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Coffee House Expansion Aims To Serve More Employees, Not Just Customers

The outdoor City Heights Coffee House's counter sits in the far corner of a c...

Photo by Tarryn Mento

Above: The outdoor City Heights Coffee House's counter sits in the far corner of a cement lot amid potted plants and picnic tables bordered by colorfully painted slatted wood walls, Nov. 30, 2017.

The City Heights Coffee House is located along one of the busiest corridors in San Diego's Mid-City neighborhood, but you'd be forgiven if you couldn't find it. It sits off El Cajon Boulevard, down an alley and behind the Humble Heart Thrift Store. A "You found us" a-frame sign marks the patio entrance of the outdoor coffee cart.

One year after opening, the cart is hoping to gain more visibility with its plans to acquire a storefront, but the move isn't necessarily to serve more customers. According to its self-reported social impact performance, the expansion would allow the nonprofit to better fulfill its mission to support employees.

The coffee house's focus is to pay, train and mentor workers who often face barriers to employment, such as youths, refugees, convicts and those without homes, and set them on the road to self-sufficiency. Co-founder Sterling Tran said the nonprofit offers employees not only a paying gig, but also free life-development classes, one-on-one advising and regular check-ins focused on goal-setting.

"Some people might not even start without housing, so then their goal would be to get into housing," Tran said. "But for most of our employees, it's to get into a field or a career that they're interested in once they're done working with us, or to go to school."

The nonprofit currently has the capacity to provide jobs and programming to three employees, but opening a brick-and-mortar location and launching a fundraising campaign would more than double that to eight, according to its social impact report. Tran said the plan is to also provide its classes and mentoring to an additional 24 people, free of charge.

Employee Betel Mulugheta, a refugee who arrived from Kenya last September and was hired in March, said the opportunity contributed to her independence and pushed her to focus on her future.

"All of us here, we didn't have licenses, but Sterling, she encouraged us to go and take the test, and she always checks — we have a check-in every month and a half and she always asks, 'What have you achieved within the month and a half?'" Mulugheta said.

Photo caption:

Photo by Tarryn Mento

A woman walks along the sidewalk and passes by the alley entrance to the City Heights Coffee House, Nov. 30, 2017.

The 22-year-old said she plans to enroll in community college once she proves her residency. She said Tran is helping her apply for financial aid.

“Everybody’s always very encouraging, and, you’re always moving forward, never backward," Mulugheta said.

The organization is now seeking private investors but hopes to launch a public campaign in the spring. Tran said the nonprofit is seeking to raise $80,000 to begin the process of opening a storefront, plus an additional $380,000 to fund its expanded programming for three years.

She said she's looking at commercial spaces in the area to keep the operation in City Heights, which has a large need for job opportunities. U.S. Census Bureau estimates show the community has higher rates of unemployment and poverty than elsewhere in the region.

The nonprofit City Heights Coffee House in Mid-City San Diego has a mission to pay, train and mentor workers who often face barriers to employment.

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