Thursday, May 30, 2024

Long Beach coffee scene continues to alter as Cafablanca, donation-based coffee cart, moves to Downtown L.A.

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It’s a bittersweet shift in the Long Beach coffee scene: Cafablanca, Cameron Kude’s donation-based, social justice-centric coffee cart that would find itself parked throughout the Bixby Park area, will be taking on a “new city, new neighborhood, new community,” in the words of Kude.

Cafablanca has found a new home in the Downtown Los Angeles neighborhood that is the Arts District—and that is just one step forward in what has been a social-meets-one-on-one experiment surrounded by the mighty coffee bean.

Another step in the evolution of Cafablanca

The Long Beach coffee scene has continually been shifting—but perhaps no more heavily than in the past few years: Black Dog Roasters has taken over Lord Windsor, the shop that basically brought the third-wave of coffee to the city and shuttered mid-pandemic. Coffee Drunk has expanded into two locations while Rose Park’s Pine location, once revolving around its kitchen as well as its coffee, returned to solely serving coffee while occasionally hosting food popups (like the stellar Breakfast Dreams). Portfolio Coffeehouse permanently shuttered after 30 years on Retro Row…

And the initial loss of Cafablanca definitely seems sad; in fact, in a huge sense, it is for its patrons. But for Kude, there was an opportunity he simply couldn’t pass: An artist loft in Downtown Los Angeles’s Arts District with the landlord happy to allow him to set up Cafablanca for the neighborhood.

“It’s really the price I would be paying for a retail space,” Kude said. “The owner of the building is really gunning for me to do exactly what I do down here… I have an admitted sense of anxiety—I’ve been mourning not being in Long Beach—but this was just something I couldn’t pass up.”

That sense of mourning makes sense: Kude has built a deep connetion to the Bixby Park and surrounding Alamitos Beach community, helping lead the charge to support street vendors and protect them against pointless police raids while also creating a new idea of what a small business can achieve on a donation-based model. In short, he was an essential cog in the Long Beach coffee scene.

But Kude has ambitious plans for both Cafablanca and his newly minted loft. With a full commercial kitchen attached, he can now craft his own pastries for the coffee cart while also experimenting more with food.

On top of that, his recent inheritance of a friend’s movie collection (fueling the man’s cinephile leanings) allows him to alter the loft space into a private screening room that he will hopefully rent out and also create ticketed events for.

“For the first few weeks, I was panicking: ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this,'” Kude said. “But then when I started thinking of ways to generate income with the new space, it became inspiring. It’s a huge step for me—one that still makes me panic but one that I am also excited to share with both Long Beach and this new community I am moving into.”

So what does that mean for Kude’s wildly rebellious model, where he has worked entirely for the past several years on donations alone?

The spirit of Cafablanca might have been eyebrow-raising—but it will remain

Kude is no fool: His radical idea to offer coffee entirely on a donation basis brought out even his own skepticism toward it.

“I remember telling myself that my very own idea was not going to work,” Kude said. “I remember thinking, ‘Word will get around and people will drink this concept dry to the point of nonexistence.’ But that never happened.”

In fact, Kude thrived: His cash tip jar has never once been stolen. His brightly colored van that houses the cart and his equipment has never once been broken into. His online cash gathering tools—Zelle, Venmo, and CashApp—pulled in steady income with each cortado and latte. His ability to speak with and communicate toward the unhoused population of the area grew in both confidence and eloquence.

“The unhoused community was, if I am being completely honest, my most loyal,” Kude said. “They respected my boundaries, my concept, my livelihood. And I hoping that it will translate in the Arts District.”

And the Cafablanca empire might just expand: With an opportunity to snatch a building space in Garden Grove, Kude could very well be on his way to create a second cart.

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The history of Cafablanca can’t be forgotten

For Kude, coffee and cinema have always been intertwined with his heart—hence the name “Cafablanca.” And with his anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-hate leanings, a nod toward one of the most iconic anti-fascist films of all time was a natural way to express his philosophies while exercising his skills as a barista.

And as for that rad little yellow cart? It’s a handcrafted coffee cart tailored with a 1950s aesthetic, complete with a fully refurbished Astoria espresso machine, that has gone on to act as a totally contained, completely cool, Tuk Tuk-based coffee cart that is powered by three car batteries.

He would previously take this thing around newsrooms and sets after a gig at KTLA but that quickly changed when COVID came—and so did his spirit: It was time to both give back to the community when it was at its lowest while also testing his own faith in humanity to support him back.

Hence the donation-based model.

“I have a feeling you’re going to end up seeing me here again, consistently,” Kude said. “Long Beach really cemented and built this so my love for this city is unwavering. But in the least, I hope you’ll come see me in L.A.”

Of course we will.

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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