The Best Stuff on Urth

The Best Stuff on Urth

Pasadena’s thirst for coffee is being quenched by the latest Urth Caffé, one of the busiest in the already popular chain. 

By Kathleen Kelleher 07/01/2014

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Less than a year old, the Urth Caffé in Pasadena draws sometimes ridiculous crowds that snake outside the massive doors and onto the sidewalks. Once inside, customers order at a counter with delectable-looking pastries and then await their bounty — which usually includes some form of espresso latté etched with swans, hearts, leaves or Hello Kitties.  

 

   The crowds dwarf those at typical coffeehouses partly because the Pasadena venue has so much space. It is on the ground floor of a spectacular Spanish-style two-story building, the culmination of a five-year construction project by the Caffés’ owners, Shallom and Jilla Berkman, who bought the East Colorado Boulevard and Madison Avenue property in the Playhouse District in 2008.  Its elegance stands out in an area already steeped in architectural beauty. 

 

The crowds dwarf those at typical coffeehouses partly because the Pasadena venue has so much space. It is on the ground floor of a spectacular Spanish-style two-story building, the culmination of a five-year construction project by the Caffés’ owners, Shallom and Jilla Berkman, who bought the East Colorado Boulevard and Madison Avenue property in the Playhouse District in 2008.  Its elegance stands out in an area already steeped in architectural beauty. 

 

On a recent late afternoon, mothers with beatific babies, high schoolers, hungry culinary students and chattering businesspeople sit beneath tiled ceilings on wraparound patios dotted with a fountain and enclosed by high walls with Moorish-inspired arches. Urth Caffé’s logo, a massive green coffee cup with a central red heart, is mounted over the corner entrance. For it’s coffee, in all its forms — espressos in Spanish lattés, espressos poured atop vanilla milkshakes, espressos mixed into tiramisus, espressos iced with frothy almond milk or just straight up — that’s the transcendent drink here.

 

“We did not expect this store to be so busy,” says Shallom Berkman, adding that the Pasadena Urth — the fifth in the Los Angeles area — is the chain’s most lavish and beautiful. “It is really a phenomenon here. The Pasadena community really embraced us as a coffee store.” 

 

Indeed, Pasadenans are buzzing about the latest Urth Caffé, where so many go to get their buzz on. The local venue sells 5,000 to 6,000 espressos a day — three times the number of espressos consumed at other Urths, says Berkman. “People are lining up for Spanish espressos and coffee beans to the point where we can’t hardly handle it. The lines are so long that a lot of people who just want a to-go order are leaving.”

 

To deal with the overflow, Urth Caffé is already planning to expand into retail space next door. With three more Italian espresso machines to come, the café will dedicate the new space to espresso drink and take-out orders, which should winnow down the long lines. Last month, Berkman was granted an expansion permit from the Pasadena City Review Authority, the first step in moving forward with growth plans. Berkman says that he and Jilla — Urth’s interior designer, who sketches patterns for all the tile (manufactured by California Pottery & Tile) and the ironwork (made of real iron) — decided to establish a Caffé in Pasadena after lobbying from many San Gabriel Valley customers who had to drive to the downtown L.A. and West Hollywood Urths for their Leaf Lattés. 

 

That demand did not go unheeded. In keeping with Urth’s business strategy, the Beverly Hills–based Berkmans and their investors bought a piece of property and molded it into a store that meshes nicely with the community. They decided the Playhouse District was ideal:  “We fell in love with the Playhouse District because of all the culture and history,” says Berkman. “We want to make a Caffé that the community will be proud of and enjoy and be around for generations.”

 

The feeling is mutual. Erlinda Romo, executive director of the Pasadena Playhouse District Association, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting economic vitality in the district, says Urth transformed the whole corner. “The brand itself is a singular draw to Pasadena,” says Romo. “When you have these singular interesting components and businesses that are a part of the district, it really enhances the district as a whole. Urth brought a lot of people into the district by creating this beautiful environment where people can congregate. It is just phenomenal.”

