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A Place to Dwell: An Interview with Annie Choi, Owner of Found Coffee

A Place to Dwell: An Interview with Annie Choi, Owner of Found Coffee

Annie Choi, Founder and Owner of Found Coffee in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. 

Annie Choi, Founder and Owner of Found Coffee in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. 

Lauren: I’m with Annie Choi from Found Coffee here at Michelle Harwell Therapy....Well, Annie it’s so good to meet you.

Annie: So lovely to meet you, too

Lauren: So we’re talking a lot about the idea of home here at MHT and we’re wanting to know how you came to find a home at Found. So, to get started, maybe you can just tell me a little bit about what drew you to pursue 3rd Wave Coffee and eventually establishing Found?

Annie: Actually that’s a really great question because I was in the process of switching careers - I was working in entertainment and I was working post-production. And so for me, something that’s really important is storytelling. And so I thought “OK I’m going to tell stories in TV.” And when I was working in post-production, I was actually behind a screen for 12 hours a day with headphones, so it ended up being very isolating and lonely. And I’ve always wanted to open a coffee shop - going to coffee shops and coffee shop-hopping has been a hobby for me.  So, when I entered coffee, the first two weeks of being in coffee I felt like my lifelong friends.

I think it’s because just being in the service industry, too, people are welcoming and they know about customer service. And so for Found I wanted definitely to create a space where people were comfortable.  And I think also the church for a really long time has been a place where people have been able to find community.  And I think LA has changed and I go to church, but I feel like as I was working in coffee, I found a lot of regulars found community in the coffee shop. And so I wanted to create that kind of vibe and that kind of atmosphere at my own coffee shop.  And I think Eagle Rock is the perfect place for it because everyone here is so supportive of small businesses and I have SO many regulars. And I think the regulars are the heartbeat of my coffee shop, they allow me to pay my guys, they come every day, we know their kids, we know their dogs, so I think in that sense for Found I wanted home for a lot of people. And a cup of coffee is very comforting.  And I think that too creates a sense of home and a sense of familiarity. And so I was really excited to do that and it’s kind of evolved to be that for a lot of people, especially in this kind of community.

Lauren: Beautiful - how you’ve been able to transfer that desire for community into your passion for coffee. Can you tell me about the first cup of coffee you really enjoyed?  Where was it? Who was with you?

Annie: So, I didn’t actually start drinking real coffee for a while, until I was in college. I can’t tell you when I had my first cup of coffee but I can tell you my best cup of coffee.  When I was switching careers, during my gap year, I went to Costa Rica on my own and went to a coffee plantation and I had the best cup of coffee in my life. The beans were grown there. And I like to put sugar and milk in my coffee sometimes, and the sugar was grown there, they had a sugar plantation, it was crystalized there, too, the milk was milked from the cows on the farm...So it was just this natural, everything organic, wonderful cup of coffee that I had gotten from the source. And I realized how much work went into it and so that’s definitely - it was just - it was so incredible. 

Lauren: Yeah and I feel like that ties into community, too.  It’s not just an isolated cup of coffee.  There are people who harvested the beans, there’s folks who milked the cows...

Annie: The family who owned the farm...yeah they put a lot of hard work into it.

Lauren: In this day and age, and especially in Los Angeles, 3rd wave coffee shops have become a place for people to meet, artisan coffee is a common topic of conversation, it’s even a listed interest in many instagram bios…what is about coffee specifically that you feel draws people together in Los Angeles?

Annie: Well, I think 3rd wave coffee just started to explode in the last 5 years. Thankfully, there have been coffee shops for ages and ages, but I think specialty coffee, because there is such craft and care that goes into the product -   a lot of specialty coffee shops are independent, mom and pop shops - because of that I feel that a lot of people in LA, especially, know what is a good product.  They also want good product and quality.  In 3rd wave coffee there’s just so much effort that goes behind it.  I don’t know if anyone has explained to you what 3rd wave coffee is, but this is what I tell my guys whenever I interview them.  First wave is instant coffee, mass commodity delivered to your home, immediately available.  Second wave is the fast-food culture of coffee.  3rd wave is where you’re actually caring about the origin of the bean, everything is hand crafted by the cup. And so there’s a lot more care that goes behind it. And I think because of this artisanal food movement, there’s so much love that goes behind it, there’s a lot of passion.  People are drawn to that.  Because they know it’s been made with love. 

