House Roots: Hanging with the Valley Coffee Kids
House Roots Coffee is committed to serving the Valley affordable, handcrafted coffee. After three and a half years of doing pop-ups, owners Thomas Kong and Jimmy Lee have found a home for their business in an unsuspecting place: the Valley. They want to bring specialty coffee to their home city without burning a hole through wallets. Designed with the customer in mind, the welcoming ambiance and hospitality fosters a relationship between the baristas and the buyers. Even the layout of the small space is designed for people to engage with one another. House Roots is committed to giving back to their local community and beyond, whether it’s through offering the “Good Morning Neighbor” coffee for just $2 or filing as a non-profit with the intention of donating to various social causes.
By Eric Nakamura
Photos and Video by George Ko
Thomas Kong: My name is Thomas. I am the brand manager at House Roots Coffee in Granada Hills. We've been open since September 2016 and my role is to make sure the customer experience is as best as we can have it, from the menus to the furniture to social media.
GR: Can you talk about why you decided to open in the San Fernando Valley?
TK: House Roots Coffee was started by a bunch of Valley kids. We all grew up together, we went to church together. We would drive downtown to check out the cool stuff and then come back. The Valley didn't have a very good reputation past the 1980s. The Valley was great in the 1980s. You know, The Karate Kid, The Sandlot, all these things were getting shot here. But then in the late 1990s and early 2000s, people didn't really have many good things to say about the Valley, and that's where we started. We really wanted to open something like a cafe or a music venue to bring life back to the Valley. We would love it when people talked about the Valley in a positive way. Around early 2011, we started to learn everything coffee. We didn't have anywhere to do it so we just started practicing at our church. We would make pour overs. We would buy V60s off of Amazon, buy beans from Starbucks, and eventually we got a tiny espresso machine and started pulling shots. We started to form a community, which was really cool. People started to come to the church for coffee. A couple of us realized very quickly that we didn't know what we were doing in terms of coffee. We called it YouTube education. We learned how to make coffee from YouTube videos.
Then we reached out to James from Cafe Dulce and we basically asked him to take us under his wing. Our coffee director, Jimmy got a job there and eventually I got a job there, which was tough because at that time Dulce was one of the very few coffee shops. For about 2 and a half years we drove down every morning to pull shifts at Cafe Dulce, to learn coffee. We were at Dulce to learn the craft of coffee and the art of hospitality. To this day, I think Dulce is one of the most comfortable, hospitable coffee shops. We wanted to really take that spirit and implant it into the Valley. We hated people talking bad about our city.
We eventually raised enough money to start doing pop-ups. We built little carts, did wedding venues, did farmer's markets. We did pop-ups for about three and a half years in Santa Clarita, in the San Fernando Valley, by Magic Mountain. We started to gain traction, we gained a following, and that's what platformed us to be in this space now back in the Valley. We always knew we wanted to be located in the Valley. We told each other “DTLA sounds really cool, but they have enough cool stuff.” It's time the Valley has some goodness coming out of it.
GR: Are there a lot of Asians in the Valley?
TK: There are a lot. I was born and raised here. You were never without a lunch table full of Asians in the middle and high schools. There’s a big Japanese community, big Filipino community, huge Korean community. There's always been such a richness of Asian culture in the Valley. Sawtelle, Koreatown, Little Tokyo they’re all a 20 minute drive away without traffic. With traffic it's horrible. But because it was close-ish, people didn't feel the need to invest their businesses in the Valley. They would just go to the saturated cities. We saw that growing up. A lot of our folks had businesses in the Valley: boba shops, sushi joints. In a way, we’re carrying on that legacy. Let's keep sowing back into our hometown.
We have a menu item called the affogato, which has espresso and ice cream. The ice cream we use is from a company called Wanderlust based in the Valley. Now they're getting huge traction and press and the owners are Filipino. They're really well-known for their ube ice cream. For us, let's just tie all the things the Valley already has. Let's just bring it all back together.
GR: Where does the name come from?
TK: We went through a whole bunch of names. For us, it was about our culture, our families, our values, our home rooted in this city. We want to share that with anyone who's brave enough to walk through the doors. Speciality coffee is a weird thing. It's more mainstream now, but back in the day when we were starting, it was very new and it was very scary. It's a very intimidating thing if you're just a day to day black coffee drinker and you go into one of these shops with bow-ties, and flasks, and beakers. We wanted to have the same level of quality but not scare anybody off. Our big thing is hospitality and approachability without the sacrifice of quality. Even the name "House Roots" was based on that model. I think some of the first names we had were "House-ology" and "The House Craft." But nobody is going to want to come into these overly cool, hipster-fied names. We just kept it simple. We didn't want to do anything out of our scope so we just called it "House Roots."
