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The Queerest Little Coffee Shop in LA

What happens when a cafe cares more about its community than about fancy drinks?

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On a cool, cloudy Sunday morning, in the sprawling backyard of a bungalow not far from the Los Angeles River, a monthly event called Queers, Coffee & Donuts was in full swing. An oval patio table was set with a press pot of Counter Culture coffee and a pot of jasmine-coconut tea, carafes of almond milk and half-and-half, and orange juice for BYOB mimosas. A sign on a glass jar suggested that attendees could drop in a donation — $10 to pay for just themselves, or $20 to also cover someone else in need. On paper cups and coffee sleeves appeared a purple, ambiguously gendered winking face, the icon for Cuties: an organization, a newsletter, and soon, a coffee shop.

When a new coffee shop opens in LA, press coverage usually focuses on a signature drink, an extremely expensive new piece of gear, or an eye-catching food option (chia pudding! Hot New Bakery’s #croissants!). Often, the design, location, and price point of that coffee shop will suggest an ideal customer: someone who is upper-middle class, versed in coffee, and usually white, straight, cisgender, and male. Maybe the star baristas are white, straight, cisgender, and male too. Maybe the stark white walls and blond wood and marble tables will suggest a $3 million house from a magazine, not a warm, comfortable rec room. Maybe the encyclopedic list of coffees by region will imply that this is a place for those who know, and play by, the rules.

While some coffee projects are beginning to set aside these tropes, Cuties Coffee Bar will turn this dynamic wholly on its head. The shop’s co-founders, Virginia Bauman and Iris Bainum-Houle, say that its mission will not be to serve fancy coffee, but to build a queer-centered community space. It’s a move forward, but also backward: Coffee has a long history of fueling unofficial queer spaces, from mid-century coffee shops and diners that hosted gay, lesbian, and trans communities to funky, lived-in ’90s cafes. But as coffee has transformed into an art and a status symbol, and many LGBT people find safety and comfort in a broader array of spaces, this connection has weakened.

Bauman, a transgender woman, and Bainum-Houle, who is a queer femme (a queer person who typically presents as feminine) and genderfluid, are inspired by their experiences in the larger queer community. Cuties is geared explicitly toward queer people and their allies, not coffee nerds — on the website and Indiegogo page, there’s nary a mention of barista championships or pour-over techniques. Instead, there are links to a queer events newsletter, the coffee shop fundraiser, and a nascent housing service.

Just as Cuties is unique in the coffee world, it’s also a standout in the queer social ecosystem. Very few businesses, outside of the thinning ranks of gay bars and downright endangered LGBT bookstores, label themselves as queer-centric. There are coffee shops with gay or queer owners, and often they tend to draw a similar clientele — there have been a handful of times I’ve walked into a random coffee shop and discovered, to my delight, that it was full of queer people like me. But finding those places usually requires either in-group knowledge (Urth Caffé in West Hollywood helped inspire the cafe in The L Word, The Planet) or just plain serendipity.

Cuties Coffee Bar will open this spring in East Hollywood, a diverse neighborhood home to Little Armenia, Thai Town, a large working-class Latino community, and a growing number of people priced out of nearby synecdoche-for-hipsterdom Silver Lake. The space, at Melrose and Heliotrope, was previously a coffee shop, and the co-founders have enough money to clean up the space and build a new bar, but they are currently trying to raise $50,000 on Indiegogo to update the interior in a more drastic manner. (The shop will open even if they don’t make their fundraising goal, if in a more bare-bones setting.) Bainum-Houle said that the process involves a lot of strategizing, “What can we do with paint? What can we do with fixtures that'll make the space a little bit more pretty and fun for people to go into?”

Instead of the masculine-tinged minimalism that has become the default dress for a speciality coffee shop, the aesthetic will reflect Bainum-Houle’s and Bauman’s femme identities. Bainum-Houle, whose background is in the art world, is designing the space to recall the Art Deco 1920s and the 1970s, in part because they were two great eras in American queer life.

At first glance, Cuties Coffee Bar is simply operating outside of the norms of the fancy coffee world. But Bauman is in fact very much part of it: She co-founded Tonx, the coffee subscription service later acquired by Blue Bottle, where she remained as director of digital product for a year after the acquisition. She left in 2015, partly to start Cuties, and partly because she found the tech world isolating. Cuties will have good coffee, Bauman promises, but it will not fetishize perfect product, or perfect taste. “Our barista isn’t going to read you for your drink choice,” Bainum-Houle said.

In the backyard, Bauman cooked up big, fluffy doughnuts in a large stainless steel pot of oil set up over an outdoor stove. Along with coffee, the doughnuts accompanied guests as they flowed between small, ever-morphing groups. Some folks doodled with rainbow-hued colored pencils at the crafts table, while others settled around a fire pit ringed by couches and folding beach chairs. Still more clustered under a blue tarp as low clouds threatened rain.