Also, I think with Found, especially, - I was instilled with this knowledge when I was working in my first coffee job - my old boss told me, “You can’t teach personality.” And I think customer service is a big part of my shop in the sense that all my staff, they’re very kind people.  They’re very warm.  Thankfully I have control over who I can staff.  I think people are drawn to that too.  With other shops, I hear this a lot, “I hate it when in 3rd wave coffee shops, the baristas are so snobby.” Whereas for me I don’t like to say that we’re “coffee snobs,” we’re “coffee enthusiasts.” With my guys I stress to them that they be friendly.  In the interview process I see if they have a good heart.  With the bigger chains, it’s harder to handpick people that are good-hearted because they have so much volume and they just need people to work.  Whereas for me, I’m definitely smaller and I get to choose. And I’ve told my guys too it’s really important for them to develop relationships with the regulars.  To know their first names, you always get their name. 

Lauren: It’s not just the product they’re getting, but there’s a human behind the coffee and what the human is showing is love behind the coffee. There’s passion.

Annie: It’s the connection.

Lauren: Beautiful. Well, when I was hearing you talk, I was thinking it sounds like coffee is sort of a means to an end - coffee is the means, and the the end being community, human connection or - home.

Annie: I like the way you put that, it’s actually right on the ball.

Lauren: We’ve been reading a psychoanalyst called Robert Stolorow, here at MHT and in his works, he writes about the importance of finding a relational home.  He shares about, and I’m liberally paraphrasing here, how mismatched or shattered pieces of our story need to discover a home within relationship - with friends, families, coworkers, communities.  How do you feel Found coffee represents a kind of home for mismatched pieces in that way?

Annie: Hm. Well, maybe not mismatched pieces, but the vast array and types of people that you meet in a coffee shop are so different. I think being a coffee shop owner, I get to meet these people, and their stories all add to mine. I love hearing people’s stories and where they’re from and I think behind it all is that everyone struggles, everyone struggles well, everyone has joys, too.  And so I tell this to my staff, “if you have a rude customer, give them the benefit of the doubt in the beginning.  You don’t know their story, you don’t know if they’re having a bad day.” 

The type of people, the network of people I meet, they are the mismatched pieces, and the connection between them all is that they are human.  I am so thankful because I get to meet so many different types of people. Something I like to do, on a personal note, is to connect people to each other. So, for instance, we had a guy who was a recruiter at an entertainment studio and I know that my friend has been wanting to animate forever and so I connected the two.  And I asked, “Can I do an intro?” And they both were like, “Yeah!” 

And then also on the other hand, too, I think coffee shops are a really special place where people who are on the shyer side, I get to bring them out.  We have a little bar area and it’s three seats, it’s very close to the barista making the drinks. When I first opened, a girl, I could tell was into coffee, but she didn’t want to talk.  And as she came every other day for weeks I got to know her, I slowly got her to talk, and then I realized she wanted to intern at Found.  So I interviewed her and she is one of my best now.  I told her on the first day, “You need to learn how to need to talk! It’s ok to talk.”  And she said, “I know, I know. I’m a little shy.“ And I said, “That’s ok. We’ll find a way for your passion to come through, too.”

Lauren: There are people who have their own unique stories as customers. They feel care in the product, or they feel the care in customer service, they’re understood, there’s a patience there.  We’re all human.

When I think about coffee itself, it draws to mind aspects similar to community - it is warm, comforting; it perks you up when you’re having trouble getting through your day; it is rich and flavorful - even to the last drop.  What do you consider on a daily basis (from coffee composition to design of your space to interactions with people) that helps Found Coffee consistently feel like home for your customers?

