With tattoos up and down his arms, a long black ponytail and an even longer criminal record, Alex Renteria isn't like most people in this building. Before this job, he had done only one kind of work: "slinging dope and stealing."
Now, he slings tamales and fresh-baked pastries at a bright diner at City Hall.
Homeboy Diner, which opened this week, is the latest business venture of Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles institution that supporters say has helped thousands of gang members quit lives of crime with counseling, tattoo removal and job training.
As cameras flashed at the grand opening Thursday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa broke bread alongside Father Gregory Boyle, the white-bearded Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy during the height of the L.A.'s gang wars 23 years ago.
Just last year, Homeboy — and Boyle — had few reasons to rejoice.
On a day last May that Boyle now refers to as "Black Thursday," he tearfully told his staff that Homeboy would have to lay off most of its more than 400 employees.
The organization, which has a $9-million-a-year operating budget, had been hit hard by the recession, he said. Donations were down. There was a growing demand for job training. At the same time, there were fewer jobs for graduates of Homeboy's programs.
Boyle revealed another fact: For years the nonprofit's board had been nagging him to cut employees at Homeboy's businesses, which include a silk-screen shop, a bakery and an 86-seat restaurant, Homegirl Cafe. The priest stopped taking a paycheck and prayed for strength.
A few weeks later, a surprising visitor showed up and asked if he could be of help.
Bruce Karatz, the former chief executive of KB Home, is a multimillionaire who lives in Bel-Air. About a month earlier, he had been convicted of felony charges related to the manipulation of executive stock options.
Karatz said he was drawn to Homeboy after hearing about its financial woes. He had some ideas about how to dig it out of its $5-million deficit. Beyond that, he said, he was "looking for something to make me feel good."
Boyle, who has made his life's work out of giving people second chances, brought Karatz onboard as a volunteer.
Karatz started by making the rounds to his philanthropist friends, persuading them to dig deep into their pockets for Homeboy.
Fundraising was aided by the success of Boyle's 2010 memoir, "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion." After an interview with Boyle aired on National Public Radio, a stranger from out of state sent a check for $100,000.
Karatz also focused on increasing revenue. He helped broker a deal with Ralphs grocery stores to sell Homeboy chips and salsa — a deal that Karatz said brings in more than $20,000 a month in profit. And when Karatz heard that the city was looking for a vendor to move into an unoccupied cafe space on the second floor of City Hall, he urged Boyle to apply.
Ever since the previous vendor had moved out more than a year earlier, City Hall had been a virtual food desert. There were snack machines in the basement and some council offices kept candy bowls, but for anything more substantial, staffers were forced to leave the building.
A satellite diner modeled after Homegirl Cafe seemed like a good fit. The restaurant, at Homeboy's headquarters on the edge of Chinatown, was already popular with the City Hall crowd.
Boyle, who has spent so long working with mostly Latino gang members that he has acquired a manner of speaking that makes him sound, at times, like one of them, has carefully cultivated relationships with people in power.
When he arrived at Homeboy on a recent morning, City Councilman Tony Cardenas was there waiting to say hello. That afternoon, Boyle had scheduled a meeting with Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to talk about extending a $1.3-million contract for Homeboy's gang-intervention work.
City officials have long supported Homeboy by doing business with it. Since 2008, for example, the city has spent more than $600,000 on T-shirts and uniforms made by the organization's silk-screen shop for its Summer Night Lights program.
Homeboy was one of three businesses that applied for the City Hall contract. Karatz took the lead, using his business savvy to draft the proposal.
In November, Karatz was fined $1 million, sentenced to five years' probation and ordered to do 2,000 hours of community service in connection with his conviction. Boyle, in a letter to the judge asking for leniency, said Karatz had helped Homeboy by "finding bold and creative ways to broaden our brand, increase the revenue in our businesses and invite more stakeholders to invest."
These days, Boyle says Homeboy is back on track. It has hired back more than 100 workers. "And we have money in the bank," he said.
He called the City Hall contract a boon. After it was awarded, Karatz commissioned the well-known architecture firm Rios Clementi Hale Studios to design the diner. He convinced a friend who runs the nonprofit Cornerstone Project to fund the renovations.
The designers chose bright lights and colors for the diner, which is open from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. Just outside of the diner, they installed green and orange tables and chairs — a breath of life for a once-dim hallway.
On a recent afternoon, Tony Arranaga sat perched at one of them.
Arranaga, a spokesman for Councilman Bill Rosendahl, was typing furiously on his iPhone. But he looked up to offer his review of City Hall's newest addition.
"The cookie is good, the coffee is a little hot," Arranaga said. "But, bonus!" he exclaimed, raising his phone in the air. "They have wireless."
A few feet away Renteria, the diner worker, was crouched on his knees, arranging bags of chips on a display rack.
He smiled when asked whether he thought it was symbolic that he, a former gang member, the kind of person society might prefer to forget about, had found a home in the city's center of political power.
"I'm just happy to be here," he said, before getting back to work.