Brown faces and natural wine: Latin American company Sala celebrates its third anniversary in downtown Whittier

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SALAa specialty coffee shop and natural wine shop, just celebrated its third anniversary in Uptown Whittier against all odds.

Owner-operators Derrick Montiel and Brandee Raygoza survived the first pandemic shutdowns in 2020 by selling bottles of wine, bags of coffee beans and other snacks that rose in demand during the shutdowns. When a speeding a van crashed in SALA main entrance September 2020 – Whittier store closed for 40 days, its future at stake – Raygoza and Montiel jumped at another opportunity.

In June 2021, the couple opened Sala #2 in the Bixby Knolls part of Long Beach, where they realized their original vision for their ideal “sala,” or lounge-like venue with a kitchen and bar serving coffees from handpicked specialty, local craft beers and natural wines to patrons, friends and the community throughout the day.

Raygoza and Montiel believe that good coffee, craft beer, high quality general food products and “natural wine [are] not above anyone. Yet their SALA journey has not been without the bumps faced by young Latino entrepreneurs who are often challenged or questioned about their knowledge, presence and purpose in a specialized food and beverage industry that doesn’t isn’t used to having young brown faces in the mix.

The success of SALA signals the inroads of natural wine into the larger Los Angeles drinking scene and reflects the growing demand in Whittier, Long Beach and surrounding areas for non-industrial, small-batch, sustainable, minimal-intervention alcoholic beverages.

Sala wine labels. Photo by Melissa Mora Hidalgo for LA TACO.
Outside of Sala's Whittier location.  Photo via Sala.
Outside of Sala’s Whittier location. Photo via Sala.

From coffee to wine

Sala was originally planned as a specialty coffee shop. Wines entered the scene when

Raygoza and Montiel have taken over a former deli space licensed to sell wine and beer. The Painter Avenue location provided options beyond coffee and set them up nicely for a take-out beverage concept that carried them through the pandemic and beyond.

Coffee and wine already enjoy a healthy presence in Uptown Whittier, thanks to places like Local Fixture and Lift Coffee Roasters – where Montiel honed his craft as a barista – and a new wave of breweries, gastropubs and restaurants. vegans offering wines and craft beer. When Montiel and Raygoza opened in June 2019, they saw natural wines as a sensible addition to their cafe concept to fill a gap in the local beverage landscape.

“We wanted to bring natural wines to a region that didn’t already have them,” Raygoza said.

The bet is successful.

Sala has built a reliable following in its first year thanks to gracious customer service, expertly crafted espresso drinks, and an inviting atmosphere for aficionados and first-timers alike. Montiel and Raygoza invited local Whittier Chief Ted Montoya to make her mouth-watering weekend breakfast burritos, and they hosted local vendors selling desserts, flower arrangements, and other handcrafted goods. People came regularly for brewed coffee, specialty beans and vegan donuts.

When the pandemic hit, Raygoza and Montiel noticed a drop in brewed coffee sales. Instead, customers wanted wines, so they responded.

“Natural wines became popular during the pandemic when people were drinking at home but wanted something lighter and more drinkable,” Montiel said. He compared the “crush ability” of many natural wines – also known as “raw”, “minimum intervention” or “live” wines, which tend to contain less alcohol, sugar, sulfites and additives than conventional wines – to lighter wines. “session” beers made to be drunk over a long period of time.

“Fortunately, we never had to close during the pandemic,” Raygoza said. “We had a lot of regulars, and new customers come from all over the region to buy wines and coffee, some as far away as IE”

Sala’s wines are sourced from around the world, including a few from California and other domestic producers. Those looking to sample some can do so at the Long Beach location, where Raygoza and Montiel offer a rotating menu of wines and beers paired with coffee. The Whittier location is take-out only, but the helpful staff are happy to guide shoppers.

