From Foster Care to Purveyors of Farm to Table Fare

Monkey Business Cafe, a social enterprise in Fullerton, serves up healthy helpings of farm-to-table fare foraged and prepared with the assistance of its young staff of eager teenage boys and young adults on the cusp of aging out of the foster care system.

Monkey Business Cafe, a social enterprise in Fullerton, serves up healthy helpings of farm-to-table fare. Photo Courtesy of Monkey Business Cafe.

Monkey Business Cafe, a social enterprise in Fullerton, serves up healthy helpings of farm-to-table fare foraged and prepared with the assistance of its young staff of eager teenage boys and young adults on the cusp of aging out of the foster care system. New patrons arrive daily often drawn by the effusive praise heaped upon its culinary offerings on page after page of glowing Yelp reviews; and they leave sated and happy in the knowledge that they’re helping to support a good cause.

Monkey Business Cafe began when Cari Hart-Bunevith, executive director of Hart Community Homes (HCH), realized that she could do even more to help the teenage boys in foster care at the two state-licensed residential treatment homes that she runs for boys ages 13-18 in Orange, CA .

Studies of youth who age out of foster care have shown they are more likely than those in the general population to not finish high school, be unemployed, and be dependent on public assistance. Many end up in prison, homeless, or parents at an early age.

So Hart decided to open Monkey Business Cafe to provide the young men transitioning out of foster care at HCH with training, and marketable job skills to increase their chances of success in adulthood. The training program that she developed arms the teenage boys with the skills necessary to become productive employees in the workforce, as well as a self-sufficient adults. Participants in the program work one-on-one with a job coach and gain hands-on experience in a top-notch culinary, customer service and business management environment.

Monkey Business Cafe has also developed a strong relationship with the Fullerton Arboretum and with the U-ACRE program at Cal State Fullerton. The teens from the Monkey Business Cafe work with urban agriculture interns from Cal State Fullerton, who mentor them in a program that teaches them about sustainable agriculture practices, food processing and nutrition.

The collaboration began when Arboretum executive director Greg Dyment happened to come to an entirely unrelated meeting at the cafe. Impressed by the food, and realizing that the Cafe was a non-profit social enterprise, he struck up a conversation with Hart, and soon the Cafe was fielding a “farm team,”  growing produce on a half acre at the Arboretum to incorporate into the Monkey Business Cafe menu.

“We source as many items as we can sustainably,” says Monkey Business Cafe catering manager Raylene Frey, “and it’s amazing to be able to tell people that the distance from farm to kitchen is just four miles. That’s unheard of in Fullerton. Most of the time, when I think local around here, I’m thinking 25 miles. Today we’re doing an organic spring potato with pesto; this weekend, we’ll have fresh squeezed orange juice from Arboretum citrus. Whatever they harvest, we create something — some beautiful onions just came in for our fajitas.”

Once the food is in the cafe’s kitchen, the collective creativity of the staff makes the magic happen. “Some of the cooks have recipe ideas, and we try them out and if they’re fab, onto the menu they go,” says Frey. “Everybody wears a bunch of different hats, and everybody’s ideas are valued. That’s the great thing about not being corporate; we can pretty much do whatever we want.”

The outcome for Monkey Business Cafe is a consistently crowd-pleasing menu — that, and the immeasurable return on investment of helping young men, who might otherwise struggle to find their footing, transition into confident and productive adults.

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