GR: I would think the culture of coffee in the Valley might be different than in LA proper. People here might be used to dollar coffee. How did you deal with that?
TK: That was one of our biggest challenges. That was a big barrier of entry in the Valley. Fortunately, our pop-ups gave us a lot of time to test out models of hospitality and service. Our price points are really reasonable. The types of coffee and the ingredients we use are the exact same as any coffee shop that you can find in downtown. A pour over for us is $3.50-4.00. Some shops would be $7 or $8. That's just the way we have to accommodate this neighborhood. We didn't want to come into a predominantly middle to lower class neighborhood. That's our families. We didn't want to plant ourselves and say, "Hey a latte is $7. Take it or leave it." We want to grow with the neighborhood and the community.
One of the things we had to overcome was the time spent making pour overs. People enjoy the experience of watching us brew it. But for a busy person, they’re in at 6 or 7 o'clock in the morning and all they want is to down the coffee and get to work. To accommodate that we have drip coffee batch brew, which is the same level of coffee. In the morning we offer the "Good Morning Neighbor” special that's $2. You get $2 of fresh coffee and it’s super delicious. That's offered from opening 'til 10am.
We've started to gain quite a following because of it. The working class man and woman will come in, have coffee, and a really beautiful thing we see is trust being formed: “They're not just some punk kids from some city who came in who are trying to make a buck off my dollar. Actually, they're really trying to empower me.” We always try to smile too. These working class men and women come in on the weekend and bring their family. They say, "Hey honey this is my coffee shop,” and then they'll buy the $4 lattes, they'll buy the cookies and treat their families because we've built this level of trust in the neighborhood. The price point hasn't been that much of an issue because of that. We're basically competing with the mega coffee chains like Starbucks and we're just a hair above that, but people see the difference in quality. They're willing to pay that extra 25 cents or 50 cents.
GR: I'm noticing that most of the customers are mostly Asian American. I saw a mix, but mostly Asian American customers. Why is that?
TK: Most of our employees and our customers are Asian American but we never branded it that way like, "House Roots Coffee: Welcome Asians." We didn't intend it to be that way. But I think if you're secure in your identity and if you're confident and not ashamed of your culture it will start to trickle out into the things you do. If you go into your Asian American friend’s house, the first thing their parents ask you is, “Hey, did you eat yet?” I think even as the second and third generation we portray that to our customers.
I think that naturally starts to draw a lot of Asian Americans and also because a lot of our employees have deep ties in the Asian American culture in this city and neighborhood. But we do have a good mix. It's interesting because now that we're presenting something as simple as coffee with an Asian American cultural perspective of hospitality, it catches on. Even non-Asian customers say that there's really good vibes in here like, “I feel really welcome,” or “I feel really at home.” Things that you would hear our friends saying at our friends’ houses because of their parents. I think that's become an anchor point or a pillar of House Roots Coffee. People can come in here and feel at home. They never have to feel intimidated. Regardless if you buy a $2 cup of coffee or $20 worth of coffee bags, you get treated the same way. I think that's been really helpful for us in all levels.
GR: How do you instill that hospitality in all your employees? Are you training them or is it natural?
TK: I wish I could say it was natural because it would have been a lot easier but it's definitely intentional. We train them. We're drilling it into our staff all the time. You're not serving coffee, you're serving customers. You're not here to puff yourself up. That’s important and we want our staff to be confident and continue to pursue excellence. But we also tell our employees that the cup of coffee we serve is only as important as the person receiving it. That's the main transaction happening. We get to have an impact in our city in a very positive way by using coffee as the vessel to exchange hospitality. We drill that into our staff over and over again. We opened in September and all our employees were super hospitable, but there's work behind it from three and a half years of being a pop-up. We kept drilling it into people because that's the only way customers will come. There's so many other coffee shops and what sets us apart was our hospitality, our willingness to interact with the customer apart from just a one-minute transaction of money.
GR: Is there a dream or a goal for you store?
