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Coffee Among Dinosaurs
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Los Angeles, CA

Coffee Among Dinosaurs

The Story of Dinosaur Coffee

It’s a warm, windy day in Los Angeles; I’m seated across from Michelle and Ben Hantoot in front of their three-month old venture, Dinosaur Coffee. We’re outside, right where Sunset bends and enters Silver Lake, leaving Los Feliz behind. The Hantoots have their backs to the shop, so I see it buzzing and living behind them, and they see only me. Michelle will turn, from time to time, to make sure her team behind the bar is doing okay without her. For the next hour, she’ll showcase the skill that any good owner, manager, team member, is brilliant at—focusing on the task at hand while still anticipating the moment she’ll need to jump in and help. It’s eleven a.m. and the line just won’t quit.

The Hantoots have been married for a year and a half, and a couple for a long time before that. They opened Dinosaur Coffee together at the end of 2014. It’s the culmination of a lifelong dream of Michelle’s: to bring a community together around coffee and tea, in a beautiful space, served by people who care about what they’re making, and who they’re making it for.

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Michelle: So Ben and I met when we were nineteen at Brown, and we’ve been together ever since. After college I worked in fine dining in Boston. I started out as a dishwasher, and worked my way up to a line cook. I fell in love with the world of hospitality and food.

Ben: My background is mostly in design—I’ve been doing animation and design ever since I was a kid, since I was eleven or twelve years old. I majored in psycholinguistics, but when we moved to to L.A. I fell back into my old world.

Michelle: After we moved, I was lucky enough to find a job with Cafe Luxxe. Fine dining had become too taxing and too physically demanding, so I was looking for something different. Cafe Luxxe taught me about coffee, and I fell in love with the world and the customer service that went along with it.

Ben: I was working in advertising for a long time, and at the same time me and a bunch of my childhood friends came up with this stupid game—Cards Against Humanity. Really, that’s what has given us sort of the opportunity to do what we always kind of wanted to do, which was open up a neighborhood coffee shop.

Michelle: Yeah, and that’s always been the hope, to open up a coffee shop together. So much of the shop is a culmination of both of our talents. The website, the branding, the design, it’s all done by Ben. And I handle the rest. We love working together.

Ben: It’s easy. We do totally different things. Oh man, I cannot work the espresso machine.

Michelle: He makes French press! He does dishes. I’m grateful that Ben’s a really hard worker. He’s willing to do anything he needs to to help.

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Opening a coffee shop has kind of always been the plan.

Ben: Well, pretty much until the day we opened Dinosaur Coffee, every day we would get up and the first thing we did in the morning was we would go out and get a cup of coffee together. From college, until now.

Michelle: Every morning, we’d walk for coffee at like eight a.m. We’d take thirty minutes, sit together at the coffee shop.

Ben: The happiest part of the day.

Michelle: Yeah! It really was the happiest part of the day. And we just wanted to create a shop that we would go to. A fun place.

Ben: Right.

Michelle: And I think that’s what we did.

She laughs.

Michelle: We’re here every day!

The shop we’re sitting in front of is open, it’s bright, and airy, with these curved shelves that run almost the length of the place (Michelle and Ben invite you to bring your hot wheels, guys—the shelves are perfect for racing them). The wood is light, the skylight creates a halo of natural light over the floating bar. The floating bar allows everyone who walks in the shop – and everyone who stays, no matter where they sit – to feel welcomed, taken care of, just a few feet from their baristas.

Ben: We were actually pretty far along with a different architect, in a different location, with a different logo, and… it just didn’t feel right.

Michelle: I remember I was really hesitant about it. The original space we were working on was in a strip mall, in mid-city. It was going to be like, eight hundred square feet. Very much so a generic coffee shop. And for whatever reason, a million things didn’t feel right. We were pushing too hard on a concept that wasn’t working. And we pretty much gave up.

Ben: After we made the decision, I started looking again, and this location came up pretty quickly.

