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L.A. gang member retraining group opens Homeboy airport cafe

April 15, 2013 at 8:35 AM ET

Homeboy Café at LAX
Harriet Baskas

There are dozens of places to grab a to-go meal in any terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. But frequent traveler Sergio Coronado opts for a snack from the Homeboy Café and Bakery because he knows that buying lunch there helps former gang members stay out of jail.

“The food tastes great and I like that this gives something to the cause,” the 37-year-old Coronado told NBC News as he rushed off to make his flight.

Open since February, the Homeboy Café and Bakery at LAX has a prime spot along a busy corridor in American Airlines Terminal 4 and is affiliated with the non-profit, L.A.-based Homeboy Industries, founded in 1988 during a time of intense gang wars. The non-profit offers job training, tattoo removal and other support services to ex-gang members and men and women who have been incarcerated, and it operates a bakery, a silkscreen and embroidery business and several other social enterprises around town that provide jobs and training for participants and raise funds to support the programs.

The group also operates a diner at Los Angeles City Hall and sells branded Homeboy chips and salsa through Ralph's grocery stores, but the airport cafe is the group’s first franchise arrangement. It's being operated in partnership with Areas USA, Inc., a Miami-based travel industry company that has developed locally-themed food and retail outlets at many airports.

Mural
Courtesy LAX

“We thought there should be Homeboy Industries representation at LAX,” said Adam Fischer, general manager of Areas USA LAX, “And we knew we could generate a lot of money and visibility for the programs through a successful airport cafe.”

The colorful décor at the Homeboy Café at LAX includes a hand-painted mural by Homeboy Industries’ substance abuse counselor and resident artist, Fabian Debora. The group’s Latin-influenced recipes are reflected in the salads, sandwiches, pastries and wraps on the menu.

But none of the faces behind the counter belong to trainees or graduates of the Homeboy Industries programs.

That’s because in addition to the many barriers to employment many Homeboy Industries program participants face, if they have felony records – and most do – they are not eligible to work post-security at an airport. A few Homeboy Industries trainees may soon be eligible to join the airport crew but, for now, all employees at the LAX Homeboy Cafe are Areas USA employees who have gone through a special day-long training program and can “speak our language,” said Tara Barrett, director of business development for Homeboy Industries. The mix-and-match recipe seems to be working. Travelers are lining up not only to buy the Homeboy Café food at the airport, but to purchase the T-shirts and other Homeboy Industries merchandise for sale.

Homeboy Industries worker
Courtesy Homeboy Industries
27-year-old former addict Roxanne Soto was ordered by the courts to participate in the Homeboy Industries program, where she now works in catering.

“It’s expanding word of our mission beyond Los Angeles,” said Barrett. “Next, we’d like to expand the airport cafe concept throughout the U.S.”

If that happens, there may be more opportunities for people like 27-year-old Roxanne Soto to turn their lives around. Bald and boisterous, the former addict was ordered by the courts to participate in the Homeboy Industries program. She’s now a line cook at the busy Homegirl Café & Catering in Los Angles, where “homegirls serve tables instead of serving time.”

Before entering the program, Soto had hit bottom. “I was living in abandoned houses, stealing from stores and doing really bad things,” Soto told NBC News after one of her shifts. “Now I’m doing something real with my life."

Find more by Harriet Baskas on StuckatTheAirport.com and follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.

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