TK: A lot of people don't know, and it's not something we necessarily want to flaunt, but we're a 501(c)3. We're a nonprofit coffee shop which means in our bylaws and in business plan, apart from operating costs, apart from making sure our staff gets paid, apart from keeping the lights on, and buying coffee, all the overhead, everything else goes to local and overseas causes. If there's a need to end homelessness in our city of Granada Hills, then we'll give to that. While we were a pop-up for those 3 and a half years we gave what we could to the crises in Japan, the Philippines, and Syria. We were still investing to open the shop but whenever we had overhead we would give that. Eventually, once people start to trust us, we're going to make that part a little more evident with signage and posters around the shop. But the first step was to get people in here because the coffee is good. We never wanted that to be an issue. When people ask, we tell them. But basically it's ingrained in our business. Whether you as the customer like it or not, that latte that you bought is going back into the city. It's kind of our ninja-way of giving back to what we really believe in. We've been giving money to help build girls' homes and creating job opportunities in Mozambique through Express Eden for the past few years. It will eventually become more clear and more evident, but the first step was just to get people into our coffeeshop.
GR: That's awesome. I had no idea.
TK: We love when people discover it along the way instead of, "You need to give us money because, if you don't, you're going to feel super guilty."
GR: Are you trying to foster a community of other shops opening near you?
TK: That's definitely in the pipelines. We have an in-house baker and a good friend of ours smokes meat. We actually have a 0.5 location. Our church is 5 minutes from here and we have a little lab space on the second floor where we are experimenting with drink recipes, smoking meats. Our friends Good Luck Soda actually got their start in that same room. We really want House Roots to become an incubator for small businesses to pop up around the area. We definitely want to be regional, which means two or three coffee shops around the area. We really love the San Fernando Valley. I don't think we have any intention of encroaching on other people's cities when they're so into their own. It's definitely like a hometown kind of thing. But we have number 2 and number 3 on the road now. Hopefully a collaboration with the friends that we've been incubating—Good Luck Soda, Gogi Craft does Texas style smoked brisket and pork belly with a Korean twist. We want to see everything rise up together.
GR: Have there been any obstacles in the five months since you’ve been open?
TK: We planned as best as we could. We're outgrowing the space already. Thankfully, on Yelp we have 5 stars, which is pretty cool but people are always saying, "I wish there was more seating." We're in an 800 square foot cafe and we designed the space to be a pretty high volume, high turnaround cafe so we got the high bar. It's like a belly up bar. We don't take credit for that though. There are coffee guys out there that started it and we were really inspired. Seating is definitely a challenge for us. We would love to break down a wall and go into the next space and expand.
Other than that, I think the biggest challenge for us is rent. We never had to pay rent as a pop-up. As a pop-up you're just kind of guerilla style going from location to location. But we're paying rent now. In the beginning, we had to find creative ways to generate more revenue and more sales because we're paying our staff for the first time in the history of our company. Everyone was volunteer based at our pop-ups. People who believed in it were like, “Yeah, I want to make this city great. I'll make coffee with you.” Even Jimmy and I, we would get paid while working at Cafe Dulce but when we came here for the first 3 and a half years it was a labor of love. Now we have to think about payroll, we're like “How many cups of coffee is that to pay for payroll?”
We're launching a mocktail program. We're doing espressos old-fashions in the hours that are a little bit slower. Most people are getting coffee in the morning and afternoon, but we find during the evenings around 4-7p.m. it gets a little bit slower. But if we can do mocktails and dessert pairings then we can start bringing in more people through the doors. It's just forcing us to become a little bit more creative and that's been helping our numbers.
GR: Can you talk about how you incorporate design?
TK: It's really hard to be original. As the brand manager, the whole team is looking to me to collaborate and have a design direction for the shop. But we had to admit very early on that we're just inspired by other people and putting our own twist on it. That was really hard to admit because we want to be original. I can point to anything in the shop and tell you where we got the cues from. The high bar inspiration is from our friends at Go Get Em Tiger and G&B. The bench is from coffee shops like Eightfold. We take it and put our own spin on it but we don't take credit for it. We put our own flavor to it.
GR: It's like a saloon.
TK: It's exactly like a saloon. For the 3 or 4 minutes that our baristas have an opportunity to interact with this person, this customer, they're sharing life together. It's like a saloon or a barber shop or coming into your friend's house. We have a communal bench because we want people to talk. We're fans of minimalism so there's a lot of Scandinavian influence, a lot of plywood, a lot of white and grey, lighter colored woods, powder coated metals that are kind of primary colors. We wanted to keep it comfortable. When someone comes in here, they don't feel like they're in a dark bar or they don't feel like they're in a farm. We love the reclaimed wood look but we wanted it to be pretty clean. In a sense, it's a blank canvas. If you have white walls and white countertops, you can dream or create something out of that. But if you set the tone too strongly, then it limits the creativity. We wanted to have it be almost like a pop-up space where it's just a bar but we could do mocktails, or food, or espresso tastings and classes, which we may not have been able to do if it was a very rigid design.
