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The Downtown Los Angeles coffee scene is rapidly heating up, owing to this neighborhood’s availability of retail spaces and ongoing transformation into a destination hub for LA city life. It’s a neighborhood in flux, constantly fielding new editions and attracting exciting people from around the world. And now, one of the newest entrants to the DTLA scene is Coffee CoLab.

The name is a play on collaboration, and for this interesting new venture, the name could not be more apt. The project is anchored by Sonny Mediana, owner of Taza Coffee House and a former Creative Director at Disney; he’s partnered with young guns William Miyazaki, roaster at Suits & Knives, and Leon Li, a barista and latte-art expert who co-owns the Humble Cup with Mediana. The cafe they’ve come up with is a beautiful, exciting addition to the Los Angeles coffee landscape.

Leon Li repping behind the bar at Coffee CoLab
Leon Li repping behind the bar at Coffee CoLab

One of the centerpieces of the cafe is their eye-popping 1971 La Marzocco GS2, which has been completely rebuilt, transformed and powder-coated with fire engine red paint and outfitted with a set of brass knuckles to maneuver the steam wand. The space features industrial elements with vintage gadgets and quirky decorations throughout. The menu has been artfully painted on the wall in the shape of a Chemex.

Mediana, Miyazaki and Li have been busy getting their new cafe open, but we were able to track them each down and ask some questions about the cafe’s impressive details and interesting origin story.

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How did the idea for this café come about?

Miyazaki: When I started to roast at Suits & Knives full time, Leo and I had been talking about starting something for a long time. We had been working for everybody else. We met at Spring for Coffee then I went to help Bru with their coffee program. Leo and I always stayed in touch. He was at Cognoscenti and also working for Elabrew.

Li: I was also representing some coffee companies in China.

Miyazaki: I started Suits & Knives and Leo started Humble Cup with Sonny. Sonny started to carry Suits & Knives at Taza.

Li: I also work at Barista Society. I am in charge of their roasting, quality control, and green bean sourcing.

Miyazaki: I asked Leo to open a shop together and he said, ‘Sure let’s do it.’ The hunt began for a machine first.

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Why did you want to buy a vintage espresso machine?

Miyazaki: We found this gem. It is a La Marzocco GS2 1971. It took a lot of time and money to refurbish it.

Li: It’s a serious machine. I already knew it was legit. Amazing, like wow! The guy who owned it did not know what he had. I asked him, “What is the reason you want to sell the machine?” He said it does not pull shots right. It does not steam milk right. I pulled a perfect shot with it and told him I would buy it. Done.

Why did you chose this location?

Miyazaki: Sonny and I have been talking about locations. I had another project near here that wasn’t working out and I was walking around downtown and saw this place all covered up. They had literally just put the sign up in the window an hour before. I looked through the keyhole. It looked like someone has trashed the place. It was café snack shop. I called Leon to come check this place out.

Li: I was about to open a shop in China. I had my money ready and bought a machine and a grinder, and I will fly there in October to open a shop near Hong Kong. When William asked me to open this shop I said, “Ok.” I normally make decisions in about two seconds.

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How did the partnership come about?

Miyazaki: Leo and I have worked in coffee shops together for about 7 years. We know our chemistry works well. We work with detail and precision. We are both good at it, but Leo is way better at it. I am good at bringing people together. We suit each other well. Sonny helps us get things done, while he is running Taza too. Sonny takes care of things while we are making coffee. We wanted to open a shop that is super low key.

What is your drink of choice?

Li: Fetco. Automatic drip is what I think is the most consistant way to make a cup of coffee.

Miyazaki: I drink cold brew more than anything else. I drink the concentrate.

William Miyazaki
William Miyazaki

Taza will have been open for about a year and a half, and you launched Humble Cup last year with Leon. Why add CoLab to your list of businesses and responsibilities?

Mediana: Everything happens for a reason, organically. We started serving Suits & Knives. I thought it was a good for for Taza. Then we started taking about shops and doing something together. We just did it.

You partnered with William Miyazaki and Leon Li, and you’re invested in the company. What are your day-to-day responsibilities?

Mediana: It is a work in progress. I am trying to learn to juggle everything. I am very lucky that those two are there and we all understand what we all need and of the time restraints we all have. I help with customer service and helping with what they need.

Is this a one shop company or are there plans for more?

Mediana: I think it is a great partnership right now. Those guys are incredible. It’s nice to work with young guys, who always ask why can’t we do it? It’s refreshing for me. I think there can be more shops in out future, but the focus would need to be the same feel small, intimate, and organic.

Sonny Mediana. Photo by Amparo Rios
Sonny Mediana. Photo by Amparo Rios

How did you start working in coffee?

Mediana: When I was 40, I had a stroke. It changed my whole perspective about things. Before Taza, I was a Creative Director at Disney. I had the stroke there. I needed to simplify and focus and do something I really wanted to do. That’s why I opened a coffee shop. Now I get to choose who I work with. I don’t have to work with anyone I do not want to. I choose to work with William and Leo.

Do you feel being part of the coffee world and having these businesses has given your life and work more balance?

Mediana: Yeah. I wanted to have a café and for it to be successful, but then there are so many other things that happen in coffee that are important. Many of the customers have become really good friends. The relationships I have built through coffee have been fun. The coffee community as a whole is amazing. If it was not for Yeekai (Yeekai Lim of Cognoscenti Coffee) giving me tips and support I would never have been able to open Taza.

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Coffee CoLab is located at 305 East 8th street in downtown Los Angeles. They are open 7am to 5pm Monday through Friday and 8am to 5pm on the weekends.

Julie Wolfson is a staff writer based in Los Angeles. Read more Julie Wolfson on Sprudge.