By Mia Brower
Special to the Outlook
Glaciers of gray clouds had sunk into the sky since the morning, yet as I approached the storefront of Rosebud Coffee located on East Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, the gray began to melt into a sense of ease.
Bright-colored paintings and a ceiling of string lights lured me in, and I surveyed what struck me as a substantial space filled by regulars at high tops and lower picnic tables, focused on their different tasks. I turned to the counter and ordered a tea.
“That’s a pretty name,” the young barista said to me while working the register. When I went to lay my bag on a seat by the window, I had all but forgotten about the rain.
Dan Davidson, Rosebud’s owner, joined me moments later to describe the source of warmth and favor that the café had become known for. As I sipped my tea, the voice of reggae legend Bob Marley lifted over the loudspeaker, met by vibratos of espresso machines orchestrated by Rosebud’s in-house roaster, which was named after Davidson’s most-recent mission, Coffee With a Cause.
When I asked the self-taught businessman to start at the beginning, when he moved to Pasadena to reopen a church as a pastor 11 years ago, he admits he hardly imagined the impact he would make on the city’s at-risk youth.
“It was just this seed of an idea,” Davidson said of the 8-feet-tall coffee cart that was left behind from the pastor before. He initially wanted to sell it but was convinced by his business partner to put it toward a business to help local youth, some of whom were sleeping in the church’s parking lot. The two were “trained in coffee” by Handsome Coffee Roasters in 2012, before setting out to live events where they would train young adults to serve customers and, in turn, serve themselves.
The coffee cart, called “Rosebud,” traveled across the community for about five years before the business blossomed into a brick-and-mortar in 2017. Davidson continued his trainings until fall 2020, when they were made nearly impossible due to COVID-19. Simultaneously, Davidson stepped away from his role at the church, appreciating the ways both community and faith had intertwined in his new workplace.
“[Rosebud] gave me as a pastor the space to get to know people beyond the Sunday morning congregation. Especially the youth,” who face widespread challenges, he said. “The café gives a very safe place for that.”
But he began to wonder whether that sense of safety could be spread beyond Rosebud’s walls, if the good one cafe had made could be replicated and scaled.
Like the coffee cart that supplied seeds for a business, Davidson’s desire to make a greater impact drove the transformation of his LLC into a nonprofit, which lives under the name Coffee with a Cause. In two years’ time he established a board and applied for grants, one of which enabled his first hire, someone who would lift the project off its feet.
“Dan is a great visionary. I am the details person,” said Melissa Spolar.
Spolar’s uplifting energy, however, is the type that makes you feel at home. Since starting her role as project manager last October, she’s taken on a range of responsibilities: creating the project’s systems, from applications to marketing materials; building the soft-skill training curriculum; coordinating with business partners; and running social media. It’s the type of work that makes Spolar “come alive,” and ensures that the nonprofit has the capacity and oversight to take in new youth every quarter.
“These youth – they have big dreams, they have all these skills that they bring,” Spolar said. “For me, I feel like my role is helping give that little bit of guidance that they might be missing and help open doorways that they may not have open to them.”
Most of the youth are referred to the program by local nonprofit organizations such as Hillsides and Sycamores. Spolar has the benefit of meeting the young people at their interviews which, for many, marks their first.
“It’s really neat because I get to see them come from this really nervous youth … to them come out of their shell, grow all of these skills and be confident in what they can do,” she said.
Training takes place over four “soft skill” sessions, which Spolar leads in cohorts, or groups of four to five. Each session covers a different skill, from teamwork to communication to motivational work styles, and offers the workers helpful tips for searching for jobs.
“Some of these youth don’t necessarily have parents with the background that can walk them through these [basic things],” Spolar said. “We get to be those people for them.”
Later that day, Spolar would guide her current cohort through their fourth and final training session, which would focus on customer service. In the weeks to follow, placements would begin.
“Now that we’ve got this program, we need more spaces to put youth to get that job experience. We can’t have them all here. That’s what led to this idea of working with other businesses, and it’s great, because not all the youth necessarily want to learn coffee. We can try to pick one that best fits their career goals,” Spolar said.
