Bennett: At Monkey Business, a cafe with a cause, the food is good, too

The world could use a little more compassion right now. Something as simple as a smile from a stranger or a selfless good deed will undoubtedly go a lot further in 2017, a new year already being dominated by divisive rhetoric and fear-based politics.

That's why when the Twitter banter gets too intense and the latest news dispatches threaten my sanity, I turn off my devices, grab a book, slap on a big ol' grin and head to Fullerton's Monkey Business, Orange County's only so-called cafe with a cause.

Monkey Business Cafe isn't new (it opened nearly 12 years ago), but its concept, which goes beyond just serving good grub, is one that's  needed more than ever. That's because the full-service restaurant — known for its decked-out waffles, loaded half-pound burgers and salads made from arugula and kale grown at the Fullerton Arboretum — doubles as a workforce development program for former foster youths. This means that the majority of the people involved in your meal experience, from the farmer to the prep cook to the cashier to the dishwasher, are employed as part of the eatery's community-minded mission: to empower young people, one harvest at a time.

Monkey Businesses was created by Cari Hart-Bunevith, whose family owns Hart Community Homes, two group homes in Fullerton that take teenage boys into foster care. As much as the group homes provide stability and care to some of the system's most vulnerable, those services last only until the boys turn 18. Then they become emancipated and are on their own.

But transitioning into the realities of adult life can be difficult for former foster youths. How can you get a job without work experience? How do you get work experience without certain skills? How can you stave off homelessness without steady income? Hart-Bunevith saw the problems that her young adults were facing, often after a lifetime's worth of struggle, and created Monkey Business as a way to help. All proceeds from food and drink sales at Monkey Business go back into providing employment and training for those at risk.

By using commercial means to combat a social problem, Monkey Business is one of several Orange County businesses that can be considered a social enterprise, meaning that its main goal is not profit but improving the well-being of its customers and employees. Its focus on food also sets it apart from other social enterprises; only a handful in Southern California (including the largest and perhaps most recognizable social enterprise, Homeboy Industries) have chosen to use hospitality as a way to teach life skills.

The cafe started simply enough — with a toaster, a blender, a deli case and a few former Hart Community Homes residents learning how to make smoothies, count the contents of a till and talk to customers. Over the last decade, the program has expanded to include a full-size industrial kitchen, a robust catering arm, a homey dining room littered with quirky thrift store furniture and a unique partnership with the Fullerton Arboretum, where participants get additionally paid to tend to a half-acre plot of fresh produce for exclusive use by Monkey Business. Owners are also collaborating with Cal State Fullerton to use its food labs for nutritional testing and are in the process of creating an urban agriculture certificate through the school's Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, or EOPS, program for urban agriculture.

I've been stopping by Monkey Business since I made a wrong turn on an empty stomach in downtown Fullerton a few years ago and discovered that inside its industrial-looking facade —now painted bright green so you can't miss it — was a cozy spot with all-day breakfast (that sizzling breakfast skillet!) and cups of joe made with a custom blend from Wilson Coffee Roasters in Costa Mesa.

On more recent visits, I've delved into lunch, including cups of hearty veggie chili, Javi's blackened coffee-rub chicken tacos and the crisp arboretum salad with that divine poppy seed dressing. And a few days a week, the kitchen stays open for dinner, which I've found to be a good time for heavier dishes like the creamy pesto pasta, potless chicken pot pie and the new-ish pulled pork sandwich, a delight of sweet, salty and savory topped with mozzarella cheese.

For the holidays this past year, I made it a point to do some gift purchasing from the Monkey Business product line, which lets you take home a container of that robust blackened coffee rub, the Cajun-style seasoning salt that sits on every table, assorted granola and protein bars and occasional pickled items inspired by whatever is coming out of the farm.

With a positive social impact, a do-good message and a wide network of alumni, mentors, partners and unaffiliated regulars (myself included) who would stand by the food regardless of the company's selfless mission, Monkey Business is an unquestionable staple of the Fullerton dining scene. Stop by anytime you feel like tuning out the world and tuning into a room of smiles with a farm-to-table meal made by youths making a change.

Then go pay the compassion forward. We could all use a little more of it these days.

SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.

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