By MIEKO BEYER
Cafe Demitasse in Little Tokyo is known for its delicious gourmet coffee. What some might not know yet is how owner Bobak Roshan is known to community leaders for his incredible involvement and contributions to many exciting community projects.
“He’s so supportive of community projects,” said Scott Oshima, lead community organizer at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. “Demitasse has become a key community partner for Sustainable Little Tokyo. They partnered with our inaugural Windows of Little Tokyo public art project as both one of the sites for the artwork and a funder. Bobby has also been very involved in Sustainable Little Tokyo’s Cycles of Food committee, partnering for both Bokashi Club and Little Produce Stand.”
For Windows of Little Tokyo, Demitasse featured artist Chiho Harazaki’s piece “Spirit of Nebuta,” which depicts a float in the Nisei Week Festival Grand Parade, which passes by Demitasse. “A lot of people see it from the Cafe Demitasse area,” said Oshima.
Roshan was so happy with the artwork that he even began talking to Harazaki about possibly doing interior art for the cafe, and is of course already on board for 2019. The artwork is still on display at Demitasse though the project formally ended on Oct. 21, because Roshan wanted to keep it up as long as possible. Customers are often seen admiring it and taking pictures as much as they do the impressive Hario syphons and Oji ice coffee drippers that help create Demitasse’s high-quality coffee.
2018 was the inaugural year for the community art project, and with the project already slotted for 2019 it looks as though the enthusiastic support of area businesses like Demitasse has truly helped start a popular new tradition that helps showcase the history of the neighborhood. The project also features a walking tour, where guides explain the pieces and talk about the sponsoring businesses.
Roshan is also spearheading efforts to establish a community garden in Little Tokyo and hosted the first Little Produce Stand, which featured produce from local farms. The cafe owner is passionate about sustainability and was a perfect fit for the Bokashi Club, a group that teaches and does bokashi, a Japanese composting method.
Amy Honjiyo, who is on the Little Tokyo Food Cycle Committee with Roshan and a fellow Bokashi Club member, was excited to have Roshan on board. “I am impressed with Bobby’s commitment to making a sustainable Little Tokyo!” said Honjiyo. “He’s looking for ways to recycle and beautify the community with sustainable gardens. While brainstorming new ideas, he’s always willing to listen and understand the traditions of Little Tokyo.”
Demitasse is one of three cafe locations for Roshan, but only Little Tokyo has its own menu. That’s because the Little Tokyo location was the first cafe for Roshan, who came to the location seven years ago after a search throughout Los Angeles.
“Little Tokyo checked all of the boxes — the space was unique, the size wasn’t too big, it’s in the middle of so many people,” recalled Roshan. “Los Angeles was turning into a gourmet scene and we wanted to be in a neighborhood that had good foodie culture too.”
From the start, the self-taught coffee expert knew he wanted to make a special, high-quality cafe. Little Tokyo gave him inspiration and helped to create beverages connected to the local food culture. The first time he experienced shiso leaf, for example, was at a yakitori eatery nearby, prompting him to create the popular Demitasse offering Iced Shiso Green Tea.
Roshan and the staff strive to be local in every way possible, working at first with coffee roasters in Los Angeles, then advancing to roasting their own beans. All syrups for their drinks are made from scratch in-house and Demitasse takes time to develop their ideas through a simple process of trial and error.
“I just try ideas out and see if they work,” laughed Roshan. “Some ideas don’t work! We had a banana latte, for example, we could never get right. But I think I’m good at adapting ideas from one thing to another, I’m always thinking about what flavors work with coffee.”
Roshan also likes to work with flavors from his Persian heritage, such as dates, pistachio and rosewater. The first seasonal drink at Demitasse was his creation, the Date Latte. For the winter holiday season, the cafe offers a Ginger Snap Latte sweetened with their in-house syrup made from mollases, fresh ginger, sweet nutmeg and clove.
Although the cafe excels in creative flavor combinations, they don’t usually do custom requests for customers. The decision to make everything in-house meant that the cafe wouldn’t have the capacity to do so. The only customer who is the exception is Roshan’s mother, who always takes her coffee with a splash of cardamom. “It’s just something I do for my mom,” he said.
Roshan’s parents once ran a cafe themselves in Berkeley in the 1960s before moving to Los Angeles when he was three. However the cafe his parents ran is coincidental to his current pursuits; by the time he was born his father had completed an electrical engineering degree from UC Berkeley and was working as an engineer.
