The line is stretched out the door and spilling onto 7th Street.
A melting pot of multi-generational San Pedrans are all eagerly waiting in line for a cup of joe on a Saturday morning in August, excited to be a part of the grand reopening of a beloved downtown establishment, Sirens Java & Tea.
“This is crazy,” I overhear one woman say as she walks in with her young daughter. Not only is there a line out the door, but every seat is taken inside. The new booths, the row along the windows, the half dozen tables, all full. And they’ve barely been open an hour. The baristas, all original staff from the old location, are desperately trying to keep up. Although none of them are new, it’s been eight months since they last brewed an espresso here, and their rust is slowly peeling off. This was supposed to be a “soft” opening, they were told.
“Hi, Yolanda!” a woman screams from the back of the line. Yolanda Regalado, the owner of Sirens (along with her husband Ray), doesn’t hear her. She’s running back and forth, making sure the baristas are stocked while also trying to play host to the hundred or so people who came out on a normally quiet Saturday morning in Downtown San Pedro to see the coffee shop’s new digs.
Outside, half of Mesa Street is closed off as various tables featuring safety and first responder information (an important part of Sirens’ story) line both sides of the block. Artist Julie Bender, the mastermind behind the 25th Street Mosaic Mural, also has a table selling photo prints of the now famous wall. (Her art studio was located in the back of Sirens’ original location.)
Yes, it’s a block party for a coffee shop.
Later that morning, San Pedro Chamber of Commerce President Elise Swanson and L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, along with chamber board members, join the Regalados outside the front entrance for a ribbon-cutting ceremony. After a few kind words and thanking everyone for their support, they cut the ribbon, and once again, Sirens Java & Tea is back in business.
That is, until they have to close the next day.
A block party for a coffee shop reopening might seem like a bit much, but Sirens isn’t your typical coffeehouse.
The energy on the corner of 7th and Mesa that particular Saturday morning is something Downtown San Pedro has been missing for years. The abrupt closure of their original location at the end of last year, after four years in business, left a gaping void in the heart of downtown.
Not only did Sirens serve as a coffeehouse, it became the unofficial community hub for San Pedro. Its proximity to City Hall in the old News-Pilot building on 7th Street made it the perfect spot for city and local politicos to hold court over cappuccinos and homemade cinnamon rolls. Book clubs, local organizations, and school groups all had regular meetings there. It was also the spot where the 25th Street Mosaic Mural and the San Pedro Heritage Museum were both formally announced to the public. In fact, many of the tiles that ended up on the 25th Street Mosaic were made in Bender’s studio at the back of the shop.
When Sirens closed at the end of last year, all that activity stopped.
Since then, 7th Street has been a ghost town during the day. Even the successful openings of La Buvette Bistro and Sebastian’s Mediterranean Cuisine at the opposite end of the block couldn’t bring back the spirit left in the wake of the coffee shop’s shuttering. Like many who lamented its closing, all anyone was asking was, “What the heck happened?”
‘WE WERE GOING TO CLOSE FOR GOOD’
A week after the soft opening, I met up with Regalado in the new and improved Sirens. Since the opening block party on August 10, the shop had to close again due to the long wait in getting the health department to sign-off on the business (she got an exemption for the soft opening). Bringing a building built in the 1920s up to code in 2019 involves a lot of money and a lot of paperwork.
“It’s been frustrating,” says Regalado, as we chat in one of the comfortable new booths. “But once we get signed-off, we’re good to go.”
The health department was scheduled to sign-off on the business by the end of August, so by the time you read this, Sirens should be open once again. (Ed. note: Sirens officially reopened Saturday, August 24, just as we were going to print.)
As the cliché goes, the road to this point was a long and rough one. Moving locations was never part of the Regalados’ plan when Sirens originally opened in late 2015. The coffee shop, whose name is a double entendre referencing the mythological creature and a symbol representing first responders, was coming to the end of their original lease last year and ran into issues renewing with their landlord.
“Our new lease was coming up for another six years at that location,” explains Regalado. “All these new fees started coming up, and it started getting way too much. We were going to close for good because we knew that we had put all our retirement, all our money – everything – into [the shop].”
That’s when she met Joe Brucato.
“He would come in every so often,” she says. “He’s a retired sheriff for Riverside and I’m retired for L.A. County. That’s how we got a connection.”
The way Regalado explains it, Brucato, knowing the situation the Regalados were in, asked her to walk up the street to the corner of 7th and Mesa and check out a building that could possibly become Sirens’ new home.
“So, we started talking and he said, ‘Hey Yolanda, get a cup of coffee and walk up the street with me,’ because he knew that I was upset. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go.’ He’s all, ‘Come on, come on. Just get out of here. You need to get out of the building.’”
The pair walked up to 402 W. 7th Street, which most recently was Cooks Kitchen & Remodeling, but at that moment was just one of many empty downtown storefronts with most of the windows sealed shut.
“He tells me, ‘That’s for lease,’” recalls Regalado. “So, we walked in and it was really old and needed a lot of work. Joe says, ‘You can do it. You did it once, you can do it again.’ Then he suggests that maybe I should buy the building. And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I can’t buy this building.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you can.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ And then he started laughing.”
