September 4, 2018 at 12:51 pm PDT | by John Paul King
Cuties is more than just a place where everybody knows your name

Cuties is located at 710 N Heliotrope Drive in Los Angeles. (Photo by Leslie Foster for Cuties)

Cuties Coffee Bar is in trouble.

Opened last summer and funded by an Indiegogo campaign, the East Hollywood café is an extension of “Queers, Coffee, and Donuts,” a monthly pop-up which provided a safe space and gathering point for members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, genderqueer, non-binary and trans communities.  Founded by Virginia Bauman and Iris Bainum-Houle, its mission has been to build “a queer-centered community space.”

Bauman, who is a transgender woman, and Bainum-Houle, who identifies as queer-femme and gender-fluid, wanted to create a coffee bar that was geared towards LGBTQ+ people and their allies.  Instead of catering to the tropes of LA’s trendy scenesters, they set out to make a location where members of the queer community could feel welcome and comfortable.  The project, which they conceived in 2015, became a priority for them after the Pulse Nightclub shootings and the election of Donald Trump – along with his barely-concealed anti-queer agenda – made it clear that there was a dire need of safe gathering places, especially for the most marginalized members of the community.

Cuties Coffee owners Virginia Bauman and Iris Bainum-Houle. (Photo by Leslie Foster for Cuties)

For its first year, Cuties operated as an anomaly in the LA queer scene, a rare and much-needed social environment that wasn’t a bar or a nightclub – something very important for the sizeable sector of the LGBTQ+ population who are underage or don’t want to be surrounded by alcohol.  They have hosted community events, support groups, workshops, film screenings; they have provided a meeting location for activist groups with no space of their own; they have kept their supporters and their clientele informed and in the loop with a regular newsletter which has become a highlight of the week for its many subscribers; and they have done it all while providing gourmet-quality coffee and donuts, along with other high-grade beverage and food items.  They even offer a “community tab” which allows customers to “pay it forward” by buying an extra cup for future guests – providing a tremendous service to those café patrons who face financial hardship.

Like most new small businesses, though, the café has had a hard time meeting its financial needs.  Even after reducing hours and labor, and trying to curtail waste, its revenue is failing to cover operational costs.  Its founders have been subsidizing it to keep it in business, but, according to Bauman in a piece she published on Medium, “we are reaching the end of our ability to do so.”

In an effort to save this important queer communal space, Bauman and Bainum-Houle have returned to the crowdfunding model that allowed them to open it in the first place.  Cuties has launched a campaign on Patreon to provide ongoing support for the café.  Their goal is $12,000 a month.  At the time of this writing, the counter on their donation page read $4,167, so they still have a way to go.

They’re not asking for money to help them maintain a profitable coffee shop, either.  The funding they seek is necessary in order for them to offer the kinds of community-supportive services that have been the real reason for Cuties all along.

In the latest edition of the Cuties newsletter, Bainum-Houle reached out to readers, expressing the importance the café has had for her personally.

“Creating Cuties is the most empowering and meaningful experience of my life,” she wrote.  “[It] has connected me deeply to a community I’ve been isolated from for most of my adulthood and for that I will always be grateful. It has also given me the opportunity to connect others. On the hard days (and there are many) the ability to bring the community together is what keeps me going.”

She went on to describe the effect the café has on the community. “I love seeing your faces light up when you come into the shop for the first time. I adore seeing you connecting in the cafe over coffee. I delight in providing you with moments of whimsy and softness in a world not built for either.”

She also stressed the importance of providing a haven for the queer community.  “LGBTQIA+ folks deserve a safer space that is all ages and open every day of the week. We deserve to make a living wage at a place of work where our orientation, gender and pronouns are respected. There is power in getting people in a room together, together in our common difference to build community. I want that work to continue.”

She concluded with a heartfelt plea for help that is also a rallying cry for the community and its supporters.  “I want Cuties to exist. I want this to succeed. I hope you want that, too.  Thank you for getting us this far… The future is unclear but what is certain is our community’s resilience, dedication and effervescence. Let’s show our community and the folks cheering us on both near and far that this can work. Thank you for going on this journey with me and I hope it can continue… If you are not yet a Cuties’ patron now is the time!”

For their Patreon contribution, Bauman and Bainum-Houle have suggested a donation of $10 per month, but welcome any amount from $2-$250.  There are rewards for different tiers of support, too.  $10, for instance, gets you a free cup of coffee every month; for $35, you also get “the queerest mug on earth,” and there are more deluxe premiums all the way up to the $250 level, which includes all the other rewards plus a donut-making class with Virginia Bauman herself!  And starting at the $5 level, you can rest assured that part of your donation will go into Cuties’ “Extra Love” bucket, which allows financially-challenged individuals access to community events taking place in the café. 

There are other ways you can help. 

Sharing the Patreon link on social media, newsletters, event pages, even via text and email is helpful – as Bainum-Houle puts it, “Call your family members who say they have ‘nothing against gay people.  Tell them to put their $ where there mouth is.’”

You can also reach out to press and media on the café’s behalf and write reviews on Yelp! or Google; and, of course, you can also visit the shop and participate in its community events.

Whatever means you choose to show your support, you need to do it soon.  According to Bauman’s Medium post, they were hoping to meet their goals by the end of August or “we will likely have to close our doors.”

Bainum-Houle’s newsletter entry is more optimistic, promising a “ramped up” schedule of events this fall for one “final push,” so it may not be too late.


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