After a decade of serving freshly roasted coffee to the Irvine community from its shop inside the Northwood Town Center, Sootha Coffee officially closed its doors on February 22, as the landlord is opting for a new tenant.
For owner U Kim, who opened the shop in 2012, the closure is not by choice, but a harsh reality faced by many small business owners.
Kim, who came to Irvine as a Marine stationed at the former Marine Corps. El Toro, spoke with Irvine Weekly about the final days of Sootha Coffee’s brick and mortar operation, and how he plans to carry on the Sootha legacy for local coffee lovers.
While the modest coffee shop was well-liked locally, Kim explained that in recent months he was unable to convince the building’s property management to allow him to continue business — even despite agreeing to more than a 50% increase in monthly rent.
As a small business owner in Orange County, Kim said he was familiar with year-to-year rent increases, but admitted he was blindsided by the double digit increase. In fact, Kim said he was also pushed to turn over the shop’s financial records, but it did not make a difference.
“I was shocked out of my skin to receive a 67% increase to our base monthly rent,” he said. “Basically the premise was that they had another tenant wanting to get into the space. Their reason was that we were paying under the area norm – and of course the prime spot in the entire shopping center.”
Managed by ShopCore Properties, Kim said the management company took over the lease in 2019, just before the pandemic. In terms of properties in Irvine, ShopCore Properties lists the entire Northwood Town Center on its website.
Kim said he tried to counter, adding that prior to Sootha’s arrival, the building sat vacant for more than four years.
“The prime spot in the shopping center was left empty for four and a half years before we came in. We did the build out, we stayed for 10 years — now we’re finally sustainable again after the pandemic,” he said. “Don’t you think some of the traction for this spot is due to us being here?”
Still, after many discussions with his wife, and chewing through some of his own denial, Kim said his options were limited. In the end, he chose to move forward, sharing the news with his loyal customers via the Sootha Coffee Blog in a post titled Finishing Well.
“We are closing shop,” Kim wrote in January. “It took the entire holiday season to pry myself out from the state of denial. Yet, it has not completely sunk in that, come this March, I won’t have to get to the shop wee early to open the front door while greeting the usual suspects by their names and scrambling to prepare their usual beverage anymore, less stressing over supply chain disruptions or cost increase, no more agonizing over asking one of my team members to fill in for me for whatever the reason.”
On Instagram, Kim shared photos of his small collection of coffee roasting equipment. He estimated his main roaster saw about 38,000 pounds of coffee beans in its decade of daily service.
For now, Sootha Coffee will maintain an online presence – SoothaCoffee.com – which Kim hopes can serve the community through mail-order coffee subscriptions. Another part of Kim’s goal is to expand, as the subscription based model might bring coffee enthusiasts in from different regions.
“I want to get my coffee into the customer’s hands, before the coffee peaks – it’s a short window. A little less than a week,” he said. “I’ve sampled several of these roasters, just to see what the market’s like and I’ve been thoroughly disappointed.”
Kim admits that things will be much different in the absence of his daily activities at the shop, but he is determined to remain optimistic, but has no plans to open another brick and mortar retail location for the time being.
The final days at the Northwood Town Center were bittersweet for Kim and his crew. But they were not lonely. In fact, Kim said it was the busiest the shop had ever been.
“We had about a week to clear everything out,” he said. “They were the busiest days in the entire ten years we had been there. People came in to say goodbye – and I appreciate it.”
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