If you start asking around among brewers, winemakers, bakers and caterers, you’ll notice a consistent refrain: The best part of the corporate world is leaving it. This isn’t a new story — every day at least one lawyer drops off the map to write a book, and who doesn’t know a business consultant who learned to weld on YouTube and now makes twisted metal furniture full-time — but pursuing passion over personal profit is always something to be celebrated. And when that passion yields something innovative, exciting and delicious, well, that’s a win on all fronts.
Enter Cold Bruja, a new cold-brew coffee company operating out of Boyle Heights, selling bottles of coffee through its website and at several stores around town. The company’s founders, Will Willkinson and Milana Budisavljevic, both left corporate-sector jobs to chase caffeinated dreams, trading spreadsheets for blueprints and banking for beans.
Picking those beans was their first task, a happy one, though not necessarily easy. Choosing their coffee was about more than just deciding on a flavor profile; it meant finding an identity. So they did trials, playing around with different origins and roast levels, setting up blind comparisons for friends and strangers. After some deliberation, they settled on a Brazilian coffee in a light roast, which gives their cold brew a smooth nuttiness with a hint of brown sugar, like the holy water left over from the baptism of a praline. This easy-drinking cold-brew ideology runs pleasantly counter to the prevailing coffee culture, which tends to emphasize intensity and zip, and pushes a lot of people (and coffee companies) toward bottles packed with milk and sugar. Cold Bruja's cold brew is designed to be easily consumed without adulterants, though it lends itself well to other forms of blending and experimentation – maybe drop a splash into a stout, or stir some concentrate into horchata.
But the Cold Bruja team's ambitions don’t end with their beautifully designed bottles – they are about to debut a pedal-powered cold-brew cart. If necessity is the mother of invention, then prudence is its doula, and the team at Cold Bruja employed both – with an assist from the Portland street-cart scene and some helpful Reddit threads – to design and implement their cart. The back half is a bicycle, and at the front there’s a large kegerator, emblazoned with Cold Bruja’s witchy logo and topped with a draft-style tower that will dispense nitro cold brew.
Carts like this exist in Portland and around the country a bit, but aside from a broad similarity to some paleta vendors, there aren’t many setups like it in town. The benefits are clear — the bike is fun, cheap, and allows Cold Bruja to bring coffee to its customers — and there are some obvious drawbacks (like tired legs), but there is also one point of concern that is less apparent: The health department doesn’t have regulations tailored to this sort of retail project.
This is the part where anyone who’s tried to open a food-related business in L.A. breaks into a cold sweat. But Willkinson and Budisavljevic have nothing but kind words for the health department and its inspectors. The existing laws didn’t cover the bicycle coffee cart project, but at every turn, they say, the inspectors helped them fit their square-peg project into the round hole of the rules. They developed such a rapport with one member of the board, Budisavljevic says, that it felt as if they had a stern mother looking over their shoulders, helping keep all of their suggestions in order.
And now, after a lot of maneuvering and massaging, they hope to be ready to debut the cart as soon as next month. Precise routes are still up in the air, but they’ve talked about posting up at flea markets or pedaling around Echo Park Lake, going where the people are hot and thirsty and in need of the grown-up, high-concept version of a lemonade stand. This is a lifestyle project, after all, one powered by a desire to do something fun and rewarding and chill, a business that encourages conversation and friendship and craftsmanship over deal sharking and number crunching.
And Willkinson and Budisavljevic plan to pay their success forward, too, by sharing their experience in design, construction and permitting with like-minded entrepreneurs. It isn’t easy for anyone to get a new business off the ground, but it is especially difficult when the precedents are so limited. Cold Bruja is not just opening, it's blazing a trail. With coffee this good and a delivery system this fun, it’s a wonder there are any bankers left at all.