There were too many people for it to feel like a house party, but it was also a far cry from the scene at many gay bars, where patrons tend to arrive — and cluster — with friends they already know, or focus on pursuing romantic partners. “Cliques will form,” observed Leslie Foster, a filmmaker and longtime Queers, Coffee & Donuts attendee, but then Bauman and Bainum-Houle “come in and introduce people, quietly and subtly.”

The emphasis on making connections embodies the larger Cuties mission: to center people across the entire spectrum of queer and trans identities, welcome their allies, and offer no agenda beyond what Bainum-Houle describes as “bringing people together and providing them a casual, friendly atmosphere where they could feel safe and welcomed.”

Much of LA’s queer world is built around nightlife — which isn’t for everyone — or organizations serving a necessary but narrow purpose. It can be easier to find, say, a lesbian-only weekly workshop on radical self-care than a casual gathering place where queer people can make friends, flirt, or just comfortably and fully exist. Welcoming as many people as possible, including straight allies, can also be a powerful antidote to the closet, Bainum-Houle said. “Someone might not identify as queer or trans today, but there are so many stories of people being exposed to [queer culture] and realizing, Oh, that resonates with me.”

The founder of Cuties Coffee Bar, Virginia Bauman and Iris Bainum-Houle

The idea for Cuties was born in 2015, and originally the co-founders planned to take their search for a space slowly. Two events created a sense of urgency: the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 49 people, most of them queer and Latino, and the election of Donald Trump, who ran on a platform hostile to most marginalized people in America and whose administration has already begun to curtail the expansion of LGBT rights and protections that occurred during the Obama presidency. Bainum-Houle said that those twin shocks “sorted out our priorities real quick.” The focus shifted from opening a coffee shop with a food menu and a traditional build-out, to just making it exist. Bauman said, “Now we're just like, Let's open the doors in any way possible.

The need for queer-centered spaces is not abstract: Queer people are at higher risk for everything from workplace harassment to suicide in America. Trans and gender-nonconforming people are especially vulnerable, even more so if they are also nonwhite. The deep sense of community forming around Cuties is a response to that, both directly and indirectly. After gathering the pop-up’s guests in order to announce the latest updates to the Cuties Indiegogo campaign, Bainum-Houle invited the group to bid farewell to a longtime regular who was leaving Los Angeles to spend time “in the woods.” The whole group applauded.

At Queers, Coffee & Donuts, several attendees told me that they hungered for the coffee shop, and the regular gathering space it would provide; already they wished Queers, Coffee & Donuts happened more often than once a month. Jude Vigants, a musician, said that he would come to Cuties Coffee Bar at least once a week. At the event, he was supported by another guest’s willingness to pay $20 instead of $10, a practice the coffee shop will continue in some form: The current plan is to offer more financially secure customers the option to buy a coffee for themselves and another “for the queue,” as Bainum-Houle describes it, building up an open tab to ensure people who cannot afford the $2 or $3 for a cup can still visit Cuties. This model embodies what Bauman describes as the shop’s mission to be “a capitalistic mechanism for taking money and distributing it to queer people, that is owned and held accountable by queers.”

Both co-founders say that the work, challenging as it may be, is utterly fulfilling. For Bainum-Houle, it’s an opportunity to put years of art and events experience into the creation of a lasting community. For Bauman, moving from the dry, disembodied tech side of the coffee world to founding a small, queer-oriented business was a very conscious decision, sparked when she realized how disconnected she’d become from the city around her. Now, her desire to provide a model for queer and trans self-sufficiency is more powerful than ever. “I don't want to be uprootable,” she said. “I think that digging into the foundation of wherever you are is super important right now.”

As it moved into the afternoon, the rain started in earnest. The swelling numbers of guests packed into the house, or huddled under overhangs, umbrellas, and tarps. No one complained about the rain, and conversations were as lively as ever. The one casualty was the deep fryer, and therefore, it seemed, the doughnuts. But then Bauman invited Josh Sugiyama, a photographer, to hold a large umbrella over the fryer while she worked. Bauman’s carefully prepared dough — made using a friend’s recipe, which calls for mashed potatoes and three rises — browned beautifully in the ghee. When the doughnuts came out, they were steaming hot and snatched up by guests, perfect warm treats in the cold rain. “I had thought we couldn’t have more doughnuts,” Bauman mused, looking over at Sugiyama, “but all I needed was for you to hold the umbrella.”

Meghan McCarron is a senior editor at Eater.
Maddie Chaffer is an illustrator based in Los Angeles.
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter

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