Say ch-ch-ch-ciabatta! Photo by Jennie Warren
Say ch-ch-ch-ciabatta! Photo by Jennie Warren

Where the Boys Are

The story behind Monkey Business Café seems too good and cute to be true: Dickens by way of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. The large café near Fullerton's bustling downtown opened a couple of years ago as a thrift store run by Hart Community Homes, a nonprofit that runs two foster homes for at-risk boys ages 13 to 18. It was meant to employ current and former Hart Community Homes kids but Goodwill and other shops proved too much competition and the Hart-run thrift store closed.

Cari Hart, scion of the family that started Hart Community Homes, then met with a friend who ran a coffee shop in Newport Beach. Both agreed they should restart Monkey Business as a café that would not only appeal to the students up the street at Fullerton High School and Fullerton College but would also train Hart's wards in the restaurant business. So Hart applied for and received grants to transform the former thrift store into a café. Monkey Business re-opened last year, and it's been a success since.

"We wanted to do something that would employ our boys once they became emancipated," said Hart. "And they're doing it."

As heartwarming as Monkey Business' story may be, none of it would matter much to foodies if the entrées weren't great. Consider the thick, flavorful smoothies that condense a veritable jungle of fruits into chilled cups of bliss. Or sandwiches constructed with the care and elegance of a panini store but at half the cost, or desserts worthy of a Catholic school bake sale.

All of the restaurant's employees—from the cooks to the cashiers, bakers and waiters—come from Hart homes to learn the restaurant business in a 90-day program. Hart and her friend teach by example: how to keep the books, market, cook—all the essentials necessary to run a restaurant. The positive vibes of the place radiate everywhere from the constantly smiling kids to a design motif chock-a-block with monkeys—bananas, toys and Monkey Business Cafe's too-cute logo, a simian popping out of a banana with a cuppa joe and a sandwich.

The menu is deceptively simple: salads and sandwiches. But the breads are baked in-house daily and many of the vegetables come from Monkey Business' streetside garden. ("The boys get nervous that people will pick away at the garden," says Hart, "but I tell them that if someone resorts to that, they probably need the food more than us.") Salads include the traditional (a fine Caesar; a crunchy Cobb) and the fusion (spinach mixed with feta cheese, bacon and sesame-ginger dressing; chicken breast mixed with oranges, green onions and fried noodles).

The salads are delicious but the sandwiches are better. A Mediterranean Veggie sandwich comes on plump ciabatta bread encasing moist slices of red peppers, mozzarella and basil. Ciabatta also classes up their chicken club and burgers. Much simpler but in some ways better is the Nutty Monkey: a peanut butter sandwich on sourdough or squaw bread held up with banana slices and drizzled with honey. There are other simple items as well: breakfast burritos just like the kind they serve at a lonchera but many times healthier; croissants, bagels and muffins. The Monkey Business boys also bake delicious, massive cookies. And if none of this appeals to you, Monkey Business Café offers free coffee on Fridays—no strings attached.

Cari Hart isn't content with Monkey Business Café just serving customers, however. She recently installed Wi-Fi and is working with artists and musicians to create a lounge scene similar to the Gypsy Den; the first happening occurs this Friday. Also planned is a catering service and lunchtime deliveries to Fullerton offices. The boys also want to begin a dinner menu in the near future.

"At home, you can't get these boys to cook," Hart says with a motherly laugh. "Here, they always want to create new recipes or experiment with the herbs and vegetables they grow in our garden. Monkey Business is whatever they want it to be. We like them to be the creative force."



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