The morning light is fresh and the day has just begun at the Little Tokyo Village when we shake hands with James Choi, owner of Café Dulce. Truth be told, early morning is our favorite time to visit the village. Local sparrows are so especially social during their breakfast of forgotten crumbs, you can’t help but feel blissfully upbeat.
“Do you want anything?” asks James, while making his morning brew. We kindly decline because our friends, the talented Dulce baristas, have already begun our usual favorites.
“Normally I don’t need coffee to start the day but recently I’ve been so tired,” he states. We totally understand that.
James is in the middle of opening two additional shops to Café Dulce’s already successful locations in Little Tokyo and The Row (located on Alameda and Bay). Their first new shoppe is at USC village; the second will be in Vernon. A lot of work is underway to ensure everything goes smoothly.
When his brew is complete, we sit outside on the patio and investigate, “How did Café Dulce get its start?”
We're astounded to unearth it all has to do with his dreaming mother, Laura.
THE CHOCOLATE BOUTIQUE
“This wasn’t actually something that I ever envisioned or wanted to do,” he divulges to our surprise. “I went to USC for accounting and, right out of school, was recruited for the big four— I worked at Ernest & Young for 4 years. During that time I helped my mom open her own Chocolate Boutique in Palo Alto.”
James would fly upstate from Los Angeles every weekend to help his mom, Laura Choi, establish her store. Eventually — as the business grew — his trips became less frequent and he instead focused his efforts on Christmas season. “I would take a leave of absence to help because that’s when it would be insane,” says James, not missing the stress... even remotely.
Nonetheless, after a few years, Laura realized she was unhappy to be so far away from family. “The kicker was, my grandmother passed away. That was really tough on my mom. I think one of the catalysts was that she couldn’t spend more time with her before she passed,” shares James.
Six months later, Laura, with the help of James, closed the boutique and moved back to Los Angeles. “Man, it’s crazy because that was ten years ago,” his eyes get wide as he looks off in amazement.
“Time flies,” we retort.
“Dude, so fast.”
Originally from South Korea, Laura moved to The States in the mid seventies at the early age of twenty. She raised James as a single mother in Las Vegas until James was in middle school, and then relocated to Los Angeles. LA has been their home base ever since.
The conversation takes a sobering shift as James relays the next part of their history, “However, as soon as we sell the store we find out that my mom has ovarian cancer. Yeah, so that was rough.”
James took a year off from work to heal his mom while she underwent surgery and chemotherapy. “I think at that point is when I realized that stress kills. Maybe the tumor was there before the stress of closing the boutique, and my grandmother passing— but it was definitely there after.”
Over the course of the successive year, Laura responded well to treatment and her cancer went fully into remission. Feeling a sense of stability return to his life, and being a bit stir crazy, James headed back to his life as an accountant.
“So, the story has always been that my mom will start something and I have to go in and figure out how to make it go.”
One day, she tells James, “I’m going to open a bakery in Little Tokyo!” As James recalls her words, he still can’t believe the idea. “Why do you want to do that for?” he says to his mom. “You’re still recovering, you don’t have to worry about money right now and you hated running the Chocolate Boutique.”
Also, neither Laura nor James has a background in baking.
“How are you going to do this?”
“Oh, I found a partner,” Laura exclaims.
“Ok, great. He’s going to handle baking operations and you’ll be the visionary. Is that correct?”
“I want nothing to do with the store. I’ll help with the legal stuff and set up your accounting but I don’t want to do for this store, what I had to do for the Chocolate Boutique.”
In James’ mind the Chocolate Boutique was a breeze compared to the production that a bakery would require. Howbeit, when Laura sets her mind to something, she sees it through… and so launches the building of Café Dulce.
“Everything was going fine. We found this space, signed the lease and started building out the store,” he describes, gesturing to the café inside. “About three weeks before we were scheduled to open, my mom and her partner get into a huge argument.”
As with most disputes the fight was over ownership and percentages, and as James recalls, his mom’s partner simply said, “I’m done,” and walked out. We can only dream up the duress at this point: Laura is the guarantor on the lease and has already put her money into purchasing the equipment. For her, there was no way to simply say, "I'm done."
James shakes his head with a chortle, “So I put my two weeks in at my job and said, ‘Ok, let’s figure out how to operate a bakery and coffee bar with zero experience.’”
“OMG, how did you manage,” we pry in disbelief.
“It’s one of those things where you fake it till you make it.”
“Did you learn to bake?”
“We had a baking consultant that was supposed to teach me how to bake in 2 months,” James laughs incredulously. “But we all know that’s not practical. Plus, he didn’t get along with my mom. So…”
“What did you end up doing?”
