The sky is gray. It’s Thursday and I’m at the shuttered back entrance of Vroman’s picking up my hard copy of PW, as usual. I’m wearing cheap vinyl work gloves that I found at CVS. They’re white with lime green palms and fingers and look ridiculous.
From the parking lot, a woman is audibly sobbing. She’s behind the wheel of her car with the window cracked open. I approach her and ask if she’s OK? Does she need help? She sees me, stops crying, seems to smile (it’s gotta be the gloves) shakes her head and waves me away. I turn back to my car and in a breath, I hear her sobbing again. What’s left of my hale good humor and waspy sunny-side-of-the-street optimism evaporate. This is the keening of grief and it lofts over the spare, once ever bustling parking lot like the sad echo of its own lost time.
Now I really need coffee. When I say “need” it’s not just the immediate reflex to soothe my existential malaise with a comforting hot beverage. It’s a need like clothing or shelter. I drink coffee all day long. (Black. Room? I said Black.) “Tall drip” pretty much sums me up.
Lattes? Pour-overs? Cold brew?
I said Black.
I’m standing in front of Rosebud Coffee on East Colorado, just west of Sierra Madre Boulevard. The front door is open but blocked with the eponymous pushcart that launched the business and now serves as the order and take-out counter for the expansive and once buzzing café. My erstwhile colleague and esteemed predecessor in these pages — Erica Wayne — covered the opening of Rosebud Coffee in November 2017. I had taken particular note at the time because Rosebud Coffee is a nonprofit cafe that trains and employs disadvantaged and homeless youth. It also just might point the way to the future…
I’m on the sidewalk chatting with the manager and now lone staff member Jackie Seah from behind the counter. The café typically deploys a rotating paid staff of nine employees, all of whom have now been furloughed, including Chef Josh who prepared the short list of sandwiches, salads, and wraps. The menu is now limited to all of the espresso machine, pour-over, cold brew exoticism that one expects from a sophisticated, top-tier coffee bar including a selection of house-made syrups. The daily menu includes a list of particularly exotic specials that are concocted and calibrated by Seah himself. This week the special theme is The Beatles with five drinks named after each of the Fab Four, plus Yoko.
Seah explains that the café’s business has been down by nearly 65 percent since the current lock down ensued. The business has been sustained by a stream of loyal regulars, many of whom would spend all day working in the roomy, sunlit space. He also explains that they are under a new sublease with Wild Parrot Brewing, whose plans to install a working local craft brewery there have been indefinitely stalled. (More info, visit wildparrotbrewing.com)
Oh, and there’s a craft chocolatier working on-site as well.
I notice the display of bars on the counter, as Haris Car approaches with a sample of his unusual 60 percent cacao milk chocolate made with fair trade beans sourced from Tanzania.
His Car & Sons label launched this year out of the café and offers four different bars, with three dark varieties in addition to the milk, made with beans sourced from small independent growers in Peru, Madagascar and the Dominican Republic. (carandsons.com)
On Haris’ sage suggestion, I order a Paul McCartney — a latte involving Lychee syrup ($4.95) and a 70 percent cacao dark chocolate bar from Peru ($10).
Welcome to lunch in the apocalypse at Rosebud!
The founder of Rosebud Coffee is Dan Davidson, who is also the Lead Pastor of Rose City Church on East Del Mar Boulevard (rosecitychurch.org). When he started the church in 2011, he became aware of a group of homeless teens in the neighborhood. Looking for a way to activate the church’s social justice mission and ministry, he began a barista training program for “Transitional Aged Youth” (TAY) from the pushcart dubbed Rosebud that now serves as the café’s take-out counter. Teaming with local nonprofit partners, who provided candidates and helped subsidize their compensation, the program began to grow. “I had interns from Fuller (Seminary) interested in the intersection between faith and work… In the initial round of training, 75 percent finished the program and of that segment 90 percent were employed… We were having great success.”
Davidson is speaking by phone from his father’s almond farm in the Central Valley, south of Fresno, where he is weathering the current storm with his wife Samantha — a first grade teacher at Garfield Elementary in Alhambra and associate pastor at Rose City — and their three children, ages 4,6, and 8.
By 2016, the program was outgrowing the coffee cart and Davidson started writing a business plan for the café. “We needed to find new economic streams beyond tithes and donations… I went to the Small Business Development Center at PCC. I wrote a business plan. I took it to the church. It took me about a year to get it seeded. We have a social justice ministry that now pays for itself.”
We talk about the current crisis for bars and restaurants and the possibility of reshaping the economy through social enterprise. “Food is easy entry. it’s one of the best ways to do that… it’s social.” He also notes the positive economic effect on local businesses, when the café opened on the formerly sleepy block, just west of Sierra Madre.
It seems Dan Davidson and the community at Rosebud Coffee provide a viable and sustainable model for the uncertain conditions that will persist for bars and restaurants as we all move forward together into the unknown.
I’m back at the cart’s counter with Jackie Seah, as I pay for my steaming Paul McCartney and my Car & Sons chocolate bar. “We’re trying to be here for the community,” Seah says. “They need coffee. We want to provide it. Some of our regulars were here from when we open to when we close… That’s why we’re here.” Community, cooperation, social enterprise. The way of the future.
I thank Jackie and walk back to my car. The sky is still gray but I’m beginning to see the light.