Afternoons at Collective Avenue Coffee are about as far removed from a typical third-wave coffee shop as you can get. The worker-owned cooperative cafe, founded by Kateri Gutierrez and Jonathan Robles, occupies the concession window at the Lucy Avalos Community Center at Yvonne Burke-John D. Ham Park in Lynwood, in southeast Los Angeles County, so instead of blond wood and succulents there’s a ping-pong table and a pile of backpacks.
And instead of the usual pristine hush, the soundtrack is the kinetic chaos of preteen tomfoolery. Kids run and shout and dribble basketballs inside, but Gutierrez and Robles wouldn’t have it any other way.
The pair started Collective Avenue Coffee with community in mind, as a gathering place created by and for Lynwood locals, a safe space in a city with some rough edges. Gutierrez is a substitute teacher in the area, so she knows at least half of the kids who run past her window, and both she and Robles are Lynwood natives.
Despite their shared roots, they didn’t meet until a mutual friend learned that they each dreamed of opening a coffee shop. When they finally met in 2015, they discovered that their dreams were even more compatible — they both loved the idea of a worker-owned co-op, in which everyone who works at the business is a part owner, and everyone gets a say in company decisions, development, and growth.
It is a model specifically designed to foster the positive, inclusive environment that was so important to Robles and Gutierrez, to help them become what they call a “community living room” for their hometown.
“People complain about what Lynwood isn’t, but we want to create something here,” Gutierrez said.
So they don’t just serve coffee, they support the neighborhood with activities like salsa classes and guitar lessons, and a giant whiteboard that encourages visitors to complete the sentence that starts “Community is …”
In a further bit of serendipity, their skills lined up perfectly for the worker-owned partnership they envisioned. Robles is the coffee expert, making their syrups — chocolate, vanilla, lavender — and working closely with their rotating roster of local roasters, from familiar names like Lord Windsor to smaller outfits such as Seven Syllables Coffee in Cerritos and Patria Coffee in Compton. They’ve built support for micro-roasters into their business, proudly featuring their beans and giving feedback to those who want it.
It would be easier for them to set up a deal with a single roaster, but they’re investing in the South L.A. coffee scene, nurturing fledgling operations so they can grow together into a thriving collection of locally owned independent coffee businesses.
That attitude is paying dividends already; their coffee is excellent, including bright, clean cold brew and perfect espresso drinks. Between their brewing skills and the fresh beans — not to mention their teas and pastries — Collective Avenue is already an outstanding coffee shop. But there’s more to the project than coffee, which is where Gutierrez comes in.
Gutierrez handles much of the business side and their community outreach, and she’s Collective Avenue’s co-op evangelist, preaching the gospel of worker-owned businesses. She gives talks and leads workshops on the co-op model, hoping to set an example for others who want to start businesses centered on equality and community. She was inspired by a visit to the Cheese Board Collective, a co-op bakery, pizzeria and cheese shop in Berkeley, and she became determined to bring that ethos home to Lynwood.
“I never thought I’d come back to Lynwood, but I felt like I had to give back to the city,” Gutierrez said.
She and Robles want to set an example, to inspire others with the true story of what it’s like to open a co-op business. It hasn’t always been easy as first-time business owners with a unique vision, but they continue to work on growing their dreams.
When they had a hard time raising money through traditional channels, they ran a successful crowd-funding campaign, which got them their espresso machine. They hope to use their experience to inspire people to chase their dreams and build inclusive, positive businesses, in Lynwood and elsewhere.
To that end, Collective Avenue Coffee has a robust internship program for local students to learn about coffee, marketing, community engagement and co-op business. They also have a busy event schedule, from pop-ups and classes to their monthly Last Fridays, when they host a collection of artists, start-ups, and nonprofits in a festival-like event with performers, vendors and activities.
Collective Avenue Coffee is still young, but Robles and Gutierrez are already setting that strong example.
Collective Avenue Coffee: 11832 Atlantic Ave., Lynwood; (310) 766-4910; collectiveavenuecoffee.com.