Community in Action

Social Enterprise at the L.A. LGBT Center

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Social Enterprise at the L.A. LGBT Center

By KJ Ward

The Los Angeles LGBT Center (the Center) is the world’s largest provider of health, housing, and advocacy programs specifically for the LGBTQ community. Like many nonprofit social services organizations, foundation grants, government contracts, private donations, and program fees have been the Center’s set of revenue streams. With the opening of the Center’s seventh facility in 2019, the 53-year-old organization is now investing in social enterprise as a new model as it continues to innovate.

In an interview with BEQ Pride Magazine, the Center’s Nick Panepinto and Erin Muscatelli describe the model that is at once a large-scale, skill-building and professional development program for vulnerable members of L.A.’s LGBTQ community and a breakthrough in organizational autonomy and self-sufficiency.


How a new need begat a game-changing innovation

It started with a clear-eyed look at creatively addressing a new need. The Center’s new Anita May Rosenstein Campus would feature an emergency overnight shelter and two permanent, supported housing programs: one for youth and one for seniors. Combined, these programs would bring over 200 residents to the newest site in Hollywood. Contracting with an outside caterer to feed the residents was certainly an option, but the Center had other aspirations. Renowned chef and restaurateur Susan Feniger serves on the Center’s board of directors, and the Center’s Director of Culinary Training and Operations, Nick Panepinto, credits her with the inspiration for what came next.

“Susan was always talking about how important food was and how kitchens, especially in the LGBT community, really work to build community and chosen family. So, she said, ‘Hey, if we’re looking at how we want to build community on this campus, we need a kitchen,’” Panepinto recalled. “Originally the idea was just to provide food for everyone living with us. Then Susan suggested that there was an opportunity to start doing vocational job training on site, so that we could really help our members get job skills and help put them on a path to economic stability.”

Just a few years later – with the support of the Los Angeles Regional Initiative for Social Enterprise (LA:RISE) – the Center’s training program has enrolled 141 students in its landmark 300-hour training program. Panepinto describes the course in which students receive a stipend for their participation as a “very intense culinary bootcamp.”

“It’s kind of to give them a scope of everything they might encounter in a kitchen in four weeks. It starts with basic sanitation and knife skills and getting their food handlers card, but then it advances really quick. So, all of a sudden, they’re making their own flat breads and homemade pasta and shucking oysters. And then they spend the second 100 hours making meals for the center, which is where the social enterprise starts to kick in. So, they’re learning during the second 200 hours, but collectively they’re also making about 450 meals a day in our kitchen. For the final part, we place them in internships.”


A community-centered training experience

Under the leadership of executive chef and lead instructor Lesley Riley, the Center’s training program is an opportunity for a rigorous yet uniquely supportive and understanding professional development opportunity. Liberation Coffee House – named after the Center’s Liberation Housing program opened in 1971 – is the program’s on-site internship location. Café manager Erin Muscatelli said, “We have transgender seniors who may have just started transitioning, and this is the first time they’re interacting professionally in their true gender identity. We recognize and celebrate them. Embroidering their chosen names on their jackets is as important to their experience as anything they might learn in the kitchen. This isn’t an experience that is guaranteed in most other settings, but it is critical for our students. It allows them to rebuild their self-esteem and confidence.”

“We also work with youth who have experienced homelessness or other trauma,” Muscatelli said. “For them to enter a professional environment as well and get all those skills, it’s giving them confidence that they can be successful. That’s really what we use food to do.”


Coffee and catering: The business of building a community

As if providing meals for residents and a platform for professional development weren’t enough, the culinary arts program delivers another essential component – it makes money. Proceeds from the sales of the café’s food, coffee, and bespoke swag go right back into supporting the work at the Anita May Rosenstein Campus. Muscatelli told BEQ Pride that the café holds an importance that goes even beyond its role as an internship site and a revenue generator for the social services organization. The café is also a point-of-entry for education about what the Center does. “The café is kind of the Center’s front showcase. It’s the first time that many people in the neighborhood really engage with the Center – people who are not seeking a specific service and maybe not part of the LGBT community,” she said.