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Michelle and Ben teamed up with MASS Architecture & Design, a Los Angeles firm responsible for the beautiful Intelligentsia Venice and C+M at LACMA.

Michelle: We were very lucky to bring them in. They’re right up the street. And they do these huge projects.This was our first build out! But they understood what we were going for, and we’re in their neighborhood. This was going to be a neighborhood spot. And now Ryan (the architect, Ryan Upton) he has his meetings in here all the time. It’s really lovely. So we showed them the space, and they were just kind of in awe of the history of the building, the Elliot Smith mural, and all of the physical stuff in here. We told them “we just want something light and airy, something that’s an extension of ourselves.”

Ben: Something light, and airy, that we would be proud of.

Michelle: Ben’s a creative director, and he knows that sometimes clients get in the way of their own success. So, us baristas designed the bar with LA Brew Techs, we gave MASS that blueprint, but everything else we kind of just let them do whatever the heck they wanted. Just because we think that’s how great design—well, great anything—comes about.

Ben: And that’s how we got all the wild, curvy lines and shelves. I mean, I remember when he showed us that render. At first, we were like, this is really strange. And then we thought about it some more, and realized we’d never seen anything like this. And I think that’s something people react to.

Michelle: And that’s what I love about it all! About what we do, at least. I’m really proud of us as a couple. When we got married we kind of said the same things to the people who helped us plan our wedding. We kind of said, do whatever you want! We don’t know. And that was the approach we took with the shop. We wanted as much input as possible from people who weren’t us.

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They spent time exploring coffee shops, honing in on what they loved about other places and figuring out how to bring those details into their own space.

Ben: Right off the bat we tried to visit all of the shops in L.A. and, as we were traveling for other things—to San Francisco, Portland, Seattle—we made sure we were stopping in to shops whenever we could. Michelle really connected with the idea of the floating bar in the center of the shop, which you don’t see in L.A., really.

Michelle: We have to give credit where credit is due—we are deeply inspired by Sightglass in San Francisco. We love that shop, it’s gorgeous, and we definitely took notes from that space. I really think the floating bar facilitates great customer interaction. The center counter is thirty four inches, and so it’s this really beautiful height where you and I can have a conversation over it and not feel like anything was in the way.

Ben: And it puts the baristas right in the middle of the shop.

Michelle: It adds to the openness and airiness of it. With everything in the center—dishwasher included—when someone walks in the door, no matter what we’re doing behind the bar, we see that person come through the front door. We can say hello. When a customer walks in, I want them to feel that someone’s going to be with them right away.

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One of the things I noticed, I tell them, is something that really struck me; it seems rare to find a shop that’s doing coffee really well, that’s designing their space with so much thought, and also really encouraging people to come in and work. The shop has wifi, ample seating, and that’s something I’ve been seeing less and less. I mention the events they’ve had, that I get this feeling that they’re straddling the line that exists between the third wave coffee world and what coffee shops used to be for all of us. Michelle agrees, but with hesitation.

Michelle: Right, for sure. But at the same time? We couldn’t be here, we couldn’t do this without those other shops. I want to make it really clear that we are standing on the shoulders of so many other shops who have laid the groundwork for us. We’re in between Caffe Vita, which is an amazing shop from Seattle, and Intelligentsia, who opened their Silver Lake location in 2008 and kind of introduced this community to specialty coffee. Our customers come in here educated, and that’s thanks to them, to the growth of specialty coffee in general. We’re fortunate to be coming along when specialty coffee is so pervasive.

Ben: For years, these great shops faced the hurdle of having people that came in like, “Why? Why is this coffee five dollars? Come on.”

Michelle: So it was really their focus, it had to be.

Ben: Their focus had to be, “This is quality. This is sourced in this way. Here is why.” And we have the luxury of not having to do that.

