Ally Garvin was a one-woman operation when she opened Neat Coffee nearly three years ago in a nondescript office park. Since then, she has expanded her team, fostered a small community of coffee enthusiasts, and is set to open a new location in Westside Costa Mesa.


Photograph by David Garvin

How has Neat Coffee evolved since it opened?

I’ve brought on three employees, which has been awesome. For the first eight months, I ran the shop by myself. It was a bit crazy trying to make it work in the lobby of a coworking space. What also made it challenging was using a mobile coffee cart, which means we have no water lines or plumbing. Over time, I think we’ve just been able to develop a community, whether that’s people who walk in from their office nearby or college students. I didn’t think it would happen in a tiny office park.

Who in this community has motivated you?

There’s a lady who has a goal of meeting three new people a day. She loves coming to Neat because she knows she can do it all right here. She’s always starting conversations with people in front of her, behind her. It’s not just “Oh, how’s your day?” She’ll really get down to real stuff and make people feel seen and known.

You lived in Uganda for a year doing nonprofit work. How did you transition to coffee?

My husband and I got to visit a coffee farm for the first time and watch the whole process, from picking the cherry off the tree to stripping off the parchment. We got to roast our own coffee and drink it the next morning. While we were there, I’d always have friends over and make coffee and scones for them, and they’d say, “Ally, you’re such a great host. Would you ever want to open a coffee shop?” They joked about calling it Friendship Cafe. Before that, I liked coffee, but I didn’t really think of it much.

You worked at three coffee shops before Neat?

When we moved back to Costa Mesa in 2011, I decided I should work in a coffee shop before I started my own to see what I liked and didn’t like. When I was at Peet’s on 17th Street, there were just all these people who would come in every day as a family. I thought to myself, “I want that. How do we foster that?”

Photograph by David Garvin

How have you focused on building community?

One of my favorite things is working with other small, local businesses. I met Roxanne Golkar from Rawmond Milk (based in Costa Mesa) at a farmers market before I opened the shop. I loved her product and knew I wanted a high-quality almond milk I could be proud of. It’s a little more expensive than buying the normal stuff, but I wanted to support what she was doing.

All your syrups are made in-house. What’s the process like?

I’ve noticed with some third-wave coffee shops, there is this pretentiousness of “We only make coffee this way.” We wanted to be very welcoming and make sure people found something they’d like. I didn’t like the chemicals in normal syrups so I played around with making my own, inspired by recipes, desserts I really liked, and seasonal flavors. We feature a special syrup every month.

What are your favorite places to grab a bite in Orange County?

Bear Flag Fish Co. is our very favorite go-to. We also really love Haute Cakes Caffe and how the owner Paul (Taddeo) is so rad. What he’s created has been really fun to watch.

What’s next?

I’ve always wanted to open my own space in Westside Costa Mesa where we live and kind of pour back into the community there. I think new restaurants in Westside are trying to be, from my perspective, trendy or don’t necessarily fit the community that’s already there. Coming from that area, I want to create a space and a menu that’s welcoming, for people moving into the new condos and for the people who have been there for a long time.

Photograph by David Garvin

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