By Kellie Hall, Special to the Independent
Urth Caffé officially broke ground at the historic former Cottage restaurant in North Laguna Beach for the Los Angeles-based chain’s sixth storefront. After nearly two years in development, the cafe hopes to open in December, said Shallom Berkman, who co-owns the chain with his wife, Jilla.
Urth Caffé began in 1991 when the Berkmans opened up their first store, a tiny spot in Manhattan Beach and have expanded with the help of investors, who have all been long-time customers, according to Shallom Berkman.
The “heart and soul” of Urth Caffé is coffee and tea, according to Jilla Berkman. Her husband travels to Africa to source their beans, with their latest project in Uganda, working directly with the farmer to grow organic and heirloom coffee, which is then roasted in their facility in downtown Los Angeles, Jilla Berkman stated. “Heirloom” coffee plants are non-hybridized, never genetically modified plants, producing coffees low in acid, according to Shallom Berkman’s definition.
For the first time, the cafe will serve a “classic American breakfast,” as well as healthy lunch and dinner options, Shallom Berkman said. They seek high-quality “pure” ingredients, and will bake all of their pastries on-site, according to Jilla Berkman.
Though all of Urth Caffé’s current locations are located in the Los Angeles area, a cafe in Laguna Beach has long been a dream for the Berkmans. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Shallom Berkman visited Laguna Beach frequently and later brought his wife. They considered Laguna Beach as a potential site because it felt like “original Orange County” and was “so unique,” but the right location did not surface until they came across the Cottage, Jilla Berkman said.
The Cottage was not for sale, but “it seemed like it had gone down” and “had a vibe like it was going to close,” said Shallom Berkman. He contacted the landlord who expressed dissatisfaction with the current operator and a willingness to sell the business. The Cottage restaurant closed late in 2012 after the Berkmans’ purchase.
Though plans have been in the works since then, historical preservation and another expansion underway in Pasadena delayed the renovation, hinted Victor Corona, architect of all of Urth Caffé’s projects, who has worked with lead local architect Todd Skendarian on this project.
The Cottage, built in 1917, maintains an “E” rating on the city’s historic rating classification, the highest rating possible, and is eligible for the national register. The bungalow, built in a craftsman style with Japanese and Swiss influences, housed various families including pioneering developer Joe Skidmore. In 1938, Howard and Le Claire Planalp made the house into a restaurant called the Laguna Vista Cafe, though it closed during World War II and housed the Planalps until 1957. It would become the Cottage Restaurant in 1964.
After presenting initial plans for the project that took “historic character off,” the city’s historic consultant, Jan Ostashay, of Long Beach, presented Corona and the Berkmans with old photos and postcards of the Cottage.
Additions had been made to the bungalow over the years, including the enclosure of open-air patios and a new staircase. Once presented with the photos showing the building in its original state, plans were changed to restore original features but modify the building to suit the needs of the cafe, Ostashay stated. Some interior walls will be demolished, though headers with historic moldings will be preserved, according to Corona.
The nature of this renovation seems to be in keeping with the Urth Caffé image. They refuse to compromise their “ethics” in search of profit and only open a new cafe if they “can do it right,” Shallom Berkman said.
The owners’ enthusiasm for their new location came through in a blessing offered by Shallom Berkman at the close of the ground-breaking ceremony on Sunday, July 13, to “bless this place, bless all of you, and bless America.” Urth Caffé will “hopefully bring something the whole community will enjoy,” added daughter Golda Berkman.
Calling the Cottage “the single most iconic structure in Laguna Beach,” it was a relief to find that the Berkmans were cooperative in restoring the structure, said City Council member Steve Dicterow, among several officials who attended the ground breaking. “In Laguna, we’re always balancing past and future,” he added.
In a nod to the building’s history, proposed plans showed a sign hanging above the doorway reading “Urth Caffé at the Cottage.”