Monday, June 17, 2024

A little more queer, a little more femme: Recreational Coffee’s new owners move toward the future

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If you haven’t noticed, there’s a slightly different, queer-er vibe at the always-welcoming Recreational Coffee in Downtown Long Beach: Coffee bean labels are brighter and outright cartoon-y in the best way possible, a little pink coffee mug cart…

And there’s a reason: It’s fairly-newly minted owner Brooklyn Warden who has taken over—and she’s ready to let the rainbow shine bright on the continually growing, always gorgeous world of Long Beach coffee.

Recreational Coffee’s switch in ownership came out of deep humility—not a pawning off of the business

For the large part of nearly a decade, Recreational Coffee has been a steward of the third-wave coffee scene here in Long Beach, following coffee shop-slash-roasting giants like the much-missed Lord Windsor and the still-going strong Rose Park while acting as a buttress for those to follow like Black Ring Coffee.

And the face of it all was Bobby Hernandez. Charming, kind, and a quick-to-become-a-local-fave kind of person, Hernandez exuded the qualities of a smart business person while never losing light as a loving human—and on that last note, it would take someone of deep character to realize that they are not taking take of the baby they helped built.

“It’s not that I wanted to step away or give it up—and for a second there, I refused to,” Bobby told me back in 2023 when he officially handed the keys to Brooklyn. “But with my new business [Grey LB], I had to realize that I wasn’t giving Rec the love and attention it deserved. It was immensely hard to do that but if I wanted to see this brand I built move forward, I had to.”

Humility in check and determined to assure Recreational could live beyond himself, Bobby had culled in other interested buyers and, in a serendipitous moment if there was one, he informed one employee before the rest that he was going to sell: Brooklyn.

I was just blunt: ‘How much are you selling it for?'” Brooklyn said, laughing. “I’ve been in coffee for ten years and I genuinely cannot see myself doing anything else unless it was coffee-related. It’s been my dream to have my own coffee shop and it snowballed from there. Bobby gave me an opportunity that made my dream literally become reality.”

With quite a team of backing from both her boyfriend and friends’n’neighbors—including co-owner Daniel Ferradas—Brooklyn was able to move forward with slowly but surely making Recreational go through some therapy to rediscover itself.

Queer, femme, caffeinated: Recreational Coffee is evolving

“As a queer, feminine presenting person, I feel like there is still a lack of a third space for us where people can just go to relax,” Brooklyn said. “I’ve seen the uptick with places like Wood Coffee or WEOP which gave their space to their queer sisters—and that’s exactly what I want to be a part of… Bobby was always so open about hiring openly queer people—ever since working here, I’ve always been side-by-side with people with different sexualities and genders. I want to continue and uplift those people because I frankly feel there’s a lack of it.”

What does that mean? Events, communal gatherings, niche clubs, alterations to aesthetics…

Brooklyn has installed her pink coffee mug cart for you to choose from a hodgepodge collection of colorful cups from her own cupboard. Meanwhile, Daniel has taken over altering the coffee bean bag branding, opting for a 70s-gone-contemporary the evokes Schoolhouse Rock! aesthetics.

“Daniel is very happy to include spring-summer vibes, sunshine, and flowers into the shop,” Brooklyn said happily. “‘Cause he also wants to bring a different vibe to the shop as well as me—which is why we are trying to put a new mural up”—the angry gorilla ripping the Recreational logo in half has been peacefully put into the nostalgia bin—”so open to events and community meetings being hosted here, and so forth.”

This doesn’t mean a makeover of the spirit of Recreational—”Our regulars are our treasure; we would never just take away what they’ve come to love,” Brooklyn noted—but it does mean a bit more activation and perhaps a bit more color.

A recent event included a Sonny Angel meet up—the angel figurines that allow their owners to dress them up, of which one sits atop the fridge in the coffeeshop—and the crowd was entirely unexpected: Recreational was packed wall-to-wall with people wanting to trade Sonny Angels, sell Sonny Angel clothing, talk about the stories behind their Sonny Angels…

“I wasn’t even expecting 10 people to show up and somewhere around 40 ended up coming,” Brooklyn said. “Everybody came through and said, ‘We love this.’ And then the last event we had was a scrapbooking event from our employee Julie spearheaded and, again not expecting many people, it was again a full house.”

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And this reimagining of Recreational Coffee doesn’t discount the potential of diving into beer and wine so that they can take advantage of events even more: They are, indeed, looking at beer and wine licenses.

For the Recreational Coffee team, coffee is as sacred as it is a simple cog of social life

The first time Brooklyn realized she had a connection to coffee, it was when her mother made her a pot of it at 8PM because Brooklyn had badgered her enough—and she drank the whole pot. That literally sleepless night of K-Pop videos and pondering life led her to explore the elixir to the point where she opted to visit the place where coffee has been a cornerstone of its culture since the 16th century: Italy.

Going to Porcia—a small town north of Venice and about 100 kilometers northwest of Trieste, one of Italy’s most eastern cities near the borders of Croatia and Slovenia—it was here where she saw a respect for coffee as a form of cuisine and culture in a way that she had never witnessed before.

“It’s what started my coffee journey: that pot and those no-to-go cups in Italy,” Brooklyn said. “And yes, even with my dyed purple hair and sidecut wearing a My Chemical Romance shirt, Italy felt briefly like home—and home enough that I knew I wanted to bring it here with me and make a career out of it.”

Brooklyn’s local pedigree is no joke either, having worked at Berlin Bistro before it closed and before moving to Recreational. It is in this spirit—watching Berlin close and seeing a shift in coffee culture throughout the pandemic—that has led her to push Recreational even further.

“We’ve seen places close up shop or dwindle on hours,” Brooklyn said. “And there is no silver-lining in the truth that it is very hard to run any small business, let alone a coffeeshop—but we’re here to stay. There’s no question about that.”

Can we get an amen?

Recreational Coffee is located at 237 Long Beach Blvd.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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