Michelle: It really is a luxury. Our customers are educated, they know. I get so many interesting questions! Like, “is your coffee washed?” And I get so excited, “you know what that means?! That’s cool!” They’re interested in how it’s sourced. The information is available to the people who want to know. And if you just want to come in and don’t really care? We have really great coffee for you, anyways. And as for sitting, and staying? I feel really lucky that this is a shop I would want to come to. We have the space for it, so why not?

Ben: And that’s part of it. We organized it for seating – that’s something we wanted. We wanted to fit as many seats in here as we could. We want Dinosaur to be there for people who just want to be alone and work, and for people who want to get together and converse.

Michelle: And really, more and more shops like us are popping up in L.A. And that’s not because that’s what’s better now, it’s because the culture is calling for that because everyone is so educated, so comfortable with specialty coffee. The scene has changed. Intelligentsia did so much for us by teaching people about what they were drinking. And Cafe Luxxe, and the others throughout L.A. For us, we just have to provide great customer service, and great coffee. And everything else just comes naturally.

Ben: As far as events, gatherings, that’s something Michelle and I talk about a lot. We feel like life is a lot of… say you’re walking at the mall, and you see another clothing shop, another clothing shop, clothes, clothes, clothes, jewelry store…

Michelle: You have so many opportunities to buy something.

Ben: But no opportunity to, like, go inside, and pay fifteen dollars to learn how to do origami.

Michelle: Just learn something! I love learning little things that you can take with you.

Ben: We’re working on putting a hand lettering workshop together now.

Michelle: We just want to be a place where you can come together, and have fun, and do something novel that’s not just purchasing something you’re going to forget about in ten minutes. While still being a place where you can bring your laptop, get great coffee, and do your work.

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Michelle has always seen coffee as this happy place where craft and service and warmth meet.

Michelle: I was coming from an academic world. I got a degree in biology, and the satisfaction there is very distant, right? But working with food, it’s so great to work with your hands and have a finished product. And that was amazing: to have this product that was physical and real, that you can share and see someone react to it. What’s great about coffee is you have the craft and preparation, but you also get to have this over-the-counter experience with each customer. The hardest part about being in construction for so long was not having our regulars; not having regular customers coming in every day.

Ben: And they’re all coming in for that little twenty-minute best part of their day. Everyone’s just really happy.

Michelle: Right. It’s like this really beautiful, micro-experience when you come into the coffee shop. The interaction is so small, but meaningful, and so fun. At the end of the day, I think Dinosaur Coffee serves really great coffee and really expertly prepared coffee, but that’s not why we started it. We just wanted to create a place for people to be happy. And I think that really shows in the design, too. We just want people to be happy.

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Dinosaur Coffee serves Four Barrel Coffee (roasted in San Francisco) and Song Tea (based in San Francisco), in vessels made by Cal State Fullerton professor of ceramics Nobuhito Nishigawara. They came across his work at Tortoise General Store in Venice. Their suppliers feel more like friends and family, kind and fun in equal measure. It’s a bonus that their goods are exceptional.

Michelle: Specialty coffee is so neck-and-neck, you have so many great options. We chose Four Barrel.

Ben: Their style is different than anything else that’s in this neighborhood right now.

Michelle: We’re the lightest roast on the block, which is really cool. And at the end of the day, we chose Four Barrel because they’re able to make great coffee without taking themselves too seriously. Like, they sell mugs that say “Fuck It.” They’re able to laugh at themselves, and that’s what Ben and I really love about them. I think we really take that to heart. I mean, we want to make a great product, too, but at the end of the day it’s just coffee. We’re going to do it really well, because that’s how we do everything, but it’s just coffee. And the thing that brought Dinosaur and Four Barrel together was that interest in making really great products but still being fun and silly and weird. It’s this marriage of great coffee and good people.