Annie: When people ask me why I call Found Coffee "Found," I have two main reasons, and then a third one.  First one is that a lot of things in my shop are Found.  They are vintage, upcycled.  They have been loved, and they will be loved again.  Secondly, I want community to be found, it’sa very big thing for me.  In the beginning I had one communal table, now I have two.  I’m really eager for people to meet each other and not to be a Laptop City.  I love introducing regulars to each other, because then they know the person in their own neighborhood. It’s really great! The third reason why I called Found Coffee “Found” was because I really found who I was in the last 5-6 years, and one of those parts is I found myself in coffee.  And I think with all these elements, the communal tables especially, that’s a big part in just providing a space and a place where people are able to find each other in community.  It allows for people who haven’t seen each other in a long time to meet.  And I think also with the design of the shop, it’s not 30 single tables.  I also like to keep it very bright.  You see some coffee shops, they’re darker, they’re a little more somber.  For me, even the espresso machine is yellow!  I think the reason is, you know a lot of Subway restaurants are painted yellow, the walls yellow because it invites people.  For me, I took that into consideration for the machine, the main workhorse of my shop, so people feel welcomed, feel invited.  And then yeah, it’s just a place where I hope people feel comforted in that everything is close, you don’t feel like you’re stepping on each others’ toes, but also, you have people are nearby. 

Lauren: There’s so much there.  There’s a sense of closeness with the people you are with, there’s also space to be who you are, and there’s also space to connect. There’s intentional space to connect, where you turn to your right and there’s a person that you can connect with.

Annie: Also a big thing for me is displaying local artists on my walls, allowing creativity from the community to be displayed.  They’re all local artists I’m really proud to say that.  For instance right now is a family.  The father took black and white photos, their 3 year-old girl drew on them and the mother is a weaver and she wove those pieces.  Even in the artwork, I hope to convey family. You know?

Lauren: That’s a huge part of home, it feels like family. There’s elements of that.

Annie: And I think also, our regulars see the same baristas every day.  And so, that is actually intentional, too.  So they don’t feel, for instance, out of place.  I’ve been very fortunate my current staff has been with me for a while.  They’ve actually maintained regular relationships with the locals so that’s really exciting to me, they ask how they are, I think some have friended each other on Facebook.

Lauren: There’s so much thought that went into designing this. You get an amazing product and a sense of connection in a city you so often get lost in. 

Annie: I think something God has gifted me in as an entrepreneur is I am able to create spaces that gather people.  And so I love, I used to hate when my worlds collided, but now I’m just like OK fine you guys have gotta meet each other, so I love that Found is a place where people can just come together.  Something else, is I used to be an event coordinator, and so because of that experience, too, I know what draws people in.  I don’t want my space to feel so cluttered where people feel uncomfortable but where it feels airy, it feels light.  It’s not too over-designed.  Keep it simple so people can do their thing.

Lauren: They can be themselves.  I’m even thinking about the brightly lit space at Found, you can actually see one another, you can actually be curious about the people around you.

Annie: Right, something that I really value is transparency, the reason why my bar is open is you get to see how your coffee is being made from the bar so if people have questions, I’m not gonna look down on you. I don’t know everything, but if you want to learn about coffee and how it’s made and what temperatures it’s at, etc, etc, we’re totally open to tell you, and also to talk about it with you.  So I think people see that, too.  They see that, “Oh, they’re not going to look down on me because I don’t know a lot about coffee.” So specialty coffee -  because it’s a bit more particular, a bit more crafted - it can seem daunting to people.  But I tell my guys, “Be open to it.  Talk to people - they want to learn.” You can tell when people are really eager to talk to baristas and we just engage them in conversation.  So it’s just about being transparent about what you do know and what you don’t know. 

Lauren: If someone is curious you’re responsive to them.  Well it’s been such a pleasure hearing more about your story.  Is there anything else you’d like to add about Found Coffee?

Annie: Yes, something that is really important to me is I don’t want Found to be a place where people feel awkward and excluded.  I am actually quite sensitive to that.  I want to be inclusive.  That’s a big part of community.  And I think community is not defined as a people who are all uniform, and the same.  I think coffee is really lovely because most people love coffee, and we have something to offer most everyone, even with tea, we have tea too.  I feel like it’s a simple meeting ground where people can engage and have a similar interest with people that are different from them.  Community is basically broken people or people who have different stories coming together.  That’s my community at Found and I am super thankful.  

Annie Choi is the founder and owner of Found Coffee in Eagle Rock, Los Angeles. She is also the co-founder of FrankieLucy Bakeshop, a collaborative coffee and pastry shop that will soon open in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

Lauren Masopust, MS, MFT Intern has extensive experience working with young adults, adolescents, and couples, and specializes in areas of trauma, identity development, and multicultural issues.