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Latte Mi Corazon, a family-owned coffee shop that’s become a community hub in Greater Logan Heights since opening in 2003, is closing at the end of the week.
The shop’s owners made the decision after being cited for code compliance violations that could have cost them thousands to resolve, said co-owner Jerry Guzman-Vergara. He faulted the city for waiting more than seven years to inform his family that the coffee shop was in violation of city zoning regulations.
In the days since the closing was announced, customers have streamed through to find out why, and to lament the loss of one of the few gathering places in the largely low-income, Latino community. Residents, community activists, and the occasional politician knew the shop as a quiet place to gather over coffee with a Mexican flair.
In 2003, Guzman-Vergara’s family built the cafe on the same property as their home on 25th Street near Imperial Avenue, converting their driveway into the coffee shop’s outdoor patio and garden.
But this summer, they were visited by a city code compliance officer who inspected the property and told them their business violated zoning regulations. Their property was zoned for either commercial or residential use, but not both.
Their options: Move out of the house and keep the coffee shop, or stay in their home but close the business.
There was one other possibility. Because their Craftsman-style home is considered historic, they could apply for a special permit that would make an exception to the zoning regulations. But that application could have cost them as much as $14,000, Guzman-Vergara said, and was not a sure thing.
Guzman-Vergara and co-owner Ricardo Medina said the expense was too large, especially without a guarantee the permit would be granted. They said closing down and investing that money in another location was their only viable business option.
They were also angry the city did not tell them their coffee shop was in violation when city staff first inspected the property shortly after the shop opened in 2003.
Back then, code compliance officers visited the property to inspect the newly built patio that was part of the coffee shop. But for reasons that are unclear, they never told the family that the shop violated city code, and never followed up, said Bob Vacchi, the deputy director of the city’s Neighborhood Code Compliance Division.
The case sat unresolved and forgotten until this past February, when Vacchi said he instructed his staff to revisit many cases the division had never closed.
When they checked zoning regulations, staff members realized the property was in violation, and told the owners to fix the problem — seven years late.
“Staff should have been working the case until it was closed, but it remained on the books,” Vacchi said. “That was a failure on my staff’s part.”
Instead, the owners invested into the coffee shop and turned it into a vibrant and socially active local business that offered a free venue for community groups to host events and fundraisers. Realizing they’d have to close was a big blow, Guzman-Vergara said.
“If they’d told us in 2003, we would have stopped and understood and tried to address it then,” he said.
The owners plan to operate a temporary coffee cart at the nearby Sherman Heights Community Center until they can finalize plans for a new location on Imperial Avenue, about a block from the shop’s current site.
Guzman-Vergara, who is also assistant director of the community center, said at the very least the change in location was an opportunity to jumpstart the revitalization of Imperial Avenue, which has struggled to attract successful local businesses.