With such a powerful story and in such a beautiful space, it is clear that customers are happy to spend their money at Liberation Coffee House. That said, both Muscatelli and Panepinto emphasized the importance of quality products and exceptional service in a social enterprise. “We have the best coffee,” Muscatelli said plainly and proudly. People will go out of their way to spend their money at a place that supports a mission and an organization they believe in. But, as Panepinto pointed out, “not if the product is not great.” “You don’t want to spend $5 on a cup of coffee and think, ‘The coffee was awful, but it went to a good cause,’” he added. “Erin has put us over the top by making sure that our staff embraces the importance of hospitality.”

I certainly enjoyed my veggie quesadilla, oat-milk cappuccino, and the warm service, but visitors to the café are sure to be struck by another aspect of the space: the intentionality of the design. Muscatelli gladly shares with café guests the meaning behind the café’s stunning design – including the drapes that replicate a California sunset – a museum-curator-like skill she honed during her days as a gallery director.

Thinking creatively about the ways that the café might be used outside normal business hours, flexibility was also key to the design and furnishing. “We wanted to be able to flip the space for different uses,” Muscatelli said. Fundraising events and support groups are just two of the possibilities for the space as COVID restrictions ease and gathering becomes safer.

The space was also designed with inclusion in mind. As an intentionally intergenerational space, the design was mindful of everybody and every body. “Our green chairs have handles that make it easier for seniors to use them comfortably and safely,” Panepinto said, and Muscatelli pointed to the importance of making the space not just wheelchair accessible but fully wheelchair inclusive. Electrical outlets are everywhere – not just for the guests who use the space as their office while writing a screenplay but just as importantly for the unhoused neighbor whose ability to charge her cell phone is limited. Liberation Coffee House is truly a space for the entire community.

The enterprise has also increased the Center’s capacity to attract additional revenue from government contracts. California’s Department of Aging contracts with caterers to provide nutrition for accredited senior-housing sites. Housing for LGBTQ seniors has been a core service of the Center for years. Now, with the emergence of its food production enterprise, the Center can keep the meals service in-house as well – literally feeding its residents and figuratively feeding a virtuous cycle of essential services, skill-building, commercial services, and sustainable revenue.

Outside of café sales – and in addition to feeding on-campus residents, drop-in clients, and Center residents at other sites – the program is also hoping to increase revenue from commercial catering with outside customers as well.


Brand-new stakeholders: The other revenue opportunity in social enterprise

Between its various public contracts, partnerships, retail revenue, and anticipated growth in the catering business, Panepinto said that the revenue goal for the social enterprise endeavor is self-sufficiency for the training program. “We haven’t reached that point, but we’re getting closer.” The reality is that the program may always depend, in part, on grant revenue, but the social enterprise is proving to be its own magnet for certain types of funding.

“Having a social enterprise gives us access to funding streams that didn’t come to us as just a regular nonprofit,” Panepinto stated. Banks have looked to support the Center’s social enterprise because stipends for students and new income for newly-hired program graduates represent a need for banking services, such as checking accounts. Hospitals, like Cedars-Sinai, want to support the Center’s social enterprise efforts because the economic stability of a community is correlated with better health outcomes. Chambers of commerce can also become a social-service organization’s strategic partner when social enterprise becomes part of the model because chambers have a direct stake in the success of area businesses, including access to skilled employees. The Center’s partnership with the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has resulted in not just direct funding but a network of program internship sites as well. Panepinto encourages nonprofits considering a social enterprise to think broadly about what new partnerships could emerge because “it’s really about how the whole community works.”

In addition to this wonderful article about initiatives with The Center see Bristol-Myers Squibb: Leaders in LGBTQ Business Advocacy

Picture of KJ Ward, editor BEQ Pride magazine

KJ Ward is a freedom fighter with a love of language and an appreciation of the power of the written word. Earlier in his career he worked as a case manager for the State of Hawaii Department of Human Services and as the director of Boston GLASS, a supportive services and advocacy program for LGBTQ youth. KJ also worked for several years as a communications specialist for McKinsey & Company in Germany.

Today, KJ partners with a small group of clients in service of their communications strategy and organizational development needs. He is a proud and active member of both the board of directors of Gender Spectrum and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, and from time to time he publishes his own writing. KJ is also a registered yoga teacher, committed to bringing this practice of individual and community liberation to those whose access to it has been limited.

KJ earned a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College and a master’s degree in developmental psychology from Harvard University.

Business Equality Pride (BEQPride) is the first publication from the BEQ family of national print and digital magazines exclusively addressing the needs of LGBTQ small-to-medium sized businesses, entrepreneurs and professionals.