Some like to describe Los Angeles County as a place divided into moats. From the coastal cities to the hills to the valleys, LA is made up of vastly distinct areas. For this reason, many people have become fascinated by the mini cultural pockets that make up this sometimes gritty, creatively rich area. In 2001, part of LA’s culture was illuminated in the full-length documentary called “Dogtown and the Z-Boys.” This film explored the dynamic history of surfing and skating that emerged in Santa Monica in the 1970s and the lasting impact that it had on competitive sports as well as the local community. It’s no wonder that this little nugget of history would also become the inspiration for a local restaurant and coffee shop known as Dogtown Coffee.
Like many successful restaurants, Dogtown Coffee was entirely a team effort. Itai Klein, Assaf Raz, and Itai Raz are the three co-owners and founders of the place. It was not an easy endeavor, but they all contributed different skills and strengths to the project. Behind the restaurant logistics as well as the food and drinks menu, Itai Klein and his wife Erica were pivotal forces for Dogtown Coffee. Originally a lawyer by profession, Itai Klein stepped outside his line of work to provide the much-needed foundation for an efficient business. Erica went above and beyond the role of a supportive wife, assisting the three partners in the setup of the restaurant and becoming the design power behind the success. Assaf Raz, an entrepreneur and real estate broker, became the mind behind the Dogtown Coffee brand and story. Itai Raz, a successful salesman by trade, served the project with his problem-solving skills and financial prowess, moving mountains to get things done in a timely manner, whether it was bringing in new refrigeration or requesting PPP grants from the government during the pandemic.
On a recent episode of the Dream Mason podcast, Alex Terranova sits down with one of the owners of Dogtown Coffee to discuss this incredibly bold and challenging project of creating a restaurant. Assaf Raz shares the incredible story of Dogtown Coffee from his perspective, along with some personal reflections and life lessons. Listen to the full episode here.
Assaf Raz fell in love with LA, as one does, from TV shows. Growing up in a small town in Israel, Assaf and his peers held a warm regard for the United States, a metaphorical father-figure to their native country. “The Real World,” a reality TV show featured on MTV became the tipping point for Assaf. In 1998, after finishing his military service in Israel, he made a choice to permanently move to Venice, California. Like all who move to the westside of LA, Assaf was drawn to the water and the surfing culture that pervaded the scene. Dogtown culture was an invisible force which guided his principles and his career. As a real estate broker at Venice Properties, Assaf bought the domain name for Dogtown Realty, not knowing where it would lead but having a gut feeling that it would be important.
Then, something incredible happened. The mythic corner where the Horizon West Surf Shop once stood and, before that, the historical Jeff Ho Surfboards and Zephyr Productions, opened up to buyers and Assaf happened to be the broker attached to the project. What better opportunity to reestablish the history and lineage of Dogtown? At least, that’s what he started to think as he was advising a client to purchase the building. He suggested making the space into a café, someplace for the community to gather and remember the incredible history behind the spot. Prior to this vision, the future partners of Dogtown Coffee had already decided, together, that they would create a vegetarian hummus place in Venice. When the idea for a Dogtown-inspired café hit, Assaf ran to Itai Klein and Itai Raz, telling them, “This is what we have to do instead.”
By way of serendipity, the deal for the Dogtown building fell through when the owners of the building decided that they didn’t want to sell because of the sentimental value of the property. So, they asked Assaf what he would recommend for the building––specifically, at the corner of Main Street and Bay Street. That’s when the idea of Dogtown Café was officially set in motion (later changed to Dogtown Coffee by Itai Klein). Finally, in the summer of 2012, it became a reality.
From sheer determination to make things work, the partners of Dogtown Coffee worked tirelessly to overcome their lack of experience in the food industry. They struggled with countless budgetary problems and culinary pitfalls. These three men, while incredibly passionate about catering to the community, had never owned a restaurant before. One was a real estate broker, another a lawyer, and the third was a salesman. And yet, we see that Dogtown Coffee stands as one of the most beloved local spots in Santa Monica. With a growing customer base, the establishment has opened up a second location at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel and has expanded its menu with more breakfast and lunch items as well as alcoholic drinks.
Despite forming a trio of strength and optimism, the partners of Dogtown Coffee were not able to save their business on their brains alone. They owe much of their success to their team, with some employees dedicating over eight years to the establishment, as well as their faithful customers. The partners of Dogtown Coffee were saved repeatedly during their earliest struggles and granted another miracle of steady support from their team and customers during the pandemic. Without this help and some hard-won lessons throughout the way, the Dogtown Coffee owners might not be looking at the beautiful, surf-inspired eatery at the corner of Main Street and Bay Street. What else is this but a testament to the strong and spirited will of the community that surrounds them and makes up LA?