Nestled in a once-overlooked corridor of East Pasadena, Rosebud coffeehouse is brewing a lot more than premium specialty coffee — it’s serving a higher cause.
The sunny, spacious shop, trimmed with edgy local artworks from a recent exhibit there, was born as a social enterprise with a dual purpose: create a vibrant community space, and use the business for professional job training for at-risk foster youth or formerly homeless youth to teach the skilled art of coffee making. Rosebud pairs the young adults, typically between 18 and 24, with an experienced barista who shares all the tricks of the trade — how to taste coffee, how to tell where it comes from, different brewing techniques and, of course, the painstaking work of latte art, because who doesn’t love an abstract angel floating atop their mocha cappuccino?
If you flash her a smile, barista Charlene Long will respond in kind, and she might make you one of her animal-latte specialties, a dreamy bear or horse.
“It’s such a welcoming environment; it’s a good place for me to be. I love it because it’s really heart-to-heart work and I get inspired there,” said Long, a former intern who was one of the first to come on board with Rosebud’s training program. As a former foster youth, Long struggled for a time when she aged out of the system, becoming homeless.
“I love doing latte art and people seem to love it, too. It’s fun to see their reactions, so that makes me really happy,” said Long, an aspiring artist, noting that the work helps stoke her creative side.
Now celebrating its one-year anniversary, Rosebud has seen its methods stir up success, turning nearly 20 young adults in need of direction and employment into skilled coffee baristas. The business is very close to turning a profit: “We are so close I can feel it, just 10% away,” noted Rosebud’s executive director, the Rev. Dan Davidson.
Davidson came upon the coffee-training brainchild through something of a mishap. When he first came to Pasadena with his wife in 2009 to reopen the historic Rose City Church, at Del Mar Boulevard and Allen Avenue, he encountered an unexpected dilemma — a few homeless youth who had been sleeping at the property. Amid the recession, Davidson knew things were tough, and he attempted to help by providing food and clothing, somewhat of a makeshift shelter.
The efforts very quickly spun out of control, as word spread of a safe place to sleep, with encampments of 10 to 12 young people squatting at the property.
“I really wanted to help, but it very quickly got out of hand. It wasn’t a sustainable model,” he recalled. “I had good intentions but I had no idea what I was doing.”
The neighbors started calling the police, and Davidson had to disband the group, but not before trying to get each of its members connected with supportive services. In hindsight, the experience taught him the lay of the land concerning youth services and nonprofits.
But Davidson still thought of those kids, wanting to find a more sustainable way to help them transition to adult life. One day, after trying to get rid of a big, freestanding coffee cart that was collecting dust in the church hall, he and a friend thought perhaps they could help the youth sell coffee at events. As such, the original Rosebud was born.
“We went from cart to coffeehouse,” quipped Davidson. The little operation was a success from the beginning, getting a free crash course in coffee training from one of the original independent marketers of the product, Handsome Coffee, and continued for nearly five years as a kind of ministry program through Rose City Church. With support from friends, congregation and community members, Davidson started eyeing the possibility of a brick-and-mortar coffeehouse: “My experience in life is you have to have a lot of good friends or you have to make a lot of money,” he laughed. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I’ve met some amazing people. I’ve learned the power of social capital.”
Davidson, who grew up in a military family, spent his formative teenage years in cafes throughout England and Germany. The idea of using the cafe not just for training the youth but as a neighborhood community space where people could come together and bond became more and more appealing.
“I fell in love with the cafes back in high school, and I got really excited to see this large space where we could do community events,” he said.
With its ample seating and room to mingle, Rosebud has hosted art exhibits, open-mic nights and even, on Wednesday nights, Buddhist anger management classes. He is hopeful about hosting community forums regarding development in the area.
The open cafe format also works well to help the youth in transitional employment, he noted, bringing them into contact with a diverse network of clients.
“We’re open to everyone and anyone — that’s what is really exciting about this cafe, because you get to mingle again in your community without any barriers. … Because it feels like society now has really segmented itself, and we get to play a role in helping diverse people come together without those boundaries,” he said.
He points to the work of Rosebud manager Stephanie Sharp, who is integral in the training process for the youth. Sharp said she’s learned “a tremendous amount” in working with formerly homeless youth and former foster kids. They face a lot of obstacles, she noted, but over time, she’s learned to see things from their perspective.
“I tend to use the language of ‘transitioning from,’ because they are transitioning from a mentality of survival to the mentality of stability, and those are very different places to come from,” said Sharp, whom Long refers to as “Mama Bear.” She pointed out a difficulty that interns face. “Those who are used to surviving every day take what comes and ask few questions, and they also have little asked of them in return. So when you start becoming stable, you have to buy into the whole social system that goes with it. It’s a really hard transition.”
Other lessons include being on time and working as a team. Having lived through the welfare and foster youth system, many of the youth have never been taught the value of time, she noted.
“A lot of kids coming from foster care come from an experience where, every time they’re told to show up on time, they end up sitting and waiting for hours. They wait for someone to talk to, wait for their file to be found … so they’ve never been taught about honoring time, when their own time has never been honored,” Long said. “They kind of start from the premise that every system will fail them at some point. … That is very challenging. They’ve learned to rely only on themselves because everyone else might fail them. Understanding that has been very helpful to me.”
Going forward, Davidson said he expects the cafe to train 20 interns per year with four to five months of training each, or up to 300 hours. Aside from the technical aspects of the job, the interns are taught the soft skills and life skills of having gainful employment, such as how to interact with people, how to present themselves, how to be on time and have a professional relationship with a boss. Internships are paid through youth service providers such as Pacific Clinics, Journey House, Hathaway Sycamores and Hillsides’ Youth Moving On programs.
Intern Jay Gonzalez said he loves learning new skills at Rosebud, although it’s been hard to overcome his shyness.
“I still have a lot to learn but I’m making progress, so that feels good. I like the fact that I’m learning something new that sets me apart from others,” said Gonzalez, who recently transitioned from extended foster care. Using the experience at Rosebud, Gonzalez also recently landed a job at a cafe in Arcadia.
“I’m content with my work, and Stephanie is really great, she’s a good role model and gives constructive criticism. I’m also learning how to approach customers and interact with people,” he noted.
The collaborations with nonprofits and other socially responsible businesses have been key to Rosebud’s success, Davidson emphasized. The cafe uses Wild Goose Coffee Roasters, which donates 10 pounds of food to local food banks for every pound of coffee purchased. The cafe is also providing salads and sandwiches from HOPE Cafe and Catering, which also employs formerly homeless or incarcerated adults. To offset operating costs, Rosebud shares the cafe space with Chirp, a children’s birthday party and karaoke venue that operates on the weekend.
“We’re just a small cog in the giant wheel,” said Sharp. “I really appreciate being a value-centered business. I’ve learned that it’s really not that hard, you can incorporate those values from the beginning — it is a great social business model.”
Rosebud is located at 2302 E. Colorado Blvd., and is open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Monday through Friday (except Wednesdays, when it closes at 6 p.m.), and from 7-11 a.m. Saturday. To learn more, pop by for a coffee or visit its website at rosebudcoffee.com.