The aromas of vanilla latte and café de olla permeate the air as you enter the small coffee shop across from Theodore Roosevelt High School. The collection of small porcelain penguins standing on the counter welcome the daily flood of customers, while the whir of blenders raises the promise of smoothies and shakes. The warm welcoming voice of María García, a Roosevelt alumna, calls out, “Buenos dias! Que les voy a sirvir hoy?”
The coffee shop is the Arctic Hotspot Bakery & Cafe .
Catalina Verduzco, a junior at Roosevelt, has visited the shop on East Fourth Street three times and fallen in love with its coffee, sandwiches and ambiance.
“I love their turkey sandwiches because I feel like it was made specifically for me,” she says.
The idea for the coffee shop began over a dinner at an Applebee’s restaurant nine years ago. Christina Mora, 30, a Roosevelt alumna, and her husband, Jonathan, 34, had long dreamed of creating a place in Boyle Heights where students and adults could relax.
Christina Mora was in high school when they started dating, and she remembers that there were no coffee shops anywhere in Boyle Heights.
A doodle on a napkin
As the two dined, Mora told her husband her dream. Taking a napkin from one of the tables, he sketched a logo ”“ a penguin ”“ and the interior design for a cafe.
The penguin idea came from Mora’s first pregnancy.
“We selected the penguin because it will always remind us of our children,” she said. “When I was pregnant with my first child, I got really big, (and) I started wobbling.”
Her husband told her, “You have penguinitis!”
The logo led to the oxymoronic name for the shop: Arctic Hotspot. The coffee shop opened its doors on Nov. 12, 2005.
In high school, Mora was passionate about math and the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. After graduation, she attended California State Polytechnic Pomona to study engineering. Another passion, however, took her down a different path.
During her third year at Cal Poly, Mora realized she was no longer as interested in mathematics. She was pregnant and wanted a career that would make it easier to raise a family. She transferred to Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Academy, which she calls the “best decision of my life.”
At Le Cordon Bleu, she learned the basics about managing a business, but the training didn’t prepare her for the reality of owning one ”“ the challenges of obtaining city permits, remodeling and overcoming day-to-day obstacles. She says her inexperience led to a very difficult first three years. The cafe was often on the verge of closing.
“If I would have had the knowledge, I would have never done it. There would have been no Arctic Hotspot,” she says. She then smiles, adding, “But I am glad I did not know anything.”
The first three years would have been unbearable if it weren’t for the support of her family, she says, especially her sister, María García.
“My sister is my right hand and my best friend,” Mora says. “She is what we call uña y mugre. She is my everything.”
García previously worked for the Paramount Unified School District as a teacher’s aide. When Mora asked her for help, García quit her job.
Today, when you enter the cafe you find García taking orders and making coffee. García says she throws herself into everything she does.
“The bond that we have with our customers has succeeded in the long run,” García says. “I think how you greet people results in whether the customer decides to return or not.”
Their friendships with their customers have led them to involvement in the community. Besides providing the Roosevelt football team with food and catering big community events, they recently began offering a free cooking class at Pueblo Del Sol Community Center on the third Wednesday of every month to help create healthy eating habits.
The class is funded by Urban Strategies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening families and transforming communities. Mora and García teach the class together.
“Recipes and foods from different countries is what really makes the class interesting,” García says.
Margarita Severiano, 45, who lives at Pueblo del Sol, has attended all of the classes.
“I have learned so many cooking skills and received so much knowledge,” she says. “The recipes they provide are simple, perfect and extremely healthy.”
Whether attending the monthly cooking class, ordering their popular smoothies, or just stopping in to say hello, customers love the Arctic Hotspot. Andrea Romero, who recently graduated from Roosevelt, laments the fact that she won’t be visiting the popular hangout just across the street from the school as much.
“I love the two ladies,” she says of García and Mora. “They always know how to make my day, whether it is with their delightful personalities, their delectable sandwiches or their exquisite Oreo milkshakes. I love them.”
Arctic Hotspot is located at 2509 E. Fourth St., Los Angeles, CA 90033.
All photos by Kevin Martinez.