Alex Morales and his brother Alan have impressive coffee resumes. They've worked at LA's Handsome Coffee Roasters, Tiago Coffee Bar + Kitchen and prior to opening their now 2 year old Civil Coffee in Highland Park, operated Civil as a mobile coffee cart catering to events and pop-ups. Whether for its brews or its buzz-worthy aesthetics, their Figueroa coffee shop has become a fixture on the high street. I asked Alex to sit down for a chat, neighbor to neighbor, over well....coffee, obviously.
We chatted his about favorite coffee shops, Civil's design identity, and how being nice is the most important ingredient for any cup of coffee.
The first question I usually ask interviewees is what their favorite coffee shop is - seems unnecessary here, but I do wonder before Civil...before Handsome...was there a particular coffee shop you’d frequent?
I didn't get to frequent it as much as I'd like and that's because it's in Portland - it's called Barista. They were the first multi-roaster coffee bar in the nation. My favorite shop of theirs is on Alberta Street. It's got this nice throwback feel...almost speakeasy-like. Dark, beautiful wallpaper, walnut crown moldings, a gorgeous bar. It's very romantic.
What piqued your interest in coffee?
We're Mexican and there isn't a huge culture behind coffee in Mexico - not like Guatamala or Honduras, for example. Growing up, we had a lot of instant coffee. We weren't exposed to a lot of coffee that was specialty-based so when [my brother and co-founder] Alan had an espresso that had complexity and flavor in it he had a eureka moment.
For me, I really love the idea of an experience. I saw that coffee offered so much more than just a cup of coffee. So the idea of being able to craft an experience was exciting to me. For example, Bottega Louie, that place is incredible. It transports you. The opportunity to do something like that but on a small scale in a coffee experience - peoples' day to day ritual - that got me really excited.
What were the most important elements you wanted in you own coffee shop?
Specialty coffee can be intimidating and it seemed like a really simple formula: really good coffee and be nice....civil coffee. So when we opened a coffee shop we decided that was going to be part of the mission. High ceilings and an open space I feel are huge for approachability. Natural light is key. So there were components in this space that were already in place for us to craft this "civil" experience. It's also all about the details. Design sets the tone when you walk in.
Civil’s interior is beautiful - there are no shortage of people sharing photos of it across the internet and social media. What effect has design had on your business?
First off, Charisse Cardenas, who designed the space, is an awesome person with an awesome eye. We have gotten a lot of...internet love and that's been huge. I was reading an article about art projects and installations like the Museum of Ice Cream and The Broad, and people want to go these places just so they can take a picture of themselves there. So yeah, people come in here and they'll take a picture. Then they'll tag their friends and they'll set up coffee dates on Instagram. Social media is powerful, it's made people excited to come check out Civil as a destination.
Is coffee an art?
I think It's a science. There are ratios and parameters depending on the espresso and how old the coffee is, for example. But I think there's an art form to developing a brand and experience that's approachable, and friendly, and that people get excited about.
Congrats on celebrating Civil’s 2nd anniversary. What does it mean to be a part of the Highland Park community?
I feel honored to be here. This is a historic strip, part of the original Route 66. And to be in this beautiful building that was built in the '20s... it's a very special neighborhood.
As a business you have to be thoughtful about the impact you make. Prior to opening we tried to do a lot of community engagement, as simple as walking down the street, talking to people. We did free coffee every Saturday in front of the store with our espresso cart with pan dulce from the panadaria down the street which was a really nice way to engage with everybody. We try and make as positive an impact as we can.
// All photography by Marni Epstein-Mervis of STRUKTR Studios