Want to try a new crispy white with your fish tacos? Here is a delicious French Chenin blanc or raw Marsanne. Need something spicier for your carne asada? Try a juicy cuvée from old vines or a dry tempranillo from Spain. Find a good wine for your lunch at the park or a refreshing sparkling wine to sip all day.

Sala owners find that the versatility of natural wines and their freshness as raw, vegan products make them perfect pairings with the fresher, more artisanal food at the pop-ups that are the stars of both places.

Sala’s breakfast burrito at their LBC location. Photo via Brandee Raygoza.
A glass of wine at Sala.
A glass of wine at Sala. Photo by Melissa Mora Hidalgo for LA TACO.

There is also food

The Long Beach location serves food daily from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., with occasional dinner specials at both locations. The menu features sweet and savory treats, from breakfast pastries to deli sandwiches, all homemade and meant to accompany their select wines, beers, coffees and other beverages. Local pop-up burger Nice burgers visits every Tuesday, throwing their delicious smash burgers until closing time.

Occasional dinner pop-ups at both locations feature everything from ceviche and paella with birria and bahn mi. their friends at Cold hearta gelato pop-up and a vegetarian Filipino pop-up Silog Pogi helped Sala celebrate their third birthday in Uptown and welcomed them to their new space in Long Beach.

Sala’s homemade breakfast burritos remain the big draw at both locations. Made with the help of Raygoza’s mother, the burritos are a clear homage to Chef Ted’s burritos that first appeared on Sala’s Whittier menu. They use Improved Tortillas filled with beans, potatoes, cheese and your choice of bacon, chorizo ​​or soyrizo with a side of fresh green salsa. Get them Thursday through Sunday, open until sold out, and they do it every time.

Location Whittier de Sala.
Location Whittier de Sala. Photo by Melissa Mora Hidalgo for LA TACO.
A tee at Sala.  Photo by Melissa Mora Hidalgo for LA TACO.
A tee at Sala. Photo by Melissa Mora Hidalgo for LA TACO.

Brown Faces and a Sala

Sala makes natural wines accessible to drinkers in parts of greater LA that tend to be overlooked by specialty merchants.

“We’re not rich Latinos,” they told me. “Our parents are workers, teachers, immigrants and first generation. We have been working in catering and services since the age of 14. We pay rent and work hard to run our business.

In its first year of operation, Sala #2 in Long Beach has become a magnet for new regulars and returning customers from North Long Beach, Lakewood, Compton and Carson. They seek out its welcoming space with large tables and lots of sunlight to work all day or catch up with friends. The Whittier boutique attracts locals from the city and nearby towns like Pico Rivera, Downey, and Hacienda Heights.

Montiel and Raygoza are fighting misconceptions that they are “entitled millennials”, a complaint launched by an older neighbor of Whittier who accused them of taking up too much parking space – in the small lot adjacent to their own store.

“We’re not rich Latinos,” they told me. “Our parents are workers, teachers, immigrants and first generation. We have been working in catering and services since the age of 14. We pay rent and work hard to run our business.

Raygoza and Montiel join a new generation of young, locally raised Latinx entrepreneurs establishing vegan and artisan tacos Restaurants, artisanal delicatessensand bottle shops which have found a home in Whittier since restaurants and bars like Phlight (2005), Bizarra Capital (2012), Vinatero (2007-2013), Setá (2009-2016) and the Bottle Room (2009-2020) have made the Uptown neighborhood a food and drink destination more than a decade ago.

Beyond Whittier, Montiel and Raygoza join their friends at Lasita Filipino restaurant and natural wine bar at industry events, and they often find themselves the only people of color in a niche industry.

“We want people to feel comfortable here and open to trying drinks at Sala,” Raygoza said. “We’re happy to be that living space for people.”

Montiel drives the point home further. “We intentionally kept the name ‘Sala’ in Spanish,” he said. “We are underrepresented people in the beverage industry. “Sala” tells people who we are like brown faces in wine. »

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