 

And yet here in Pasadena, like so many other communities where Urth Caffés serve throngs of devoted customers, there are other independent coffee boutiques nearby, not to mention chains like Peet’s, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf and Starbucks, which blanket Arroyoland. Why is Urth Caffé the hot venue among so many?

 

“Urth Caffé is local and independent and a lot of people want to support a local independent over a chain,” says Anthony Dukes, associate professor of marketing at USC Marshall School of Business and a downtown Urth regular, who has twice visited the Pasadena store. “There also is an open market for people who appreciate sustainability and healthy organic food. They tend to be better educated and have more money.”  

 

Artificial-chemical–free coffee and tea are highly prized by Urth’s health- and ecology-conscious consumers. All its produce is organic, sustainable, locally sourced and delivered direct to each location by the farmers themselves, Shallom says. He visits all the farms he buys from so that he has a personal relationship with the farmers. All Urth coffee beans are heirloom organic coffee, and the green teas are grown in Japan where the Berkmans travel to help with the harvest once a year. “When you have relationships with farmers, you can control the quality and purity,” says Shallom, who added that if the green tea farmers deliver is too brown, he sends it back. All the bakery goods are made at Urth’s facility in Commerce, using recipes developed by Jilla, who attended culinary school in West Hollywood in the 1990s. Customer favorites include pumpkin pie, green-tea tiramisu and bread pudding. The bakery also has low-fat and vegan desserts.

 

The Berkmans also founded Urth’s Mountain Gorilla Coffee Program, which provides farmers in Kisoro, Uganda, with training in organic growing techniques as well as tools and equipment. Kisoro has rich volcanic soil, which produces some of the world’s best-tasting coffee. The Berkmans became interested in Ugandan coffee after a Ugandan customer at the Beverly Hills Urth Caffé requested it. 

 

 “At 9,500 feet above sea level, it is the highest-grown coffee in the world,” Shallom says, adding that it’s also one of the least acidic varieties. The program’s goal is to provide higher profits for farmers while helping protect the habitat of endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Mufumbiro Mountains, where fewer than 1,000 exist. The Berkmans bought cows for Ugandan farmers to provide much-needed compost for their coffee trees and recently installed solar panels in some of their houses that lack electricity. Those solar-powered houses are now free hubs for cellphone charging, which farmers and other villagers used to have pay for in town.

 

Berkman believes the Uganda program isn’t the lure for most of Urth’s customers, however, because few are aware of it, and palate-appeal tends to trump conscious consumerism. And some of Urth’s customers are experts in good taste — Pasadena’s Le Cordon Bleu College of the Culinary Arts is close enough that students wander in wearing their chef whites. “I compete in triathalons,” says culinary student Oscar Guzman, sitting on the patio with fellow student Miriam Buhler, waiting for their orders. Both say eating at Urth is as much about taste as it is about health. “I am constantly making healthy choices. I want to know what I am eating and is it the best quality? I also like the infrastructure here; it is like a cathedral.” Tucking into a latté, Buhler says, “I love the detail of the swan on the lattés.”

 

For Belle Hsu — a Pasadena resident sitting with two girlfriends, one visiting from China, the other a new mom with an 8-month-old perched on her lap — coming down to Urth is a monthly tradition. “The interior design is really nice,” she says over a latté with a swan impeccably etched in milk foam. “It is a great place for people-watching, the service is really great and the food is amazing.”

 

Naturally, Urth Caffé’s occasional growing pains will not make everyone happy as the place adjusts to the unexpectedly high demand. But that doesn’t daunt the Berkmans, who are in it for the long haul. “It takes a certain fortitude,” Shallom says. “It took five years just to get a permit to build the Pasadena Urth. We built it from the ground up. That is how committed we are.”  


Urth Caffe is located at 594 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 844-4644 or visit urthcaffe.com.


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