Amalia Litsa at Cher Diary (Photo by Wayne Alan Brenner)
Amalia Litsa, a longtime Austinite and familiar with the creative community, opened her vegan cafe Dear Diary, part of a revitalized retail strip near the corner of 12th & Chicon, just at the start of the COVID pandemic. -19.
She and her business partner Joshua Adrian have struggled to keep the place going through months and months of lockdowns, social distancing and varying levels of security. And together, in one way or another, with volunteer workers and a loyal neighborhood community, they helped the place survive.
Perhaps even, all things considered, to flourish.
Sale of coffee, sale of pastries, sale of art supplies and artists’ products. To provide a bright and welcoming neighborhood meeting place in the midst of difficult times. Forward, although the ‘ronas.
Now Litsa has bought Adrian’s share of the company, runs Dear Diary solo (albeit with a rambling crew of coffee makers) and plots, like a Bond movie anti-villain intent on doing the good, to conquer the barista world. -oat milk ready. We thought it was time to check in with this local mover, to see what it’s like to run a vegan cafe as our COVID situation turns from pandemic to endemic and the restaurant industry tries to recover. reconfigure along fairer lines.
Inside the dear diary (Photo by John Anderson)
Austin Chronicle: Why did you start Dear Diary in the first place? Why, of all things, coffee?
Amalia Litsa: That was really the artistic part. I moved to Austin in 2002; Austin Sketch Group started in 2004, and I went to the meeting every week. That’s how I made all my friends. At the time, it was mostly independent comic artists, and that had a huge influence on my career: I got my Scan darkly concert [as animator for Richard Linklater’s film] because I heard about it from the Sketch Group people. And, at the time, the seed was planted in my mind: wouldn’t it be so cool to have a café geared towards artists? What equipment would I have for them? Of course I would have outlets for all the people working on their laptops and so on, but maybe I could also have good lighting and inspiring artwork on the walls and maybe to be a small art supply retail space. So with Dear Diary, I was trying to create the environment that I wanted. And of course I love coffee! But I don’t think I would have had the passion for this idea, to push myself to do it, if I hadn’t had the desire to build a creative community space.
And, at the time, the seed was planted in my mind: wouldn’t it be so cool to have a café geared towards artists? – Amalita Litsa
THAT : And, despite the pandemic, you all seem to be coping… well?
AL: I’m not going to lie – it hasn’t been easy. Dear Diary doesn’t know what it’s like to be alive in a normal economy. But we weren’t eligible for any kind of federal, state, or city assistance as a new business, because they’re all based on previous year’s records. And that makes sense, because otherwise everyone would be like, “Yeah, sure, I own a cafe, give me some money!” But so we weren’t eligible for any form of relief, we just had to start it and survive on our own. When we couldn’t use our dining room due to capacity limitations, I turned it into an art retail space. I couldn’t afford more inventory, but I could pay artists on consignment. And it worked for them, because all the regular art markets were limited or closed. So when people were looking for side hustles, I had a side hustle for them. Even if we didn’t have artist meetings, at least we had artists here, exhibiting their work. So we got away with it.
THAT : And you’ve moved on to roasting your own coffee, too. Was that part of your survival tactics?
AL: It’s all about survival. The strain-breeds-creativity thing happened with art and with roasting. We had no intention of roasting our own coffee that quickly, it wasn’t part of the original game plan at all, because there are plenty of great coffee roasters in Austin and we would have been happy to continue transport beans roasted by another brand. But it’s so much more profitable to roast our own – and it’s good for our brand, to differentiate ourselves in the market. And I have this opportunity to really think about the farms that we buy the beans from, and that’s exciting for me. And then, with the oat milk, it was the same thing. As a vegan myself, I always complained about the “vegan tax”, you know? Why does it cost more if there are fewer ingredients? For example, why does this cupcake cost more when it has the same ingredients as this one, except you kept the eggs on the outside? Can you just pay me for the eggs?
Bricco Blends Oat Milk (Courtesy of Bricco Blends)
THAT : [laughs] OK, I know oat milk is important to you, and we’ll definitely get to that, but – roasting?
AL: So we and a few other cafes share an oven in Georgetown. There’s a master roaster working up there, and he helps all of us – he does the hard work. We design the coffee, we import it and give it feedback, but it sits there and works the equipment, watches the roasting beans. Right now we’re working with a few different importers, and they’re dealing with farms everywhere. So we have coffee from Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil and some Ethiopian Sidamo, and we have coffee from Rwanda – which most stores in town don’t have. Basically we have a handful of African berry flavored coffee, Central American stone fruit flavored coffee, and then Brazil is mostly for mouthfeel. We are mainly working with this palace at the moment. But there’s a new crop of coffee berries coming in with the spring harvest, so I’m looking forward to exhausting our current supply, because, “What are we going to replace it with?” And actually I don’t know yet.
THAT : And finally, what about this oat milk? Bricco mixes?
AL: Yes! So with oat milk, I thought, “Maybe to cut costs, we could start making our own oat milk in-house?” And I tried, but realized my baristas would have to spend so much time mashing and straining the oats that it would end up costing more. And they would probably all give up – because it’s not fun. What if I could get to where all baristas had to do was mix ingredients in water – no mashing or draining? So I spent over a year formulating an oat milk that would froth for lattes – because homemade oat milk doesn’t do that – and it would be minimal effort for baristas. It’s so scientific, you know? If I had gone to school for food science, I might have gotten there faster. Because at first it was like throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what stuck. But that’s where my Bricco mixes come from, and now the costs aren’t lower, but that’s just because I don’t have economies of scale on my side yet. And that’s why I want to develop it and make homemade oat milk more accessible to people. I know that, at the very least, if I made it possible for other stores, they could charge a premium for it – and they could customize it – and they could make it go well with their particular coffee roasts. And it would also make buying oat milk truly local. Right now, customers are buying home roast coffees from cafes, so why not buy your specialty milk from those stores too?