Lisa Lee, who works near Koreatown's Cafe Mak off Wilshire Boulevard, keeps returning to the coffee lounge even though a cup of coffee costs $7. "You pay for the atmosphere," Lee said one recent afternoon after taking the last sip of her cafe latte. "The menu pricing is outrageous. The servers don't speak English. But it's cozy and comfortable and you can relax here for as long as you want."
The roughly 7-square-mile Koreatown has nearly 50 of these so-called "cafes" in which $5.50 is the going rate for drip coffee and a fresh-squeezed watermelon juice runs $7. After tax and tip, coffee ends up costing nearly double what one might pay at Starbucks.
So why do so many customers keep coming back to the throng of Koreatown coffee shops?
"It boils down to a cultural thing," said Mark Hong, a long-time Koreatown real estate broker with CB Richard Ellis.
"The mentality of meeting at the corner caf & #233; is ingrained in Korean culture because the residential living spaces are not so large," Hong said. "In most Asian countries like Hong Kong, Japan and Korea, where there's a shortage of land and people live vertically, this concept of cafes for casual and business meetings is pretty standard."
Indeed, Asian metropolises are packed with these independent coffee shops, often with ordinary but high-priced coffee, which serve as meeting places for friends, business associates, even family members.
While Johnney Park, owner of Caf & #233; Mak, likes to credit his special blend of Brazilian wild mountain coffee as the attraction, he concedes customers pay to sit at his caf & #233; for six to seven hours at a time to chat, surf the Internet and conduct business meetings.
"I was a McDonald's coffee kind of a guy," said Park. "The idea of paying more than $5 for a cup of coffee was unthinkable. But at a lounge like this, you're paying more for your seat, your little piece of real estate."
At Caf & #233; Mak, a 5,000-square-foot space, book-filled bookcases and a hodge-podge of local art create a living-room feel. A fireplace crackles at night in a large outdoor seating area.
Ambiance is key at these coffee shops. Most invest heavily in interior design and recoup their cost by hiking menu prices. This works somehow in a neighborhood where median household income hovers under $22,000 well below the county's $42,000 median because most Koreans are used to paying incrementally more for their seats at a caf & #233;.
In Seoul's fashionable Chung-dam Dong district, for example, upscale coffee shops grace nearly every street corner and serve coffee for up to $15 a cup.
In L.A., as in Seoul, most such caf & #233;s have a comfortable and aesthetic ambiance, like Park on 6th, which opened three months ago next to a Pinkberry frozen yogurt shop near Catalina Street.
The caf & #233; of about a dozen white marble tables and black seats is anchored by orchids and bonsai-looking trees in its corners, creating a sort of modern Zen atmosphere.
Park on 6th's desserts, such as its fresh mango mousse or chocolate souffl & #233;, are baked every morning by a patisseur on site and the pumpkin latte is brewed with concentrated steamed pumpkins.
All its dishes are served on handmade pottery made by leading Korean ceramic artists. For owner So Young Park, who says she bought nearly $1 million worth of pottery from Korea to sell, use and display at the caf & #233;, ceramics were the starting point for her business, not coffee.
"We wanted to promote Korean ceramics," said 28-year-old Park. "We wanted to open a ceramic gallery but it's difficult to understand the art without seeing how they can be used in a day-to-day setting."
Park, who has a degree from the Swiss Hotel Management School and worked as a manager for Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel before opening her own business, is particular about how coffee and tea are presented and the posture of her baristas as they operate the Faema espresso machines.
Park on 6th is one of few Koreatown cafes where the price of coffee is conservative. It's $3.95 for a cup.
"We wanted to keep the prices reasonable so that we can branch out into other neighborhoods where $7 coffee isn't acceptable," Park said.
Koreatown coffee shops differentiate themselves by their interior design, like Chapman Plaza'a Gaam that showcase antique furniture and ceilings high enough to accommodate a movie screen that shows "Gone With the Wind" on some evenings.
Among the most eccentric is Caf & #233; Jack, where customers can sip coffee on a boat. Owner Jack Pak says he built the 5,000-square-foot boat coffee shop himself without using contractors on what used to be a parking lot.
The caf & #233; tries to simulate the Titanic and photographs from the movie line the walls. The menu is eclectically fusion, featuring coffee and tiramisu along with sushi and medicinal Korean tea. Caf & #233; Jack, which doesn't serve liquor, booms at night but is fairly empty during the day.
"It's a place to meet, not a place to get drunk," said Pak.
Caf & #233; Mak, Park on 6th and Caf & #233; Jack are a few of the most popular and expensive coffee shops in Koreatown. Including renovation and interior design costs, owners say the properties are each valued at around $1.5 million.
"That's pretty outrageous," said Colby Jo, a broker with Omni Realty Group. Most coffee shops can be set up at around $250,000 in Koreatown, he said.
There was a proliferation of these coffee shops several years ago, brokers said, thanks to E2 investor visas, which were popular among wealthy Koreans. Under the E2 rules, a foreign investment of about $250,000 would guarantee the investor legal residence here.
"Coffee shops are relatively easy to set up and you don't have to go through as many health department requirements as restaurants," Jo said. "Now, these coffee shops are virtually on every street corner and there's too much competition."
But Koreatown is poised to get more sophisticated in the next few years and demand for chic, airy cafes may linger.
Over the next three years, the district will see at least 2,000 new luxury condominiums mostly in towering high rises, roughly clustered around Wilshire Boulevard between Western and Vermont avenues. Developers are counting on foreign investments from Korea and affluent Korean empty-nesters looking to move out of the suburbs.
Hong, the broker at CB Richard Ellis, said that as more Koreans buy condos here, they will seek more of these coffee shops or meeting places, as he calls them.
That's good news for Laura Edwards, who sat across from Lee at Caf & #233; Mak one recent afternoon. She goes to Koreatown caf & #233;s for quality coffee is organic, vegetables are fresh and the ambiance is beautiful, she said.
Holding up a silk cushion on her chair, Edwards said, "Where else can you sit back in the middle of your work day like this? There's no other place like it in L.A. It's the hidden treasure of Koreatown."
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