Tucked inside Santee Street’s dead end, safe from the relative bustle of Eighth Street in the Fashion District, the tiny but colorful coffee and toast café No Ghost Bears has been feeding the community since 2014.
Originally dubbed Coffee Colab, the operation was rebranded under the current moniker in 2017.
Owned and operated by Will and Natashia Miyazaki, No Ghost Bears was born out of a shared passion for coffee. Shortly after marrying in 2013, the couple started their coffee roasting company — Suits and Knives Coffee — prior to opening the café.
Will grew up in Santa Rosa. His Japanese father left the family when Will was young, although the two maintained contact. His mother remarried and the family moved to Chicago for six years, before moving back to California.
“My adolescence was in the projects, gangbanging. I didn’t go to high school. I was selling meth and coke outside the library.” He came to Los Angeles when he was 16.
“My dad bought me a bus ticket, and we smoked a $700 cigar.”
As discreetly articulate as Will is garrulously profane, Natashia was born in London and raised in Bath, England. A fashion designer by trade, she was visiting Los Angeles and staying Downtown at the Cecil Hotel in 2012. Will was working at Marty’s coffee shop, on the ground floor.
“I was visiting from England at the Cecil, above the coffee shop, (and met Will),” Natashia said. “We stayed in touch. I was working in Hong Kong and had an opportunity to come to LA.”
The couple reconnected and after a long-distance romance. Natashia returned to Los Angeles in 2013. “We got married and started our coffee roasting company, Suits and Knives. We started that before we opened No Ghost Bears.”
Natashia worked on establishing the business and brand, while Will experimented with the coffee’s roasting flavor profiles. Favorable notices in the press at the time helped propel the business, but the couple wanted to convey their passion more directly to the public.
“Selling coffee to people online, they make it (at home) the way they want to make it,” Natashia said. “We wanted to introduce it to the world the way we want to make it. It’s hard creating a brand without a store.”
Natashia runs the show, but it’s Will who seems to be the coffee whisperer.
“I always had a thing for coffee, I guess. I’ve always had a strange fan base.” He credits Natashia for harnessing his unruly energy and helping to channel his gifts.
Alluding to the scope of his ambition, Will mused, “If you do something for 50 years, you become a legend. With me, at the end of the day, you want to be here 30 years from now, and I will. It’s always about the level of craft.”
Having worked as a consultant to a variety of roasters and shops — “I was a hired gun,” Will explained — he was known for his strongly stated opinions and unusual taste.
“He always had the reputation as a disruptor,” Natashia said about her husband. “He’s very talented at what he does. It was a natural progression for us.”
Will interjected, “I’m not that bright. She knows what’s right.”
“I’m the translator,” Natashia explained.
“She’s more business oriented,” Will offered.
“We’ve found a balance,” Natashia concluded.
“Behind every great man is a great woman,” Will added proudly.
No Ghost Bears is a neatly designed café stall with a white-tiled counter face painted with a black-and-white cartoon mural by the couple’s friend, Polish artist Mikolai. The center of the counter is dominated by a handsome, gold-plated “Spirit” model espresso machine, made by the Dutch company Kees van der Westen. Outdoor seating is accommodated in two coves decked with planters on the curbside.
Regarding the menu, Natashia noted, “We wanted to keep it simple.” Originally the shop only sold coffee concoctions. “We only added the food just before the pandemic.”
That menu is comprised of seven toasts devised by Will. These range in variety: peanut butter and strawberry, accented with flaked coconut and chocolate nibs ($6.50); Nutella and banana ($7.50); fig compote and ricotta cheese with lemon zest and Himalayan pink salt ($9.50); and an impressive version of the locally ubiquitous avocado toast tiled with cucumber and radish topped with cracked black pepper and chili flakes ($10). It’s all vegan or vegetarian, except the bacon and egg croissant ($8.50). The toasts are served on freshly baked sourdough bread supplied by the local artisanal bakery Bakers Kneaded.
Naturally, all the usual espresso coffee drinks are available, brewed with custom roasted Suits and Knives beans. Notably, in addition to extra shots ($1), 10 mg CBD ($3.60), charcoal ($2.50) and chaga mushroom ($3) can be added to any chosen espresso.The ensuing uncertainty and chaos of the pandemic helped to further transform the business.
“In the beginning, for the first three months, it was a struggle,” Natashia said. “We didn’t get any of the loans that were available.”
She initiated a GoFundMe campaign to maintain the staff payroll and reached out to the shop’s cadre of loyal regulars. “We have a really strong community here. We made our goal in a week. It really made a difference.”
“I watched my company sinking,” Will added. “She was working so hard to keep us alive.”
By the end of summer, the couple revamped the business to make it more viable. “I had to make the decision to go back to work full time. I hired new people. They worked really hard and diligently.”
In the meantime, they kept their doors open as the Downtown streets emptied.
“We made our coffee shop a safe space,” Natashia said. “We were the only one open. We stayed open. We created an environment that made people feel secure. This was like a sanctuary. It helped us survive and weather the storm. (The customers) relied on us, too, for their sanity. It’s coffee and therapy.”
Looking to his wife, Will added, “You’re going to lose unless you have someone in your corner.”
No Ghost Bears
305 E. Eighth Street, Suite 3, Los Angeles