When the family moved, Roshan’s father changed careers to working in textiles, starting a business in Downtown Los Angeles with his brother importing and dyeing fabrics for the fashion industry. Roshan worked with his father during summer breaks downtown and remembers how different the area was then.
“I would walk up and down the street out of boredom and it was a rough area,” he recalled. “I tried to buy a switchblade when I was 14 but the man told me I had to be 16 to buy a switchblade. I went back later and asked again. That time I said I was 16 and he sold it to me. It’s funny to see how the area’s changed so fast.”
Although the area Roshan knew in his childhood didn’t have the many gourmet restaurants of today, his family regularly visited three downtown spots that still remain. “New Moon is still there, which is awesome. A lot of the old places are getting turfed,” he said. “We also went to the fish markets near San Pedro and Shekarchi.”
Roshan moved from the Southern California area for college, graduating with a degree in political science and international relations from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He then spent a year in Washington, D.C. working for a non-partisan, foreign policy think tank. “I worked with the smartest people I have ever met,” he said. “I found out there are solutions in the policy world; they’re just missing the political will to do it.”
Politics has always been an interest of Roshan’s, who grew up watching CNN regularly with his father. Wanting to go further into policy, Roshan continued on from his year in D.C. to attend law school at the University of Southern California. It was at USC that he first began to explore Little Tokyo, when classmates introduced him to the area’s restaurants. “One of my favorite places to go to then is still there, Hama Sushi,” he noted happily.
His idea after graduating law school was to work in local government, but jobs were scarce when he graduated due to funding problems, and he took a position instead at a small law firm working on security fraud litigation. It was there that he became a coffee expert. “I was drinking a ton of coffee at the firm,” he said. “There was a group of us that got really into it, ordering beans from all over, getting a grinder and creating spreadsheets.”
Roshan probably could have never imagined that the first coffee beans he ground himself at the law firm would evolve into the career he has today. With the dream of opening a cafe featuring specialty coffee from all over the world, he left his firm. Though the first year was difficult, Demitasse pulled through and today the cafe brews its own brand of coffee, offers coffee bean subscriptions online, and sells bags in their cafes.
Very involved on a day-to-day basis with his business, Roshan sometimes travels to all four sites (the cafe locations in Little Tokyo, Santa Monica and Mid-Wilshire and the coffee-roasting facility in Glassell Park) in one day. “My laptop is my office,” he laughed. “It’s about where I need to be, for example, needing to help open a shop. I’m always doing something.”
Roshan also travels to Central and South America to meet in person with the farmers he buys beans from. Demitasse is very proud of its direct trade coffee, which Roshan explains is better for coffee quality, fair trade and sustainability. “We know what we’re getting and what the farmer is getting paid,” he said. “I’ve met them and seen the farm.”
For beans, Demitasse also buys from farms in Africa, where they have an importer who does due diligence on their behalf, and they also sometimes purchase from Southeast Asia, always making sure to work with importers they trust.
When Roshan joined the Bokashi Club in Little Tokyo, he found the process fascinating and the atmosphere very welcoming. Incidentally, it was not the first time he had seen bokashi in action. In fact, Roshan had seen a large-scale bokashi system put together by a coffee farmer he purchases from in El Salvador named Alejandro Martinez.
Martinez took Roshan along for a couple of runs to buy food products, such as reject beans and coconut fiber at steep discounts from manufacturers that he uses for composting. “I went to visit him and he was like ‘This is what we’re doing’ — I did not have a choice,” laughed Roshan. “I’ve stayed with him before a few times, experiencing the day in the life of a coffee farmer.”
Martinez built a large shed in his backyard for his bokashi composting and puts the compost in his coffee plants. As to whether the detailed, self-taught composting is what makes the coffee beans from Martinez high-quality, Roshan takes a more comprehensive view. “I don’t know if it makes a difference, but when someone cares so much about it to do this, they’re taking care of the trees and that’s a good sign.”
When asked to explain in more detail how bokashi composting works, Roshan begins confidently on the microbacteria in bokashi that get different kinds of nutrients into plants compared to other traditional composting methods, and how bokashi can eat meat, dairy, anything organic. As he attempted to go further into detail, Roshan paused in deep thought, then said with a sigh, “My Bokashi Club people will be sad I don’t remember all of it.”
With seven years strong in Little Tokyo, however, and many more to come, Demitasse owner Bobak Roshan will certainly have ample opportunity to go back to some Bokashi Club meetings and brush up whenever he needs to.
Visit Cafe Demitasse in Little Tokyo 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday and Saturday, 135 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. To purchase Demitasse coffee online, visit https://cafedemitasse.com/.