James Choi went from an aspiring professional golfer to an accountant before becoming the owner of Cafe Dulce in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo in 2011. After helping to sell his mother’s chocolate shop in Palo Alto, she moved down to Southern California with a new dream of opening a bakery. As the ever-dutiful son, Choi helped his mother get her idea of the ground and unknowingly opened one of the most innovative bakery concepts that boasted a stellar beverage program.
Infusing Asian and American flavors, you can get a Green Tea Donut or a mocha-flavored Malaysian Roti Bun. You can also indulge in one of their many drinks like the Blueberry Matcha Latte or Vietnamese Iced Coffee. We sat down with Choi to get his insights on Cafe Dulce’s success and a behind-the-scenes look at the bakery’s operation.
With a tenuous beginning to the shop, Choi shares the trials and tribulations that came with being a restaurant owner.
[With the chocolate shop], we didn’t have to make the chocolate. We didn’t have to be a chocolatier. But if [my mother was] going to start a bakery, there’s a whole bakery component to it. We knew we were going to do sandwiches and lunch of some sort, so there’s that aspect of it. I told her to just hang out. I’m working, and she can just relax, and we should be fine. But she was set on it, and she found a partner.
So they started building out. All the money’s in it, all the equipments’ bought and is being installed. Three weeks before we open the doors, they have a huge argument, and he leaves. So I take a minute, and I go, ‘Well, okay, I guess I’m putting my two weeks in.’ I put my two weeks notice in at Ernst & Young, came over, and I’ve just been here since.
That must have been incredibly stressful.
After a month, I was like, ‘This is not going to happen.’ [Our temp baker] ended up leaving, and while we were looking for another baker, we were buying dough–just like frozen dough and frozen cookies, and just anything we could to have something to sell. One of our bakers is still here from then, but you know, we had two guys from Guatemala just baking whatever they could bake in the back. I was trying to learn and run the coffee program in the front. So I was working sixteen-hour days every day for a good year and a half.
Then we ended up hiring a family friend out of baking retirement to come help us. He came in and was with us for a good two years. That’s where we kind of established all of our recipes.
I think the reason why we were able to stay and keep our doors open was–even though we were selling frozen danishes or buying third-party, even though we had a bakery, and we were buying all this stuff–it’s because I said, ‘Hey, the stuff might not be that great, but service has to be paramount.’ We have to have a relationship with the community, and that will keep them coming back despite all of our failures and efforts. So that was very paramount.
How did you develop the cafe concept?
We definitely wanted to have a good coffee program. It was an amazing time to start getting into coffee. All we knew about coffee was that we wanted to have a very very competitive, really really high-quality coffee program. In 2011 and 2012 is when third-wave coffee really started to take root in Los Angeles. And so, that’s when we started seeing Intelligentsia really become more commonplace, in terms of people talking about specialty coffee and going there. Handsome Coffee Roasters opened up in the Arts District. Everyone was talking about Blue Bottle.
So we go to these places and just figure out what they’re doing, talk to their baristas. Even now, there’s no central repository of coffee knowledge, you know? So, the way we learn it is we talk to other baristas, come back, try it.
If it works, we implement it. If it doesn’t we try and figure out why it doesn’t work. So, we really grew our coffee and beverage program with the coffee and beverage industry in LA as that came to root.
How do you differentiate yourselves?
I think anytime something becomes very trendy, there’s an urge to want to jump on that bandwagon–like avocado toast was in. Everybody had an avocado toast, and we never had an avocado toast. So the urge is always there to do whatever’s trendy, but then I realized we’re not the hipster Arts District coffee shop.
Our niche here is we’re kind of a gateway coffee shop to specialty coffee. Also, our food is artisanal in a sense, but we’re not crazy rustic breads or quinoa grain bowls. So what we try to do is make a relatively healthy menu that’s approachable, and that people in this area can come to more than once a week. I think that’s kind of been the case. Our salads are healthy, and they’re nice, they’re fresh and clean. Our sandwiches are made on bread that we bake in-house. I think people kind of like that.
What are your best-sellers?
From our pastry side, I don’t know if it’s because we’re in Little Tokyo, but a Green Tea Donut is definitely the best selling donut, and then the Bacon Donut. The Fruity Pebble is probably the most photographed donut we have. It’s just a Fruity Pebble Donut Hole, and it’s colorful. It’s kind of a throwback to childhood, right? Everyone loves Fruity Pebbles. Collectively, we sell a lot of rotis–the buns.
Those are a Malaysian-style bun, and we did those because the original roti, which means bun in Malaysia, was this coffee mocha topping over a soft bun with a melted butter center.
They pair really well with coffee. So we said, ‘Hey, let’s do rotis.’ So we created the roti with our own recipe, and then our baker started going, ‘Hey, we can do all sorts of stuff. So let’s do a Green Tea Roti, because we do a Green Tea Donut.’ We noticed that a lot of Americans like cream cheese-filled stuff, so we came out with a Cream Cheese Roti.
What about drinks?
In terms of our drinks, as much as we love being a specialty coffee shop and using really great coffee from very high quality roasters–our popular drinks are the Dulce Latte, which is a latte with a little bit of condensed milk in it to sweeten it and make it creamier. We got written up early on for our Vietnamese-style Iced Coffee. We make that very differently. Normally, it’s a slow-drip French roast coffee in condensed milk; you mix it, throw it over ice. So, in order to make it to-order without having to use that dripper and wait ten minutes for it, we said, ‘Why don’t we make it with espresso?’ And so, we ended up needing a lot of espresso to make it, so it’s four shots of espresso with a bunch of condensed milk, and we shake it with ice. It comes out really great, and we sell that a lot.
What are your favorite menu items?
I think it’s hard to beat our bacon donut fresh out of the fryer, if you can get one. Those are insane.
And then, going back to our roti–if you’re here at eight o’clock when the roti comes out of the oven, it’s insane. It’s a whole other animal than the rotis here. I guess the pro tip is that you can always ask for it warmed up, but straight out of the oven–the outside crust is extremely crunchy, and then the melted buttercream in the middle is oozing, and then the bread is really soft and warm.
I actually love our Turkey Swiss with added tomato. It’s roasted turkey, swiss cheese, our spicy mustard sauce, just toasted. And it’s just spicy enough where it gives you a little heat. The swiss cheese–I add tomatoes on it–the swiss cheese and the tomato give it a little bit of acid and sweetness. It’s just really good. It’s one of our more simple sandwiches, but I don’t know, I like that a lot.
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Photos by Michelle Park