She continues, “A week later, he comes back in and asks if I’ve given buying the building any more thought. So, I asked him, ‘Why do you keep asking me this?’ And he goes, ‘Because I’m the owner.’ I thought he was joking. And he goes, ‘No, I am. And I want you to buy this.’ But I told him, after all we put into the first one, we couldn’t afford it. He says, ‘Yes you can. I’ll make it possible for you to do this.’”
The building, owned by Brucato and his family, wasn’t on the market but was sitting vacant. It was an eyesore and a relic in a downtown district slowly trying to redefine and modernize itself.
“I wasn’t sure what we were going to do,” admits Regalado. “But my husband said, ‘Yolanda, we need to open again. We need to do this. This is a gift. Maybe it’s a sign that we need to be here.’”
“I wanted something vibrant [on that corner], and that’s what she had,” says Brucato. “We weren’t dying to sell it, but then the conversation turned to her making the leap. Yolanda and I get along really well and we were able to put a deal together quickly.”
Regalado adds, “We decided we were going to do it. My staff, right after [we closed in] December, moved everything into storage and we just got to work.”
Buying and renovating a building built in the 1920s on a limited budget is a Herculean task, but the Regalados, along with their family, friends, and staff, were able to get it done. In order to help offset some of the upfront costs, Brucato helped find tenants like Birdcage Beauty Parlour and Her Escape Boutique to lease the smaller storefronts while Sirens continued its build-out.
After eight long months, waiting through multiple delays, including having to replace nearly all the plumbing and electrical, at a total build-out cost in the hundreds of thousands, the new Sirens Java & Tea was finally ready for its close-up.
CALL OF THE SIREN
The word that kept floating around the crowd during the soft opening in August was “amazing.” With large bay windows lining both 7th and Mesa Streets and a spacious lounge area that includes a small stage and nearly perfect natural lighting, the interior design of the new Sirens Java & Tea looks like something staged for a glossy travel magazine.
Artist Tina Crandall, a friend of Regalado’s, did the interior artwork on the walls, which includes a faux wood design with blue drapery and images of coffee plants and mermaids. The serving counter and display cases sit in the back of the shop with a large menu board on the wall behind it. While the coffee shop is brand new, Sirens is still carrying on the legacy it started in the old location by honoring first responders and the military. Regalado originally came up with the concept as a way to honor her older brother, Benjamin Pinel, a Los Angeles City Firefighter who died in the line of duty while responding to an arson fire
at a restaurant near LAX on December 4, 1984. Sirens was her way of combining her two passions – honoring first responders and coffee.
Regalado points to a blank corner of the shop and says, “That area is going to be dedicated to first responders. I’m just upset that we couldn’t take our memorial piece, the one with the lighthouse and angel wings. We had to leave that in the old location because it’s just too tough to take off the wall.” She’s hoping whoever ends up renting the old location (it’s sat vacant since Sirens left), will let them try and recover the memorial, which is a large mosaic by Julie Bender.
While Bender’s piece sits in the old location, Sirens, in keeping with its support of local artists, collaborated with Machine Studio, Community Art Machine, and the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District on a community mural project on the building’s back wall, adjacent to the 7th Street parking lot, titled “Adventures in Public Art.” The large mural, which features an underwater theme, is another in a series of large mural projects that have been canvasing the downtown district in recent years.
“I’m so excited about [Sirens’] return to the community and look forward to the reopening,” says Linda Grimes, managing director of the San Pedro Waterfront Arts District. “I miss the wonderful environment for meetings, and I’m happy that Yolanda is now a property owner and the corner is activated.”
With Sirens back and ready for business, the attention now shifts to the shop’s main focus: coffee. This reporter, being somewhat of a coffee snob himself, can tell you that Sirens continues to pour a great cup of joe, which, even with all the community outreach and support, is the real reason people keep returning. Even the original staff came back, which was a shock, even to Regalado.
“The first day everyone returned for training in the new shop, they were so excited and wanted to see their customers again,” says Regalado. “Sirens is a part of who they are. They take a lot of pride in that.”
In addition to its coffee, Regalado is will be changing up the food menu this time around.
“We’re going to be carrying a lot more vegan items,” she says. “We’re going to be offering healthier choices, in addition to our pastries.” She also says that the new space will allow Sirens to bake their own in-house items, like fresh bread and cookies.
“And we’re going to host pop-ups,” she adds. “Every so often we’ll have a pop-up shop. We’ll also be doing beer and wine tastings, as soon as we get our license.” There are also plans to open up a small speakeasy bar in another part of the building in the near future.
Now that construction, for the most part, is finished, Regalado is finally coming to terms with just how much the coffee shop’s absence was felt downtown and is excited to see all her regulars once again.
As we’re finishing up our interview, an older lady pokes her head inside the shop to say hello. After exchanging pleasantries, the lady leaves and Regalado’s eyes light up.
“Want to hear a story about that lady?” she asks me, as if I was going to say no to such a juicy question. “That lady, she’s a local artist, and before I opened up the first location, when I was looking at that building, she came outside and asked what I was doing,” she recalls. “I said, ‘I’m going to build a coffee shop.’ She goes, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ Then she says, ‘We don’t want you here. It’s not going to do well.’ I said, ‘Okay, but when we do open, will you come in and have a cup of coffee?’ She said, ‘Maybe.’ She’s our biggest fan now.” spt