Words by Saehee Cho
Photographs By Justin Chung

Joonmo Kim & Jacob Park, Maru Coffee

Los Angeles, CA

Maru, the L.A. based coffee company, was built by patience, happenstance, and a precise vision for well-made coffee in an open, beautiful space. The light is the first thing that strikes you at the Arts District branch, their second location in three years. The tall, white framed windows stream in natural light to highlight an homage to simplicity and thoughtful detail. In a landscape of branded coffee shops and hollow minimalism, Maru feels like a relief. There is no excess: one perfect communal table, a simple pastry case, and a well-curated menu of espresso and pour-over drinks.

For co-owners Jacob Park and Joonmo Kim, intention and craft have always been foundational to their enterprise. It just so happened that their philosophy spoke to the current aesthetic moment. Joonmo Kim explains, “We never set out to be minimalistic. That was never our intention. All we were trying to do was bring our own aesthetics, which happened to be Korean. We don’t have design backgrounds and we didn’t hire a designer. We’ve worked from intuition.”

The references to their shared, but differently lived, Korean-American experiences are quietly expressed through the branding, the ethos, and the design. Jacob Park: “When we started the coffee shop, we tried to look for a name that spoke to our Asian backgrounds and came up with Maru (마루). Maru means the wooden floor of the communal space before entering the rooms through the sliding doors.” In conjunction with the word San (산), meaning mountain, San Maru (산마루) can also mean mountaintop or ridge, a reference to where the best coffee is found. In another sense, Maru represents the in-between spaces, the moments of pause, shared or private.
Both partners agree, their aesthetic comes from a gut-place, an unbroken line stemming from a rigorous dedication to doing a single thing, superbly well. Joonmo: “For us, our philosophy is not to create something new but to take something that exists and try to do it better, to refine it.” They model themselves after older, more traditional coffee/tea cultures, looking back to Italy, Japan, and Korea. “There is something you respect about that older culture. They’re proud of what they have and they’re trying to maintain and keep it. There’s a market for everybody. New stuff is cool but we love analog and we try to make it approachable.”

Much of Maru’s core comes from Jacob’s own story, having grown up in a Korean temple. Jacob: “My grandmother was a monk. There are many stories as to why, but more or less, she wasn’t supposed to have children so my father and I lived away hidden until she was elderly. We moved into the temple to care for her in her later years. What was greatly beneficial about growing up isolated in a temple was that I didn’t realize what a unique childhood I had. It seemed completely natural.”

Jacob’s remote childhood experience manifests in small but not insignificant ways. Both partners see it in how they pace their growth. Joonmo: “The main thing is quality. We go really slow on our progress, on our decisions. We’re okay with that. It works for us. We just want to make sure we’re doing it the right way without rushing anything.”

Built on top of this core, Joonmo and Jacob have added their variable life experiences, both having walked very different paths to meet at a happy, balanced middle. Joonmo studied business while working at coffee shops and later spent time in the corporate world successfully but with mild satisfaction. Meanwhile, Jacob started working in coffee shops to support himself at an early age.

Jacob: “I was a competitive golfer as a child and came to the U.S. at around twelve or thirteen. As it turned out, I did not succeed as a golfer and being without parents in this country, stopped going to school. My father cut-off support and I began having to making my living at fifteen by working as a barista.”

Joonmo: “I studied business but Jacob was in business since he was fifteen. We’re very lucky to be in this partnership. Of course, we don’t see eye to eye on every single thing but there’s a trust.”

It’s an easy assumption with their contrasting backgrounds to peg Joonmo as the operational mastermind and Jacob as the visionary but it’s immediately clear that their success comes from a shared love of coffee. For Joonmo, it was a life-long dream, now realized. For Jacob, the manifestation of a daily practice. Together, they’ve built a coffee program based in trial and error, vigilant study, and constant tweaking.

They’ve now started a roasting operation with a direct to consumer website about to launch. Joonmo: “Our first plan was to do roasting but the Hillhurst space was too small. We didn’t really set out to have a second location. The main reason we opened the Arts District location was to start roasting.” Fulfilling an original intention with this second location, both partners are eager to bring their coffee into homes and outside of Los Angeles.

Now, well-established and into their third year of business, they are further honing-in, working inward rather than expanding. They are grateful for their success, ambitious without ego, and still learning more. Joonmo : “We’re open to expansion but we’re not looking for it. When you do something you love, that’s when you reach your fullest potential.” ●

* Jacob Kim quotes translated from Korean

Photographed in 2019 – Los Angeles, California.
Maru Coffee Arts District