This East Hollywood Coffee Shop Wants To Build Queer Community In L.A.
By Jenn Swann
Opening a coffee shop in L.A. can feel like an embattled political act these days. Move into a neighborhood where the community views you as an outsider, and you could be setting yourself up for harassment, vandalism, or worse. Declare yourself a values-based business that caters to a particular group of people, and the stakes are even higher.
Iris Bainum-Houle and Virginia Bauman were keenly aware of those challenges when they came up with the idea for the queer-focused Cuties Coffee shop, which officially opened last week in a cotton candy pink storefront on Heliotrope Avenue in East Hollywood. For them, it was important not just to find a neighborhood where they felt they would be welcomed and could make a positive impact, but also to reach out and help foster the LGBTQ community they were marketing to.
“We didn't want to just pop up and be like, ‘Hey, we’re a niche business that are selling to a niche,” says Bauman, a former director of digital product for Blue Bottle and a co-founder of Tonx Coffee, a startup that was eventually bought by Blue Bottle. “Most startups are divorced from the neighborhoods they live in, and so we wanted this to be something that is slow and does focus on people and it does focus on the [place] that it exists within.”
Cuties, which incorporates a digital newsletter, in-person events, and the coffee shop itself, is a kind of “ecosystem,” Bainum-Houle says, with each element helping to pay for the next while also maintaining its mission of supporting the queer community. The coffee shop, for example, serves coffee from Counter Culture and pastries and sandwiches from Bread Lounge, which helps pay for the newsletter and also provides a permanent home for events; meanwhile, the latter two projects drive traffic back into the coffee shop. It’s a model that other community-oriented businesses would be wise to adopt in an age where it’s all too common for big brands to co-opt activist slogans without much action or intention behind them. At the same time, Bauman says, she’s seen plenty of well-meaning, action-oriented non-profits shut down after just a year or two because they couldn't raise enough money. To her and Bainum-Houle, a for-profit coffee shop was an easy solution. And one of its greatest assets, they say, is that it also provides jobs to the community.
“Coffee jobs are interesting. They’re often derided as like there’s not a ladder [for growth], but I think that’s more a part of other people’s expectations,” says Bauman. “The queer community is like, ‘No, just a job. Really. Just any job’… The more queer people we can employ, the better.”
Cuties' story dates back nearly a year and a half ago—it also took nearly that long to settle on a brick and mortar location—when its owners began hosting small monthly gatherings called Queers, Coffee, and Donuts at Bainum-Houle’s home. Queers, Coffee, and Donuts, as the name suggests, are Sunday morning gatherings in which Bainum-Houle and Bauman brew coffee, deep-fry donuts using an old Mennonite recipe with mashed potatoes for the dough, and send out an open invitation to anyone who identifies with or wants to be involved with the queer community.
“It started to grow our community base and people started to get a chance to see like what did our coffee taste like, what types of humans are we, who are we?” says Bauman. “Because if we opened this and didn’t do anything for the community and just were like, ‘Hey, we’re here for the queer community,’ they’d be like, ‘Really? We don’t know who you are.’”
Part of the impetus, says Bainum-Houle, was creating a physical space where people of all ages and identities could connect, without having to go online or visit a nightclub in order to do so. “There’s a lot of events for LGBTQIA folks that are in the evenings or late or at 18-and-up or 21-and-up places,” says Bainum-Houle. “We wanted something that was during the day when people were out and about. We also think that face to face time is super important, just so you can get to know people.”
Word of mouth spread quickly, thanks in part to the digital newsletter that Bainum-Houle and Bauman began sending out on a weekly basis last spring. The newsletter is less a promotional tool for the coffee shop — although they occasionally included construction updates on what they aptly described as their “pink vestibule [with] the disco ball” — and more of a way for them to publicize other events, destinations, and opportunities within the community.
In the coming months, Bainum-Houle and Bauman are looking to host events of their own at Cuties, including everything from board game nights to sexual health education workshops to legal name-change clinics for people who are transitioning. This Sunday, they’ll open their doors for the event that started it all: Queers, Coffee, and Donuts — this time with plenty of space to spread out and a group of patrons who already know each other’s names.
Cuties is located at 710 N. Heliotrope Avenue in East Hollywood. Hours are 7 a.m. - 7 p.m. daily.