To hear Sterling Tran tell it, City Heights Coffee House (CHCH) was in the cards for her since childhood.
A social enterprise nonprofit that started in an alley off El Cajon Boulevard in 2016, the coffee house recently moved to its new brick and mortar home at 4465 University Avenue. Its mission is to help people become self-sufficient and to be the “central, multicultural gathering hub for our City Heights community.”
Growing up in a Christian household, Tran was taught human beings are called to love God and love people unconditionally.
“We see throughout the Bible Jesus standing up for the marginalized,” said Tran. “He calls us to love and care for the poor hundreds of times throughout Scripture, to stand up for those who are being treated unjustly, to always forgive, and he fights the stereotypes, classism and racism of that time period.”
Sterling Tran met her husband David Tran and another CHCH co-founder, Lonny Cheuk, in church.
Two specific scriptures inspired the idea of CHCH—that of the Good Samaritan, and a verse from the Book of James.
“Basically, in these scriptures, the message is that it doesn't matter where someone is from or what they have done, we are called to love in action,” said Tran. “To not just pass by and pray (although prayer is important too), but if someone is hungry, to feed them; if someone needs a blanket, get it for them; if someone needs a job, help them get a job. This form of taking action, along with building relationships, and prayer are all important and inspire our mission as a coffee house.”
CHCH’s menu features beverages from many different parts of the world, many of which are countries of origin for many residents of City Heights (the Trans included).
But why coffee?
"A coffee cup represents the power of human connection—our ability to empathize, belong, and love one other,” said David Tran, co-founder of CHCH. “This connection helps us understand our own stories, so that we can invest in the stories of those around us.”
CHCH received funding from the San Diego Workforce Partnership (SDWP)—in partnership with REDF and Mission Edge—in 2017 as part of the first cohort of the San Diego Social Enterprise Accelerator. Each organization or company funded runs a “double bottom line” operation, putting emphasis on both social and economic output.
This double bottom line output at CHCH is accomplished in a few ways.
CHCH hires referrals from local agencies—including the Alliance for African Assistance and San Diego County of Education’s Juvenile Court and Community Schools—and funds its operations through grants, private donations and partnerships. A few have applied as walk-ins and there are opportunities to get referrals in the future from San Diego Youth Services, SDWP and the International Rescue Committee in San Diego.
In addition to its source of staff, CHCH practices a holistic training curriculum borrowed from other nonprofit organizations and social enterprises. Sterling Tran mentors employees in professional etiquette, customer service skills, interpersonal and conflict resolution tools, healthy relationships and life skills to help them succeed. For example, if someone is consistently late to work, the response is to ask why rather than skipping directly to disciplinary action.
“You can teach soft skills all day, but if you don’t look at the deeper issues, they will resurface at their next job,” said Sterling Tran.
CHCH also provides hands-on résumé development and connects employees with professional resources to secure the next step towards their dream.
CHCH has trained five employees so far. Helping staff become self-sufficient being the end goal, so far one employee has transitioned into a full-time job after working at CHCH. Three out of five acquired their driver’s license; two have purchased vehicles; two transitioned out of their parents’ home into apartments, and all five are continuing their education.
“We have seen character, confidence and leadership development in all five of them,” said Sterling Tran. “Three of our employees (two current; one moved on to another job) finished the development classes last year, and we will be starting another cohort with our two newest employees.”
CHCH hopes to employ 8–10 employees per year and see them “graduate” into either full-time work, work that is in their career or field of interest or full-time education.
“We also plan on expanding the development classes only to others in the community, so that an additional 24 people per year can receive training,” said Sterling Tran. “We will then assist those 24 people in finding a job through the relationships we have at other coffee houses.”
Even growing up with faith and service, starting a social enterprise has not been easy.
Sterling Tran credits family, friends, members of her church, neighbors and mentors, like CHCH board member Juan Pablo Sanchez of Super Cocina (a popular home-style Mexican restaurant in City Heights), for support throughout the process.
In addition to its unique training model, CHCH also offers a Pay It Forward fund, a way to give back to others in the community. One can purchase either a medium coffee or tea for someone else, with the number of these free beverages announced on a board for customers to see. If someone so chooses, they can ask for a free coffee or tea off of the board. CHCH currently has donors who give monthly to this fund. In their former alleyway space, CHCH went through at least 80 free beverages per month, numbering around 10–15 different customers weekly.
“Some people would come in daily for a free coffee. We don't mind if people come in daily because it gives us a chance to know them,” said Sterling Tran.
The co-founders plan to fill their new space incorporating designs, colors, and patterns from different cultures, and also feature artwork, pictures, or coffee makers from the different countries represented in the community.
“We want people to feel welcomed through having books to read that are in different languages,” said Sterling Tran.
As for the longer-term future of the coffee house, “[eventually] I'd love to pass CHCH on to another person in the community. It was never my or the other founders’ intention to keep CHCH as our own. It'd be great if we were roasting our own coffee too.”
Interested in starting a business or social enterprise? Heed Sterling Tran’s advice: “Be passionate—you have to want it more than anything. There’s a purpose for me in this.”
To support CHCH, visit cityheightscoffeehouse.org/donate.