“We hired a friend from Korea out of baking retirement,” reveals James . “He was an old school rough-and-tumble kind of guy; which was how baking was in Korea, in the early days.”
As James is talking we can tell that he wants to roar at the roller coaster journey he’s been on. “He was with us for 2-3 years and, for better or worse, he’s the one really responsible for many of our recipes today.”
Café Dulce officially opened in April 2011 and is currently celebrating 6 years of remaining in business. We seek how long their DOS DULCE location has been at ROW DTLA for and James tells us that it’s already been about 3 years.
“You know, I quit my job, came to do this, and pretty much, this is all I’ve done since.” From 2011 onward, Café Dulce has become a neighborhood staple and is experiencing an improbable level of growth. Ultimately, as fate would have it, this tale of success isn’t without a touch of striking tragedy.
We absolutely love reporting on strong family businesses in DTLA. In fact, a quality that impacts you right away with James is that he’s clearly a family man. We don’t mean ‘family man’ in the way it’s most often used— despite the announcement that James and his wife are currently expecting their first child; what we mean is that James has built a strong tribe around himself (mixing close friends and employees) through respect and love.
These are the warm vibes you receive in your first moments within Café Dulce and, undoubtedly, a major reason for their continued prosperity. “We try and tell our guys, ‘Dude, we don’t have customers, we have guests,’” James conveys on their approach to cultivating relationships.
“We don’t serve drinks, we serve people.”
DiscoverDTLA sweats James, “To what do you attribute this positive spirit?”
“It’s definitely a conscious effort we focus on. But I think that one of the biggest things that influenced me was the Chocolate Boutique.”
A customer asked Laura Choi one day, “Why did you want to open a chocolate store?” She responded, “I love when someone tries a chocolate and it’s so good that it completely changes their day.” James smiles as he recalls his mom’s voice. “I’m sure that she doesn’t even remember saying that, but her words stood out to me so clearly."
That was Laura’s way into the hearts of people. Food. Many bakers still recall how Laura would show up with a giant pot of Kimchi Stew and say, "Let’s eat!”
“I think initially it was a little weird for people. Like, who’s this lady bringing me food? But that’s just how she is,” expresses James with a twinkle. “Early on, she’d cook for the staff all the time, to the point where she got annoyed that she was cooking so much.”
“Why do I have to cook for these people all the time?” she says to James, preparing her infamous stew. “You kind of set the expectation Mom, that if you show up, you’re going to cook for the staff.” responds James, while sampling the stew. There’s a lot more to be gained than just selling coffee and pastries.
“If we can make someone’s day better when they visit the shop, then that’s our little way of changing the world or, at least, the community,” James makes known.
6 months after kicking off their Little Tokyo store, Laura’s cancer returned with a vengeance. Everyone encouraged her to go back to chemotherapy; yet, she refused to again experience such a horrific struggle. Instead, whilst attempting to fight the cancer naturally, she brazenly brightened the lives of all who worked at or visited Café Dulce for the better part of a year.
“She passed away in August 2013,” James voices, holding back his emotion. “It was crazy. I was like, yeah, stress kills. It was not easy opening this.”
“What do you figure she’d think of how Dulce is doing today?”
“I think that she’d be really happy, but honestly, I don’t think that she’d be happy with my leadership style,” he decidedly informs us, remembering past arguments.
We’re told one of the reasons Laura disliked running the Chocolate Boutique in the end was on the grounds that she preferred a Korean-style work place. In Korea, during her time, when a boss told you to do something — you did it or you were fired — it’s that strict. Laura couldn’t understand why the part-time American college kids she’d hire wouldn’t just do what she told them to.
“Generally, I think that she wanted me to rule with an iron fist but that’s just not who I think I am on a personal level and, culturally, I’m not that way either,” he clarifies.
What’s so powerfully disarming about Laura and James’ saga is the level of sacrifice that both gave to one another in pursuit of an American Dream. Laura never settled for what she thought she could do, or what she perceived was within her “means” to do; and James never hesitated to use his practical skills as an accountant to help his mom defend her vision of the future.
Fundamentally, a mother gifted the most precious thing she could to her son… her health… her life. To see what this fantasy shoppe has become, a thriving legacy of love, is a truly persuasive and poignant testimony to what family can accomplish together in this beloved country, The United States of America.
“I do believe that this is my mom’s legacy,” offers James straight from the heart. “This is what she left me and I feel responsible for it. I’m thankful it’s doing well.”
Yes. Dreams come true. Yours can too.
134 Japanese Village Plaza, Bldg E • 777 S Alameda St. #150 • cafedulce.co