Even the tokens. We love the fact that if we screwed up, if we accidentally got a hair in your drink, or the drink wasn't up to your standards, we’re not like, "Sorry, get back in line." We know we would possibly lose out on a positive interaction there. We designed these tokens so we can hand it to the customers and have it be in their hands, whether they redeem this now or come back another time or give it to a friend. That's the best case scenario for us. It empowers them to give us another chance and interaction.
We're trying to be as mindful and intentional as possible with every stage of the design process of the space. The menu itself is designed to be changed. It's not a fixed menu but there are slats just in case something doesn't bite as well as we had hoped. Seasonally, we'll change things. We want it to be an adaptable space where we take the input of our customers to heart and we can adapt and refine and grow and really have it be a premier shop that the neighborhood can be proud of.
GR: What kinds of things are you doing with your laser cutter?
TK: Apart from the stuff that I do for House Roots, I started a business a year ago called Kongruent Works. My last name is Kong so it's Kongruent with a K. What I'm trying to do is bridge the hospitality industry with design. I studied design for many years. I worked in different places with design but my DNA is in hospitality. My mom had a convenience store for 10 years and then she went on to do boba and carry-out sushi. The first thing I ever designed was my mom's sign for her restaurant. She said, "I don't know any artists and I can't afford to hire a graphic designer. But you know how to draw. I'm paying for your art lessons. Can you make us a logo?" That's where it started.
I went to design school and I quickly realized I didn't want to work at a firm. I didn't want to work at a design firm because I love interacting with customers. I love hospitality. My company is a small-scale design firm for mom and pop cafes, restaurants, bars, businesses. We go to them and we treat them like House Roots treats any one of their customers. Basically what we do is ask, “How can we take your brand and take it to the next level so the customers can be really proud of entering into your space?"
We make menus, we make marketing products like the tokens, merch. We do drinkware, Hydro Flasks, laser-engraved glasses. All that type of stuff. We create systems. Like, “Hey go to Japanese American National Museum and you get this token with a robot on it and on the back it says unlock me at Cafe Dulce.” It's creating an interaction and creating another excuse for a customer to experience someone else's work. That's basically what we're in the business of doing, bridging businesses together, and then elevating the customer experience with the power of lasers CNCs and hopefully 3D printers. I'm just working out of my garage right now.
GR: Can you talk about where you think the future of coffee is?
TK: That's such an exciting question to me. I can't profess to know everything about the industry. I'm still learning. But I've been in the coffee industry long enough where I can kind of expect where it will go. Three years ago you knew which coffee shops in LA were the best. Now, pretty much anywhere in LA, you're bound to get a pretty dang good cup of coffee. The bar has been raised. I think LA is one of the most exciting places to enjoy this type of coffee. Now that the bar is raised so high, education, knowledge, equipment is so readily available. It wasn't as readily available 2 or 3 years ago.
I think the next wave or era, is going to be in the experience. I'm seeing a lot more coffee shops integrate more food. You can only do so much to a cappuccino, espresso, or latte to differentiate yourself from coffee shops. But if you're an Asian American, get that Taiwanese beef roll, scallion pancake inside your coffee shop. That will differentiate you from an Intelligentsia. That's why I love Cafe Dulce. These other coffee shops are wonderful, but there's no other place I can go to to get a condensed milk latte and a bacon green tea donut and gain five pounds in one sitting. There's nowhere else I can do that. That’s the next wave: it's not just the craft of coffee anymore, but it's the culture being injected into it and the experience. How can you now use the knowledge, the craft, the equipment, and put your cultural spin on it? I'm beginning to see that more and more. I'm seeing random coffee shops doing Japanese traditional whiskey matcha. I'm like, “Why do you have that on the menu?” But people love it. It's different cultures coming in.
I think LA is the perfect place to do it because we're such a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities. Even for us, we have pretty standard baked goods. We have blueberry scones and bacon cheddar chai scones baked fresh everyday. But that's still very European French-inspired. Right now, we're working on the Korean pancake. It's very similar to that Taiwanese green onion scallion pancake but we're doing a Korean version of it. Maybe our non-Asian customers will come in and be like, “This is the weirdest thing ever.” But we're going to try it. “Enjoy your cappuccino and here's your green onion pancake.” I think that's the next wave of coffee— the injection of culture. That's what’s really exciting. It's not just about coffee anymore. It's about sharing someone's life story or sharing someone's heritage or culture with people who are willing to experience it.