By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Matt and Anya Schodorf opened their first location of Café de Leche at York Boulevard and Avenue 50 in Highland Park in 2008.
It was a pioneering effort at the time, as Starbucks barely managed to open its first store on the other side of Figueroa.
Café de Leche was among the first cafés in Los Angeles to serve artisanal roasted coffee. The opening on York also signaled one of the first turns on the boulevard that led to Highland Park’s status as a hipster mecca, on par with Williamsburg in Brooklyn.
The Schodorfs’ timing seemed prescient, and their corner coffee shop with a play area for kids soon became a neighborhood fixture. Ultimately, success there led to the opening of their second outlet in Altadena, on North Lake Avenue, in 2016. The interior of the Altadena store is tiny, as compared to its big sister in Highland Park. That said, it has a lovely outdoor shaded patio in back. Elegantly designed with seating areas surrounded by native plants and succulents, it is an unexpectedly serene oasis.
“I haven’t been on the patio for the past week, so I want to make sure my plants are still looking good. This is my baby,” Anya said as she surveyed the area.
Matt added, “She personally curates the patio and maintains it. More and more people are just discovering it. We like to think of it as a hidden gem, in a way.”
Anya has a designer’s eye and is working on a renovation of their original location in Highland Park.
“We’re doing a modest remodel in Highland Park,” she said.
“So, we’re excited about that. I’m doing most of the interior design for that. We’ve partnered with the original interior designer and architect for that location, David Freeland. He designed Highland Park and this one. They’re both inspired by Nicaragua. That’s where I’m from.”
The couple met in the Highland Park neighborhood in 2001. Devoted parents, they raised their two children Penelope, 17, and Tomas, 14, while growing their business. Both are students at Maranatha High School in Pasadena.
When Café de Leche opened in Highland Park, so-called “specialty” coffee was a new concept. The Schodorfs opened the café serving Portland, Oregon-based Stumptown Coffee.
“We were one of the first Stumptown accounts in Los Angeles,” Matt said. “When we opened, specialty coffee — which is everywhere now, really — was pretty young. We were actually getting Stumptown FedExed out of Portland for three or four years before they started roasting it here.
“It’s a big corporate thing now. Back in the day, it was more of a rarified thing. We had them for a long time, and we had a great relationship with them. But then we struck out on our own, about five years ago now.”
Anya explained they wanted to express themselves through their coffee.
“What’s important are the relationships in coffee,” Matt added. “Most of what people know of coffee are brown beans in a bag. Where do they come from?”
That question inspired the Schodorfs to source their coffee “at origin” from the farms, where the beans are grown.
“We just wanted to be able to have the power to choose what coffees to put on bar,” Anya said. “At the end of the day, it’s what’s important to us — to be able to choose, to hand-select the coffees we think are best for our business, for our customers.”
Café de Leche is part of a global community, Matt said, except for Hawaii and Puerto Rico, where coffee is not a domestic product. It’s originally from Ethiopia.
The couple has traveled to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Ethiopia to meet farmers and establish relationships to source the beans they roast on-site in Highland Park.
Through Stumptown coffee, the Schodorfs were introduced to Francisco Javier Valle, who grew up on his father’s coffee farm in Nicaragua. Subsequently, he was drafted by Stumptown and moved to Portland to be the company’s head roaster. Valle left Stumptown to return to Nicaragua to establish a dry mill for local producers, which provides a critical phase of coffee bean cultivation.
“He produces coffee essentially for a hundred different farmers in Nicaragua,” Matt said. “We were introduced to him, and that was the first time we visited a coffee farm. His company is called Expo Camo. He’s just a wonderful man.”
That was in 2017. Similar trips to farms in El Salvador in 2018 and Ethiopia in 2019 followed.
Since opening in Altadena, the Schodorfs have also developed relationships with local chefs and food trucks and maintain a regular schedule of culinary pop-up events outside the café. It harks back to Schodorf’s Luncheonette, which opened in 2010 and ran for five years.
“Matt wanted to offer food to the community because there really wasn’t much. We were ahead of the times,” Anya said.
“There wasn’t a lot of food on the block at the time,” Matt added. “We tried to do something simple: soups, sandwiches and salads. We found out that we aren’t restaurateurs.”
Matt noted they served breakfast tacos before HomeState, referring to the local Tex-Mex chain.
Similarly, on opening the Altadena location, guests wanted food service.
“People were asking for food,” Matt said. “We don’t have a kitchen. Your living room is probably bigger than our café. How can we serve the community best and make stronger connections within the community?”
They decided to start pop-up events.
“It started here with Sus Arepas,” Anya said, referring to the popular local food truck serving Argentinian arepas. Café de Leche is now its regular stop on Saturdays, which also features nonfood concessions like plants or jewelry and occasionally desserts from the bakery Sweet Story.
Thursdays and Sundays, brunch service is from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. by Brisa Lopez and her Tacos Casa stand. On Fridays, prospective new food vendors rotate.
The Schodorfs credit the robust pop-up activity of Sara and Steven Valdes from Sara’s Market on City Terrace Drive north of Downtown LA as a model for their own pop-up presentation schedule.
“They inspired me to get serious about it,” Matt noted.
As to the future, besides the renovations at the Highland Park café, the couple is negotiating to provide coffee service to Pasadena City College. It all represents the widening reach of Café de Leche as a vital community hub.
“It’s just the ability to make friends all over the world by doing what we love to do. Coffee brings people together,” Anya said.