sticking to the path.

There’s three things people need in this world: a way to come into it, someone to look after them and someone to pour their coffee. Well, they need a crutch. Whether it’s coffee, cigarettes, booze — everyone needs a crutch. At my first coffee shop, I was 15. I wasn't even allowed to touch the machine. The only reason I got promoted was because a girl there cut herself on a grinder and had to go to the emergency room, so they asked if anyone else knew how to make coffee and I raised my hand and said ‘I've been studying coffee forever.’

So is this your ideal space? Miyazaki: It’s hard to say this, because I don’t want to bash anyone, but I got tired of other coffee shops. They all use blond wood, they’re very sterile. I mean, I went on Craigslist and found all the wood for this place, I did all the reclaiming myself. Sand it, treat it, pull out nails, screws, the whole nine yards. We’re at like 40% recycled material here.

It’s getting there. We’re still in the phases of finishing the touch-ups, the countertops are just coming together finally. At the same time, we have to keep moving up and working with the space.

Is there a philosophy behind Coffee Colab? Li: Just be humble and serve coffee, that’s it. A lot of people do direct trade, they buy from this farm or get beans from there, and it’s all a story — maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. You know what? We’re not coffee snobs, but we can be geeky about anything if you want. Otherwise, this is a good cup of coffee, here you go, please enjoy. You want to put sugar, put milk? That’s your preference. We just stay humble and serve anybody. Simple.

Miyazaki: I spent a lot of time in pretentious coffee shops. If it tastes good, it tastes good, no matter how you want to cut it. We don’t do blended drinks here because it’s kind of infringing on specialty coffee a bit, but at the same time we’d be ripping customers off. I don’t want to charge you for a cup of ice.

Li: The cost also depends on supply. In Guatemala, they’re a small country but their coffee production is huge, and so they have more to sell cheaper. I went to Hawaii last year, and a lot of the coffee there is just OK, but their supply is so limited that their price is higher. We sell all of our bags at the same price here because we want to you care about the coffee, not think one is shittier than the other just because it’s priced less.

What’s next for you two? Miyazaki: Next year, we’re hoping for two more shops downtown. We want to go into unwanted areas, make them a destination, like a scavenger hunt where people have to find the place.

Li: Also, we’re going to hopefully have our first global location, back in China. The name won’t be the same, but it’s us. It’ll be called Kicks. Hopefully in two months, we’ll be there. Even though we don’t have money, we want to do things differently. Lots of customers stay in their small space and don’t think bigger, but we want to go everywhere.

Coffee Colab
305 E 8th St #3
Los Angeles, CA 90021
open: 7 a.m. - 5 p.m. weekdays, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. weekends