El Sereno charter school opens coffeehouse


Forget bake sales. To reduce the impact of education budget cuts, an El Sereno charter school hopes to bolster its coffers with a jolt of caffeine, opening its own neighborhood coffeehouse Saturday.

Semillas Community Schools will use profits from Xocolatl Cacao, Tea and Coffee House -- which has a full menu of drinks, sandwiches and pastries -- to shield its elementary and high school from future layoffs and program cuts.

“I’d rather focus on developing a new language curriculum than a new chocolate drink,” said Marcos Aguilar, Semillas’ executive director. “But in these extraordinary times, we have to be resourceful.”

Multibillion-dollar state spending cutbacks have recently pushed numerous schools throughout Southern California to shift from chocolate bar and wrapping paper sales to more aggressive fundraising, such as the launch of clothing lines and contracts with professional sports teams.

Still, Semillas’ venture is unusual for a public school. It is a full-fledged coffeehouse open from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays. Run by about 10 employees, it is 100% overseen by charter school officials, who until four months ago knew nothing about coffee or cacao or running a for-profit business.

“We went from zero to 60 in three seconds,” Aguilar said.

Several hundred people braved the rain Saturday to celebrate the opening of Xocolatl. Under a red-and-white tent, dancers and music groups welcomed patrons to one of the only coffeehouses along busy Huntington Drive North.

“I hope the event brings in a lot of people and shows them what we’re about,” said 11-year-old Semillas student Maya Vidal, who brought several cousins to the opening.

The idea evolved as organically as the cacao beans Semillas now imports from a community of Maya farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. As school officials searched for kitchen space this summer to cook healthier meals for students, they found a 2,000-square-foot venue at 4987 Huntington Drive North.

The space was inside Cal State L.A.’s Credit Union building. After a local coffeehouse owner involved with Semillas motivated Aguilar with his guidance, Semillas officials decided to dive in and set up shop. The credit union pitched in with a zero-interest $30,000 loan and Semillas contributed $20,000 to get started.

Aguilar expects Xocolatl to break even in its first year and by the second or third year make a profit of about $50,000 for the two schools, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campus and a high school.

Semillas incorporated the coffeehouse as a separate business so its fate will not have any bearing on the school’s finances, Aguilar said. If the business fails, he said, the school would liquidate its assets to help pay back the loan.

Judging by the bustle on a recent Thursday evening, the risk seemed worth it. The espresso grinder whirred as patrons streamed in and out of Xocolatl ordering Iztaccihuatl (espresso and steamed milk with foam) and Popocatepetl (chocolate with a shot of chile), the house specialty drinks named in the Aztec dialect, Nahuatl. Teachers chatted about the day, parents helped children with homework and students warmed their hands with hot chocolate cups with playful names such as Xocolicious, Xocomama and Xocomil.

Nearly everything on the menu has an indigenous and global twist, honoring the mission of Semillas charter schools to promote indigenous culture and values. Prices range from $2.50 for a small cappuccino to $3.50 for a large macchiato.

The coffeehouse also has created jobs for students’ relatives; 50% of the staff are parents or grandparents. Tea blends are prepared by a student’s mother. And the artwork on Xocolatl’s papaya- and pumpkin-colored walls is curated by a school mentor.

“You come here to drink coffee knowing there’s a good cause behind it,” Semillas math teacher Julian Macias said as he settled in a corner of the coffeehouse to prepare the next day’s lesson plan.

Since Xocolatl’s soft opening Nov. 1, Macias has used the business to teach about supply and demand, marketing and profit. Lessons also will be built around international fair trade, global economics and acquisition of goods.

“We don’t want our students in here pushing brooms,” Aguilar said. “We want them to be the leaders of tomorrow.”