Reporting on health and quality of life in South LA

Kogi food truck chef Roy Choi works with South LA teens to open new healthy cafe

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The 3 Worlds Cafe is the product of a brainstorming session between food truck guru Roy Choi, and a group of South L.A. high school students. 

Choi — best known for his popular Kogi food trucks that feature mash-ups of Mexican and Korean cuisine — began working with students at Jefferson High School two years ago. Together, they developed a menu of healthy drinks teenagers would want to buy.

“It wasn’t a huge political campaign," said Choi. "All I had in my mind was how do you get them to eat fruit and drink smoothies when they have chips and ice cream sandwiches?"

This is where smoothies like the Mango Bomb and Freshy Fresa Banana were born. They’re modeled largely after the familiar fruit carts and paletas (Mexican popsicles) found all over L.A. The smoothies at the cafe are made with fresh fruit and natural sweeteners, like agave and coconut milk, to make them more enticing to youth.

Even the shop's simple set-up on Central Avenue seems to embody a young, vibrant energy. Brightly painted walls are covered with murals created by Roy Choi's tattoo artist. Classic hip-hop station KDAY plays on the stereo. The employees are free to wear their own clothes. There's plenty of nods to Jefferson High School as well, including a "J" in one of the murals, and framed historic photos from the South L.A. campus.

And while the heart of the operation comes from Choi and the teens, it took a hefty financial contribution from Dole Packaged Foods to really get the business up-and-running. In addition to tens of thousands of dollars in start-up funds, the corporation also contributed the first two months of ingredients. After that, they will sell the fruit and yogurt at-cost to the cafe.

“It’s an opportunity just to connect locally with our community and give some personality and a connection to the brand Dole that’s beyond this kind of worldwide brand," said Dole's Director of Field Sales, Stuart McCallistar.

The Coalition for Responsible Community Development (CRCD) is also helping keep the business afloat. Based in Vernon-Central, the CRCD works with local businesses and residents to help foster development and improve quality of life in the area.

The non-profit controls 3 Worlds' lease and subsidizes a portion of the expenses. Executive Director Mark Wilson says the initial revenue will go towards keeping the business afloat and hiring teens from Jefferson High School.

"The purpose of the business as a whole is to create an entrepreneurial training hub for young people in the neighborhood and to create jobs," said Wilson.

The CRCD hopes to use the cafe to teach job skills to youth in the area. For some, this could be as simple as operating a cash register or showing up on time for a shift. Twenty year-old L.A.-native Oscar Guizar is one such employee. Making smoothies at 3 Worlds is his first legit job.

“You know, a lot of places they want to do background checks, they want to make it so hard for someone like myself to become employed so therefore on these streets we resort in selling drugs or robbing people or whatever the case might be," said Guizar. "That’s what I was involved in but luckily I was fortunate enough to come across this opportunity and now I’m trying to better myself.”

For now, the cafe sells a simple menu of coffee drinks, pastries and smoothies. But chef Choi says future plans include adding vegetables to the menu, and eventually free-range meats.

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