Paper or Plastik: Multi-purpose space brings a neighborhood to life

by Elka Olsen Carroll

Paper or Plastik was an entrant in Business Circle’s 2016 Real Stories Contest. This video was created by Alexandra Useche.

Paper or Plastik Café was founded in 2010 by a husband-and-wife design team, Yasha and Anya Michelson, and their daughter Marina, a filmmaker and actor. Yasha, who is originally from the Republic of Georgia in the Soviet Union, met and married Anya, from Moldova, and the family settled in Tel Aviv, Israel. There they owned a fashion boutique and were very involved in dancing and other artistic pursuits. According to Marina, her parents felt their business in Tel Aviv “hit a ceiling” of what they thought they could accomplish, so they relocated their family to California in 1989 in hopes of cultivating “something bigger.”

Coffee talk

In the mid-1990s, a StarbucksTM coffee shop opened in the Michelsons' neighborhood. Says Marina, “My parents loved to go there for coffee, to people watch, and to read magazines from a nearby magazine stand. It was a fun place to pass the day and to have friends pop by to visit." She says, "My parents really always wanted a place like that of their own. There's a communal and social element to coffee culture that is incredibly unique. My parents are great hosts, and that was the root of why they wanted to open their own café.”

At the time, Yasha had been actively restoring a dilapidated dance studio in Los Angeles called the Dancers’ Studio, which had been technically operable for decades but had fallen into disrepair. Using his own money, he began making improvements to the building to benefit the dancers who practiced in the space. Yasha decided to purchase the building and rename the space, Mimoda Studio, which now serves as a performance arts theater, studio, school, and event venue. It was only natural for the family to open the café as an extension of Mimoda Studio.

Says Marina, “It took about three years to build out the café. When the café opened, it served as a window into the studio. When you sit and eat, you can look into the studio and see the activities going on. There's a lot of light and really beautiful floor-to-ceiling windows that make the space really exciting." Once people began frequenting the café, says Marina, "the dance classes grew, as did yoga classes, then birthday parties, etc. We rent the space to a few teachers who teach classes, my dad teaches free classes, and we also host shows with collaborators.” The building also features a retail corner that is an extension of the café, filled with goods curated by Marina.

“My dad always likes to say there is no other coffee shop and dance studio like ours in the country, if not in the entire world,” says Marina. The coffee program features made-to-order coffees using house-roasted, single-origin beans as well as beans sourced from Black Oak Roasters, Coava, and Elm Roasters. The café serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner and offers pastries from local bakeries.

Solutions to tricky challenges

“In the restaurant business,” says Marina, “the biggest challenge is whether you’re going to stay open past one or two years. We’ve managed to stay open six-and-a-half years, so we know we’ve developed something really special.”

Marina says as a business, they are challenged to stay relevant but “not necessarily on trend, because a lot of things we do are kind of trend-proof. For example, coffee’s not going anywhere.” She continues, “But in terms of the food we are serving, we have to figure out how to rotate our menu and to balance what people want with what we do best.” To meet these challenges, Chef Brian Leitner focuses the menu on farm-to-table cooking and sustainability, while using foods that are in season. He uses high-quality ingredients in "simple, yet thoughtful preparations" that keep customers returning for more.

Another challenge the business had to overcome was opening in a neighborhood that did not experience significant foot traffic. Marina says, “There weren’t many other businesses within walking distance of us. So getting the word out about our place and the area was a huge challenge we had to overcome.”

Social media played and continues to play a major part in drawing customers in. Marina says, “We began using different websites to sell tickets for events in the studio, and we use social media a lot to share information. We updated our website with Instagram® integration, so our pictures on the website will never be outdated. Now we have our Instagram feed, which we update daily, and this is a real source for us to get the word out about what we are doing.” They also use Twitter and Facebook® to connect with customers.

Says Marina, “We use (social media) on a daily basis to share photographs from the café. We (post pictures) of our staff, customers, our dishes, and specials, the drinks, and we share information about events.” The company also distributes a weekly newsletter and maintains an active events page on their website.

Technology at work

Employees use a network-based point-of-sale (POS) software called Lavu® which is loaded onto Apple iPads®. Using iPads with the Lavu POS software gives employees more mobility in the café than they had before they switched to the tablet technology. The company uses AT&T service for all land phone lines and mobile phones. For scheduling the staff, the chef and manager use the software, When I Work®. The Michelsons use Trello® collaborative digital boards for office management and Intuit® QuickBooks® online for accounting tasks.

A passion for people

When asked what she is passionate about, Marina says, “The people. Having a business makes you an integral part to building community, so getting to host all of these people, as if it were in our home, has been a real treat. Getting to meet and know interesting people over time is the heart of it all.”

Paper or Plastik Café and Mimoda Studio, a family-owned Los Angeles venture, satiates customers with food, drink, and creative arts.