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Life is Zweet: How a Local Café Stepped Up to Help its Community

March 25, 2021
Zweet Café’s French toast and latte from their menu

How one café continuously pivoted while working with the community to keep its doors open during the pandemic

Zweet Café is nestled within the historic Connor’s Plumbing building on bustling Eagle Rock Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. Known for their cozy coffee house vibes, delicious pastries and one-of-a-kind espresso drinks like the turmeric and chaga latte, Zweet Café has become a local hangout. Since they first opened their doors six years ago, Zweet Café has led a journey filled with both positive and challenging moments, establishing relationships with a diverse crowd from students and artists, to creatives in the music and film industry.

Business partners Kacey Sourakli and Lissa Alietti are dedicated to the local community, which has earned Zweet Café many loyal customers who have been a crucial lifeline during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We are beyond humbled by the support of our customers,” say Sourakli and Alietti. “Our patrons always find a way to show up and cheer us on, saying they’re thankful that we’ve kept our doors open to serve them and have a connection during the isolating pandemic.”

The continued support from Zweet Café’s customer base is one of the factors that drives their motivation. “Zweet Café is very involved in the Eagle Rock community,” says Memo Inal, senior vice president and director of information technology at East West Bank. “Even during the pandemic, Zweet Café brought hard-to-find groceries like flour and yeast, and sold them at cost to local community members.”

Opening a coffee shop with no prior experience

“Our initial thought was to actually open a Mediterranean restaurant,” laughs Sourakli, who has nine years of experience in the restaurant industry. “It was only after we did research on the area that we realized our location was only two blocks away from Occidental College.”

They realized there were no coffee shops in the immediate vicinity. “I thought it was a great opportunity to capture the student demographic and offer a café where they could come and sit down, hang out, or do some school work,” says Sourakli.

Luckily, Zweet Café was previously a sweet shop called Zweet Station, and the layout of the store allowed for a relatively easy transition into a coffee shop.

As fate would have it, there was a coffee shop in West Hollywood that was closing, and Sourakli went there to purchase their equipment. There, Sourakli met the owner and the two became fast friends. She played an instrumental role in helping set up Zweet Café and teaching Sourakli and Alietti the ropes of managing a coffee shop.

Pivoting and overcoming challenges during the pandemic with PPP loans

With experience opening businesses in the past, Sourakli and Alietti were no strangers to making necessary pivots. When COVID-19 came, Zweet Café became a place where the community could come not only to get takeout coffee and food, but also to buy essential items.

“We wanted to give support back to the community that was supporting us, so we converted part of the coffee shop into a marketplace,” says Sourakli. “This allowed customers to find essential items such as milk, flour, antibacterial soaps, gloves and masks—things that always seemed to be sold out at local stores.”

Despite loyal patrons coming to the store, Sourakli was still nervous about the bottom line and keeping all 10 of their employees on payroll, which they managed to do. “What keeps me up at night is knowing that a lot of people’s livelihoods depend on you,” he says, “and you have to think of every single one of them when making business decisions.”

Sourakli and Alietti were introduced to East West Bank by Inal. “I heard he [Sourakli] was having problems sourcing funding since Occidental College had shut down, and the city and state had imposed dining restriction on restaurants,” says Inal. “They had applied for PPP loans through multiple banks but were never contacted regarding the status of their loan. So, when I heard about this, I told Kacey about the PPP loan program at East West Bank. My team and I were very involved in the PPP program supporting all business units, so I was familiar with how successful our teams were in helping our customers.”

"We wanted to give support back to the community that was supporting us, so we converted part of the coffee shop into a marketplace.”

-Kacey Sourakli

Kacey Sourakli (L) and one of the partners, Annalissa Mendoza (R)

“We were very happy Memo told us about the governmental loan program,” says Sourakli. “Once we began working with East West bank, it was amazing. We had direct contact with our loan processors, and we were able to apply for the PPP loans in both 2020 and 2021. Loan officers Eric Sheng and Dana Hua were outstanding, and helped us fill out our applications and worked through the nights and weekends to ensure a smooth process.”

Supporting local businesses

“As a small business, we have to market ourselves and our brand primarily based on our products and our customer service,” says Sourakli. “We rely in part on customer feedback, such as Yelp reviews and word of mouth, to grow our customer base. Through this, we’ve been able to create a true community coffeeshop where our customers feel safe and at home.”

Despite a rough year, Sourakli is optimistic. “We’re hoping that things will at least go back to partial normality,” he says. “In the meantime, we’re going to make sure that we treat anyone who’s coming through our doors like they’re coming to our home.” Zweet Café also continues to support other local businesses by carrying items such as locally harvested honey, gluten-free baked goods and hosting food trucks by local chefs.

Zweet Café is open every day from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday to Friday, and 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday to Sunday, with plenty of delicious items on the menu to choose from.

“There are several items that I really enjoy,” says Inal. “It’s a tossup between my favorites like the Spanish latte and their big breakfast burrito with veggies, or the turmeric latte and their vegetable quesadilla!”

You can visit Zweet Café at 4682 Eagle Rock Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90041.

For more tips, go to our business continuity toolkit with the latest resources on how to deal with the pandemic.