Ben: I mean, one time we ran out of coffee, and…

Michelle: Yeah, in our second week of opening, we thought like five people were going to show up, and so we ran out of coffee. We called Hein at Four Barrel, “Hey, we’re almost out of coffee, we won’t have enough for tomorrow. What should we do?” We are fortunate enough to have partners in LA who also serve Four Barrel, so Nicely at Menotti’s in Venice offered to give us a few tens of pounds to get us through. But Four Barrel did us one better. They called back a few hours later and they were like, “Hey Michelle, someone’s getting on a flight to LA with two suitcases full of coffee. They’ll be at the shop tomorrow before nine a.m.” And I was like, what the hell just happened? That blew me away. That’s excellent customer service. It’s the most above and beyond thing anyone has ever done for me.

And then Song Tea is really cool, too. I love our tea program, I’m so proud of it. We work with Peter Luong, out of the Bay Area. His company is specialized, focused, has a small menu. We offer a few teas from him, two oolongs, a green tea, a white tea, and we have this tea that’s called Winter Sprout.

Ben: When I drank that tea for the first time I was like, “This is tea? That’s crazy.”

Michelle: And it’s really fun to share that experience with people. Because I don’t think many people have had this quality of tea that is at the same time very approachable. Peter has been so good to us—he is Song Tea, along with a small staff. Whenever I have a question, I text him. Actually, the first drinks that were made in this space were Song Tea. He came to do training during the build out. We didn’t have water, we didn’t have electricity.

Ben: We bought like, alkaline water from across the street.

Michelle: We had a Bona Vita electric kettle, we ran a three-foot extension cord from Stefan’s space next door.

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I’m running my finger over Nobuhito Nishigawara’s ceramics, which feel both delicate and sturdy in my hands.

Michelle: He’s an amazing artist. He’s a local guy, a professor at Cal State Fullerton, and he’s a person that we met, shook hands with, and saw his studio. And the wares were important to us. This is the kind of cup we drink from when we’re at home. It’s beautiful, it’s comforting. Coffee in general is like the sum of a million different details, and so the shop, our choices, are an extension of that.

Ben: So many layers of presentation. From the shop as you walk up to it, the way you’re treated by the baristas, the latte art, the vessel. It’s all a part of the experience.

Michelle: All things that, on their own, you might not really think about, not consciously. But when they come together, it makes you feel good.

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We talk for awhile about the name, though the question feels unnecessary now that I know them better. Michelle and Ben are seriously hard workers, but they’re in it for the fun. Of course they would name their coffee shop something offbeat, something that would elicit a smile. It seems to be as simple as that.

Michelle: You know, so many people are upset that there aren’t more dinosaurs. One of the baristas was talking to this four year old girl, and the four year old girl was so disappointed. “Where are all the dinosaurs?” And Vicki, one of our baristas, she said, “Well, we’re IN the dinosaur.” And I loved that. And the little girl kind of thought about it, and then went, “oohhhh.” You know, it’s more of a sentiment than a literal expression. Something silly and nostalgic, not too serious. That’s what we’re about. And oh, oh—I love the dinosaur gifts that people are giving us. People are kind of apologetic, sometimes, “Oh, I’m sure you’re getting so many dinosaurs but I saw this one and thought of you, and…” but no, no. Let the record state that I am not getting enough dinosaurs. There’s no such thing.

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And then we’re back again, in front of the age old topic of what it’s like to work together as a married couple.

Michelle: Again, we’re doing different things here, though we’re helping each other in whatever ways we can. We built the shop so I could be here, so I could come to work every day and see my customers.

Ben: And for me, it’s my office now, basically.

Michelle: Yeah, he used to work in coffee shops anyways. Now it just happens to be ours. And that’s what’s really cool about how we’ve created this together. We’re doing different things, but we’re responsible for the whole together. We have conversations about everything, we disagree. And that’s how good design—how good anything—happens.

Ben: Through back and forth.

Michelle: We got married right as we were creating this space, and we came through that unscathed; I love that. I love that we can work together. It’s really fun.

It’s a sweet note to end on, and kind of the point of Dinosaur Coffee. We stand up, shake hands, and just as we dust off the interview-vibe, Michelle runs back into the shop to get behind the bar. It’s noon, now, and the line just won’t quit.

Dinosaur Coffee
4334 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90029

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