Some stories tell themselves, and that of HOPE Cafe and Catering owner Tony Lancaster might just be one of those, including chapters that could be titled Rehab, Rebirth and Redemption.
Currently, Lancaster is barreling ahead in redemption mode: This week, he doubled the Pasadena-based HOPE Cafe’s prospective sales, partnering to open a new cafeteria in Times Mirror Square, now owned by Onni Group, a Canadian developer looking to revamp the former Los Angeles Times building into a new generation of shops and residential units.
The new business is part of his master plan to grow HOPE Cafe and Catering tenfold in 10 years. He hopes to continue opening pop-up sites throughout greater Los Angeles.
But Chef Tony, as he is known around Pasadena, isn’t banking on getting rich off his line of preservative-free, fresh food at HOPE, which stands for Help One Person Everyday. What he’s really in the game for now has come to mean something else — something he calls a true “first fruits” company, a for-profit business that donates 10% of sales back to nonprofits and community outreach organizations. Together with his wife, Ann, he is also eager to expand on their mantra of employing those who have been deemed unemployable, including veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, the homeless, homeless in transition, and adults with physical and mental developmental disabilities.
“Our mission is to reach the outcast, the outsourced, the overlooked, and teach them a trade, teach them how to feed themselves, feed their families and feed the community,” said Lancaster, who often offers free or steeply discounted food to area nonprofits for their catering needs at fundraising events.
Since buying a majority share in the Pasadena catering staple Kilroy’s Sandwich Factory in 2012, Lancaster has gradually rebranded the company as HOPE. From the beginning, he has looked to employ the homeless and homeless in transition, partnering with Door of Hope to help those without a work history to get back on their feet, learn a trade and get resume-worthy experience.
One of the first homeless men Lancaster hired was able to use the work experience to turn his life around, get a better-paying job, and become a homeowner in Utah in just three years. Another man, hired as a driver, refused to change from homelessness and chose to live out of his car, but he consistently showed up for work clean and on time. Lancaster said he understood that guy, too.
“Look, the way I see it, any employee you’re going to hire will have issues. At least with our employees, we know all the baggage that they come with … and with that they learn about me and my baggage at the same time. To say, ‘Hey, we all have this stuff and together we can get through it’ has been a really positive experience,” he said. “Our experience has been phenomenal. We have so many stories where we’ve been able to journey with people, and whether they stay with us short-term or long-term our goal is to journey with them, help them get some stability and become more employable.”
Lancaster’s personal connection with the downtrodden stems from his own experience with homelessness. Only about 10 years ago, the now successful businessman was living on the streets. He had earned early success in the food industry, working his way up from washing dishes at age 16 and taking each opportunity as it came. He became a chef, then a manager of a well-known steakhouse chain in the Central Valley. Soon, he was branching out to other business ventures, making big money fast. But he had a history of self-destructive behavior, years of drug and alcohol abuse, and when his first wife left him, he headed off to Arizona, where he owned several homes and his sister owned a construction company. Without knowing anything about the industry, he bought out half of his sister’s business while also flipping houses, and suddenly, in the 2007-08 economy, “Things turned south very fast.”
Lancaster lost it all. Every home, his vehicle, his business, gone.
He went from couch surfing to living on the streets. Ultimately, after not sleeping for a week, Lancaster had a desperate vision of himself in the mirror. “I called out to a God I didn’t know and I asked him to take me or save me,” he recalled.
Soon after, he was dropped off with nothing but a backpack and a change of clothes at a rehab facility in Covina, where he spent the next eight months. That’s where he found his faith, and soon afterward embarked on his new journey in Southern California. At one of his first jobs, he met his future wife and partner, Ann.
During a recent interview, the couple recalled their initial courtship, with Tony often laughing as he recounted wanting to impress Ann shortly after his rehab and having had his driver’s license revoked for life, “with alllll that I had going on!”
But Ann responded thoughtfully, “Ours was just a natural progression in doing life together. It was such a miracle in how Tony turned his life around. I could see how seriously he took his sobriety, and I could see his progress very quickly. The right doors opened and we just walked through them and we kept going.”
Ann, who works as office manager and event coordinator for HOPE, also had two young children, whom Tony has helped raise. Their daughter, Audrey, who has Asperger syndrome, just turned 21. Having a child with special needs spurred them to look for other employees who have developmental disabilities, knowing what challenges lie in store when their own daughter is ready to work. They’ve paired up with AbilityFirst and have happily employed one of the nonprofit’s members for nearly a year.
“I think a lot of people just don’t have the exposure, or the experience with people with special needs, and that might make them nervous or hesitant,” Ann Lancaster said. “But then they see, ‘Wow, this person is totally capable,’ and it changes their outlook. At least give them that first chance, give them that trial. And if it’s not a good fit, that’s OK too, they’ve gotten some good work experience out of it.”
Door of Hope Executive Director Megan Katerjian attests to Lancaster’s philanthropic drive, noting HOPE Cafe has been “very, very generous” to Door of Hope, which helps homeless families and children rebuild their lives as a family unit. Apart from offering employment to Door of Hope clients, HOPE Cafe often provides free food for the nonprofit to help it maximize fundraising money.
Katerjian noted that the homeless in transition need empathetic employers.
“They need an understanding employer who’s willing to stick by them while they get the rest of their lives worked out,” she said. “Chef Tony is one of the few employers out there willing to take a chance on someone with spotty work history … he and Ann see their business as a vehicle to do good in this world, and that means providing employment opportunities and helping out with tangible things like food for nonprofits.
“Plus, it’s really good food!” she added.
Speaking of food, Lancaster has honed HOPE Cafe’s menu with well-known lunch staples and salads and catering options, able to meet the needs of groups from 10 people up to 16,000. Striving to combine fresh produce, preservative-free foods and daily made-from-scratch bread and cookies, HOPE works from a 5,500-square-foot production kitchen to cater as many as 25 events on a daily basis. It also does corporate catering to clients such as City of Hope and Southern California Edison, as well as events as big as the Tournament of Roses and the Emmy Awards.
“I think we have come upon a really good format for what we find joy in doing,” said Lancaster, who envisions growing the business in pop-ups and employment opportunities, spreading change one person at a time. “We’re not in the business to get rich — we really see it as a way to make an impact in our community. If we can deliver great-tasting food, on-time delivery with amazing service, and knowing that in catering an event 10% will go back into a nonprofit, then that softens the blow of the expense.”
Lancaster isn’t taking any chances on his road to redemption. He said after living for years with six outstanding warrants in Arizona (“They’ve always known where I am”), his license revoked for life, he had to work his 60- to 110-hour work weeks around the added burden of hitching rides everywhere he went. But earlier this year, when Lancaster was preparing to return and face the possibility of jail time, the warrants were dismissed and he was finally able to recover his license.
“Yeah, it’s always been the running joke, that I owned seven vehicles and I couldn’t drive any of them,” he said, noting that his faith, humor, family and mission help him stay on course. “I don’t take anything for granted, not anymore.”
To learn more about HOPE Cafe and Catering, their menu or events planning, visit hopecafeandcatering.com.