Nestled in the ecosystem of one of Orange County’s emerging creative hubs, Ally Garvin has founded Neat Coffee, a pop-up shop characterized by simple luxury.
The Golden Latte, a house favorite, is made with locally sourced turmeric almond milk and hand-crafted honey cinnamon syrup. Drinks like the Golden are proof of how Ally has taken a coffeehouse staple and transformed it into a highly curated experience.
At Neat, small batch, maker-movement coffee meets genuine community, and Ally invites you into a world built on her belief that that it’s possible to love and serve your customer with a product as simple and prized as an iced Americano. Meet your new best friend, your new favorite space, and your new favorite beverage.
What’s your story? What prompted you to start Neat?
My love for coffee came from Uganda. David and I spent our first year of marriage there, and we got to visit a coffee farm and see every stage of a coffee bean—from the cherry on the tree, to when and how it’s picked, to taking off the parchment and drying it in the sun. We got to roast our own and then drink it the next morning out of our french press. It was a magical experience. I already had this love for how coffee brings people together, so when we moved home, I decided I wanted to open a coffee shop. I worked at three coffee shops over four years to learn what I liked and didn’t like. I wanted to see what it would take to open my own.
What’s your product philosophy and how does your product mirror that?
I want people to know where their coffee comes from and to learn how to appreciate different regions. Like wine, there are so many nuances to the flavor profiles based on the locations. I want my customers to be aware of how many people go into making this one cup of coffee—from the growers all the way to the roasters and baristas. I really care about the quality of the coffee. At the same time, there are some people who just don’t like plain coffee, so I think it’s silly to not offer something sweet. But instead of just offering store brand syrup, I hand craft my own. It’s been fun to play with syrups using seasonal herbs, fruits, and spices to make unique flavors. Look for cardamom, rose, pumpkin, maple, and apple this fall. The last thing I would want is to overwhelm people with options, so I purposefully have a standard espresso menu along with cold brew and filter coffee. But there’s gotta be something special that keeps people coming back and bringing their friends, which is why I incorporate a small specials menu that changes monthly. Nearly everything I source is made locally—from the almond milk to the Kombucha and small snacks. I love working with other small business owners, and it forces me to stay creative. That said, my philosophy is: keep it simple, make it fun, and source local.
You mentioned people coming together around your product, could you talk more about that?
Yeah, I think coffee’s unique in that it’s kind of like a meal. People could be meeting for the first time, catching up, or doing business, and coffee brings them all together. Everyone can find something that they like, and they get to share conversation and ideas over a cup of coffee.
How would you say that you’ve taken what you value in life and you’ve aligned it with your business model and your product?
One of our values is simplicity, and I think that comes out in our coffee, but also in the design that David, my husband, did. There’s not a lot to look at and not a lot to distract you. It’s just a straight forward menu with a couple specials. The design and the menu are all simple when a lot of things in the world aren’t. In the simplicity, people get to focus on the product and each other.
You created this elevated product and invited people into it. How have you learned to do that well?
It’s pretty fun, like a bartender where you constantly get to hear people’s stories. After seeing them over and over and building a regular customer base, that’s what I get to do all day: love on people, listen to their stories, and help create a community. It’s my favorite thing to introduce people to each other at the shop, like friends from different areas of my life—especially if they have something in common.
How have you incorporated generosity into your business model, and in what ways would you like to grow in that?
Right now, it’s been fun to donate money to a local nonprofit from a percentage of my sales. I plan to create something more sustainable that I do every month, and I have a couple other ideas for the future, like starting a co-op. That model is totally counter cultural, especially if people have different roles and are doing different things we all share in—not only money, but also having the same exact say in the business. I think that would be a really cool thing to be a part of, because if everyone feels equally valued, then everyone’s going to put their best into it, and that’s really appealing to me. Being a small business owner comes with great responsibility; to be transparent and generous, to provide good jobs for people, to support other local businesses, to advocate for my community, and in the long run, to have a positive effect on my city. Since starting my business almost a year ago, I have been forced to deal with a lot of ugliness within myself. I’m learning that if I want my business to be successful and have any chance at bringing life to my community, I need to first confront my fear, greed, and self-centeredness and learn to lead out of a spirit of generosity. If and when my business begins to be about me and what I can get from it, it will fail.
You were talking about challenging cultural norms through a co-op. How would you like to see the coffee industry as a whole grow in cooperation?
It’s really tempting for me when I see new coffee shops popping up close to me to get scared and think, “Oh this is going to make things harder.” But I have to remind myself that the more great coffee there is, the better. I want to train myself in thinking this way, that we can work together and it doesn’t have to be this big competition. One of my dreams is to get together once a month with other coffee shop owners and just hang out. Whether we talk about our shops or we just talk about life and drink beers together, I want to create more of a team feel and not a competitive environment. Since I started Neat, a few other coffee shop owners have reached out to me and said, “Hey! we’re excited that you’re here, let us know if we can help at all.” And I think I’ve just played off of that. That’s what really got me excited and encouraged.
Can you talk a bit about your long-term vision?
It was never my goal to be in a small location inside of another place like I am now, but it’s worked out perfectly. Looking back, this was the only way to do it: start out somewhere small and keep a low overhead while gaining momentum. But even just the culture of being located in Wayfare, I feel like we fit really well together in that we have a shared vision of bringing people together for the common good, and I think in so many more ways than I would have ever thought, this has been the perfect way to get started.
My ultimate dream is to have a large space in Westside Costa Mesa to create community, and I think the best way to do that is coffee. I dream about having a space that serves great coffee that is home to anybody and everybody, whether it’s day laborers or people taking their kids to school, or the Instagrammers who just want to come and take pictures. I don’t know exactly how, but I want to create a space that’s approachable, meets people where they’re at, and makes simple luxury available to everyone.
Words by Jeff Tanner
Photos by Alandra Chavarria