By SUE TAYLOR | Uptown News
A good cup of coffee is sometimes hard to find, but not in many parts of Uptown where there are competing shops on every corner. With the abundance of choice, it can be difficult to know where to get your daily caffeine boost, but at least three places in City Heights serve not only delicious coffee, but also give back to the community while they’re at it. You can feel good about buying that muffin or acai bowl at City Heights Coffee House, Dojo Coffee and Urban Life because the owners at these shops mentor underserved, immigrant, and refugee youth.
City Heights Coffee House (CHCH) used to operate out of a trailer in an alley, behind Humble Heart Thrift Store, on El Cajon Boulevard near Fairmount Avenue but has since grown out of it.
Friendly and welcoming, owner Sterling Tran explained how she and her foundation mentor young people to learn life skills and workplace readiness through training to-be baristas. For some of these young adults, it was their first job. It can be tough to get hired with no experience, especially if English is not your first language. Sterling herself has an interest in interior design, and her husband, David Tran, works in digital marketing. They combined these skills and inspiration from Bridge of Hope to create an inviting coffeehouse ambience and teach workplace readiness to immigrant and refugee youth.
A few years ago, the Trans made the decision to try to find a real storefront to rent, and launched a GoFundMe. When sufficient capital allowed them to sign a lease, they began the work of painting and furnishing a small place near Highland and University avenues, still in the neighborhood where they live. City Heights Coffee House welcomed customers to come in and share coffee and breakfast. Large letters behind the espresso machine read, “You Already Belong Here.” Customers were well-served by young, enthusiastic students and mentees from Eritrea to Mexico. One night, a group of these young adults walked along University Avenue to invite people on the streets in for a warm drink, snack, and conversation. Former CHCH barista Alex Catano remembers how positive it was for him to be trained there. He said he “learned to be nice to customers who deserved it.”
“Sterling was a great boss,” he said. He is proud that he learned how to make latte art. Catano sees his team at CHCH as his family and says that nothing can make that feeling vanish.
Recently, City Heights Coffee House closed its doors, but is expanding its mission. CHCH is partnering with local coffee roaster, Ryan Brothers Coffee, so the establishment will still have a storefront, while CHCH expands its brand, now called Worthy.
Meanwhile at Dojo Coffee on El Cajon Boulevard, just down the street from Hoover High School, founder Carlos McCray uses his shop to mentor youth. McCray was a school counselor before he settled on the coffee business. Price Charities permits him to operate his outdoor café and root his trailer on the Fair at 44 grounds for no cost.
“I have seen how bright and talented these young residents of the communities are; they have such limited opportunities. We decided to create opportunities for them.” McCray reported some of the challenges of youth mentoring are teaching responsibility, timeliness, and follow through. For readers who remember being an immature teenager seeking that first job, a trainer with patience and understanding makes all the difference.
Another youth work skills training program can be seen at Urban Life, a coffee shop in the lobby of the Copley YMCA. Kim Kritzer landed her first job here and sees the benefits of it every day. Kritzer is in the 11th grade at an online high school, and she has moved from being an intern herself to mentoring other young baristas. Kritzer said the most valuable things she has learned are, “keeping the café running smoothly, from cashiering to making fancy coffee drinks, ordering supplies, and even restocking.”
The manager of Urban Life Café is Gina Vallejo, a mother of two boys. Gina told me that she had been volunteering for Urban Life Ministries before getting hired at UL Café in the YMCA.
“I have a true desire to see young people develop their strengths and use them for the betterment of their lives.” Vallejo sees the gaps that exist in her community and the need to make these young people aware of how valuable they are and the many opportunities that they have in this country.
The unexpected moments at the café now standout to Vallejo, such as when she saw the personal growth in one of the interns. She remembers one girl who was quiet but learned self-confidence while being part of the program. Now this former intern is working at the café and is part of its core staff of trainers.
What these baristas have in common is that they love giving back and training people. Kritzer said that she enjoys being a leader in the Y Strong Girl Movement. In the future, she would like to work in a nonprofit enterprise. Keysean Weaver at Dojo Coffee has set a future personal goal — he plans to buy Dojo, the trailer itself, and all that goes it with it, from espresso machine to refrigerator.
City Heights Coffee, Dojo Coffee and Urban Life are not just good places to enjoy coffee, they are changing the face of City Heights. They continue to help youth see possibilities for their future. With a commitment to honesty and service, these underserved neighborhood kids and working youth are paying it forward.
– Sue Taylor is a retired English teacher and currently works as a private tutor and freelance writer. She has written for North Park News and Edible San Diego. Taylor can be reached at