Drawing on Rosebud’s network of small businesses that are willing to hire interns, Spolar and Davidson pair Coffee with a Cause graduates with supervisors who continue to train them on their industry’s skills. These partnerships not only foster connection within the community, but also serve as the final piece to a puzzle Rosebud can’t solve alone.
“Most of these youth, they’re getting services with education and housing and the big missing puzzle piece for a long time has been employment, which is such a necessary thing to become a self-sufficient independent person,” Spolar said. “It’s giving that extra support and level of opportunity that because of their circumstances they don’t get to have.”
Davidson said 90 percent of the interns in Coffee with a Cause graduate the program and find a job. “When a young person gets a job, there’s this internal change when they recognize that they have it in them to do something, something positive, something good,” he said. “They gain this autonomy and this internal motivation … and then, a customer receives that, and it’s a really cool, powerful exchange.”
No one knows that exchange better than Trinity Casey, who grew up always wanting to work in coffee, but never knew where to start. When the 21-year-old moved from Pomona to Pasadena and was referred to Rosebud by Hillsides in 2021, she “was like a sponge,” soaking up her training of flavor profiles, roasting methods and the secrets of steaming milk. Coffee cups aside, the opportunity to work at Rosebud represented more than she could ask for.
“Before I started the program, I kind of was lost. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I honestly didn’t really have a lot of motivation to sometimes even get out of bed,” said Casey, who is open about her struggles with mental health. “Having something to strive toward and work for, it really helped me to be able to look forward to waking up and coming in and seeing customers smile and enjoy their coffee. That was definitely a big motivation for me.”
Casey reflects on her days before she became a full-time barista, and how the responsibility she’s earned has influenced her connections with others as well as herself.
“I don’t want to waste this opportunity by not being responsible and being that person that I want to be for those customers that come in every day,” she said. “I’ve also met some of the new interns that have been coming in, and being able to help them … has been awesome, and makes me realize how much I’ve grown as a barista myself to be able to help others.”
Coffee with a Cause has certainly gained attention with the impact it has been making.
“I have known Dan Davidson for five years and have admired how he gets youth trained and gives them the skills where they are able to have their very first job. I was impressed with his vision,” said Andy Wilson, Pasadena’s former vice mayor. “These kids, many of whom are underprivileged and come from foster care, can make a great espresso and learn to deliver service. I am very impressed at Dan’s ability to create opportunities for people to learn skills and have income. It’s a great community service.
“He’s teaching people ‘how to fish’ — he’s not just giving them food,” Wilson continued. “It’s very compelling. Dan is a great guy and he’s helping make people independent and successful, and that’s what is exciting.”
Jennifer DeVoll, CEO of the Pasadena Community Foundation, is another admirer of Davidson’s efforts.
“Pasadena Community Foundation was so happy to fund Coffee with a Cause with a $24,000 capital grant last fall,” she said. “A funding priority for PCF is supporting transition-age [18-21] foster youth, which is also central to the mission of Coffee with a Cause. We have visited with Dan Davidson and his young employees on numerous occasions and we love seeing how the baristas – who have been on the receiving end of services for most of their young lives — are now being trained to serve and give back. It’s an honor to support this innovative and collaborative project that uplifts young adults.”
Spolar, perhaps needless to say, has been a key to Rosebud’s popularity and success.
“Most of what draws our regulars here is the story,” she said. “We have a purpose behind what we do beyond just selling coffee. A lot of people who come in here, that’s their way of contributing to that mission, by buying a cup of coffee and getting to know us.”
I was lucky to be one of those people, who after a tea and an afternoon, knew that Davidson’s dreams of a greater impact have begun to brew.
“Day-to-day activities can have a positive influence and a positive good if you orient it that way,” Davidson said. “Coffee is a very communal thing, but it’s also a daily thing. If you can shift what you do every day to have some sort of positive impact anyone can do that – and then all of a sudden, it can take on a life of its own.”