Cafe de Leche - Owners Anya and Matthew Schodorf

Anya and Matthew Schodorf opened Cafe de Leche in 2008, right before the recession. Struggling in their day jobs, they mortgaged their house to give their coffee shop a chance. Twelve years later, their shop Highland Park still stands and they opened a new location in Altadena. 

Neighborhood Flavor profiles the people behind the familiar restaurants, bars and food businesses of the Eastside

Highland Park -- A cup of coffee in the morning is the way most people start their day. For Anya and Matthew Schodorf, the routine became a dream-come-true when they opened Cafe de Leche at the corner of York Boulevard and Avenue 50 more than a decade ago.

Matthew came from Ohio, but he grew up in Ventura. Anya's family is from Nicaragua, but she grew up in Costa Rica before moving to Glendale. Both of them worked in the entertainment industry. Anya, 45, worked at Universal Studios in post-production and Matthew, 49, was a freelance photographer when they decided to open their own coffee shop in 2008.

Cafe de Leche was one of the first specialty coffee houses in Northeast L.A. Now, not only do they roast their own beans to set themselves apart for other shops, but they also make sure their consumers know the farmers who grow their supply. The couple has also opened a second store in Altadena.

In a Q&A, Matthew Schodorf shares his experience running the cafe.

Why the name Cafe de Leche?

Cafe de Leche is coffee from milk. It's obviously imperfect Spanish, but it's like the people's drink.

What's Cafe de Leche's story? How did it start?

It sounds silly, but we just like coffee. It's a common dream. People are like, "Oh, I wish I had a little cafe." It's beans in water, how hard can it be? Turns out it kind of just took over our lives.

When we opened, at first it was really hard. We mortgaged our house in 2007, and then when we finally were able to open the doors, the recession hit. 

My work dried up. My wife, her work was reduced because of the recession. So all we had left was the cafe, so we put everything we had into it. And then it became -- I don't want to say the center of our lives -- but it became the gravity.

What is the best part of owning your own business?

I think it's a rare gift to live in Los Angeles and be near your work. That's the secret, right? L.A.'s great if you don't have to commute an hour each way to work. Not a lot of people can have that just because it's so expensive to live almost everywhere. The fact that we live right next door to work allowed us the flexibility to spend more time with our family and that's probably the biggest gift that we got from here.

Cafe de Leche - Coffee Bags

Green coffee beans are shipped in these large bags that weigh around 150 lbs.

What is the most challenging part?

Small businesses, it's hard making payroll every week, paying all your vendors, trying to keep ahead of the competition and there's a lot of competition now. When we opened, we were one of the only specialty shops in Northeast Los Angeles and now there's three other ones within a block of me and another six on Figueroa.

That's part of the reason why we started roasting. It's just to innovate and stay ahead of the game. Try to create a different and unique experience than a lot of the newer folks that have come in after us.

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Cafe de Leche - Coffee Roaster

The beans are roasted in this machine with a barrel inside that rotates for an even roast. The technology is the same from 100 years ago, but now they have sensors where a computer can track the temperature and when the bean first cracks-- yes, sound just like popcorn!

How do you decide where to buy your coffee beans?

We work with some importers and a lot of times they introduce us to farmers. One of our earliest relationships is in Nicaragua with Francisco Javier Valle -- we've been buying coffee from him for like four or five years.

He's also an exporter. He owns a farm, but he has something called the dry mill. After you pick the coffee it has to be dried, cupped, rated, priced, and exported. He's been a real beacon of light for us over the years and helped us a lot and educated us and held our hand along this process. It's a steep learning curve, learning how to roast coffee and how to source coffee.

Not unlike agriculture anywhere else, the people that are doing the hardest work are probably the least paid, right? When you get to go to the farms, you get to meet those folks. You can see what conditions they live in, work in, what the system is for sanitation, their education if it's a large enough farm, and to make sure that they're being compensated well -- that they're taken care of.

Cafe de Leche - Latte outside the shop

Cafe latte outside Cafe de Leche in Highland Park on York Street.

How have you adapted to COVID?

 It was definitely difficult for us, but we feel really fortunate to just be able to have our doors open. Whereas other small businesses have been really devastated.

The reason why we're still here is because of the community. Especially in these times,-- this is from my wife and I both-- I can't begin to say how much we appreciate and are thankful for the support of our community in Highland Park and Altadena and online too. We're selling coffee all over the country now. I don't want to get super dramatic, but it's life altering. We're just very fortunate.

What is your favorite item on the menu?

So, it's gonna be kind of boring. I drink a small black coffee every day. My wife likes it with a little agave. Instead of vanilla lattes we have the agave latte. We use 100% organic agave, and she likes it with some cream, half and half, usually.

Cafe de Leche - Owners Anya and Matthew Schodorf

Cafe de Leche owners Anya and Matthew Schodorf.

Can you share any tips or recipes for the readers?

I get hot coffee and I put it in my cup holder in my car and I wait for about 15 minutes, and then I take a sip. It's not cold ice cold but it's lukewarm, and that's when the flavors hit. That's when you're like, "Oh my god, this is a natural from Ethiopia" or "It's this beautiful Wash Nicaraguan coffee." That's where you get the essence of all the work that goes into that coffee and everything that we just talked about. 

Get a good coffee from a good roaster, let that thing cool down and drink it black. It's an amazing experience. Roasting is an imperfect science and coffee is an organic material and it changes over time. So from week-to-week the same coffee can have like slightly different flavor notes to it.

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