Mamacitas employees serve donuts. Photo courtesy: Mamacitas Café
Mamacitas Café has been serving its signature donuts at food festivals and farmers markets. It has launched a Kiva Zip loan campaign to raise funds for kitchen space and an expanded menu. Photo courtesy: Mamacitas Café

By Francesca Paris

As economic development surges in Oakland, sparking conversations around gentrification and displacement, Renee Geesler and Shana Lancaster, owners of Mamacitas Café, are fighting to ensure that there is a seat at the table for Oakland youth of color, especially women. Their weapon? Donuts and coffee.

Last June, Geesler and Lancaster founded Mamacitas, a pop-up food service that hires and trains young women, ages 16 to 24, to serve donut kebabs and coffee. In an effort to move into a permanent space and increase the number of women they can hire, the pair recently launched a Kiva Zip crowd funded loan campaign.

The Kiva loan comes on the heels of Mamacitas’ one year anniversary earlier this summer. This summer also marked the founding of the Youth Food Project (YFP). This second organization is specifically designed to instruct Oakland youth of all genders in food service. To do so, Geesler and Lancaster  teamed up with The Town Kitchen, along with food partners Tart! Bakery and Mandela Marketplace and community partners Beyond Emancipation and Youth Uprising. This summer, YFP is training its first cohort of twelve Oakland youth in food service, from knife skills to interpersonal communication.

Along with Sabrina Mutukisna, owner of The Town Kitchen, Geesler and Lancaster hope to open up the fold and bring in more food businesses, particularly in Oakland, that can offer jobs for youths who are in training or have completed training with YFP.

Both Mamacitas and YFP aim to serve as training incubators for young people of color in Oakland, not only in food service but in life skills, self-sufficiency and leadership.

“We want to be an incubation space,” said Geesler, “for young women to explore their passions and leadership opportunities.”

Renee Geesler (far left) and Shana Lancaster (far right) with Mamacitas Café employees. Photo courtesy: Mamacitas Café
Co-founders Renee Geesler (far left) and Shana Lancaster (far right) with Mamacitas Café employees. Photo courtesy: Mamacitas Café

Geesler’s background lies in training youth, so the instructive aspect of Mamacitas is nothing new. In addition to running Mamacitas, she works at the Akonadi Foundation, which fights for racial justice and supports nonprofits that help Oakland youth. She was co-director of KPFA radio’s apprenticeship program when she met Lancaster, who was an apprentice.

Lancaster is a third-generation Oakland native and an artist who has experience in youth workforce development, specifically the arts; previously to Mamacitas, she was a program director of Spotlight on the Arts, a California Lawyers for the Arts program. In addition, she has worked in food service for many years. Now she works full time on YFP and Mamacitas, which combines all of her areas of expertise.

The pair started talking about launching a program for young women three years ago. Eventually, their connections at Red Bay Coffee inspired Geesler and Lancaster to serve the store’s brew. Donuts felt like a natural companion to serve with coffee. Mamacitas’ specialty is the donut kebab, which consist of donut holes on a skewer. The idea came in part from Lancaster’s Armenian heritage — kebab’s are a big part of Armenian cuisine — and in part out of practicality. The café pops up at many festivals and customers don’t necessarily want to touch the food with their hands.

The staff of the café make everything by hand, including the dough, and all ingredients are locally sourced. Mamacitas serves cardamom spiced donut holes and donut holes stuffed with vegan apple and seasonal jams. After a year of experimentation, Geesler thinks the cafe has landed on the perfect recipes.

But Mamacitas goes far deeper than donuts.

Mamacitas Café employees. Photo courtesy: Mamacitas Café
Mamacitas Café employees are all 16- to 24-year-old women from Oakland. Photo courtesy: Mamacitas Café

“Oakland has tremendously deep traumas and deep issues with poverty,” Lancaster said. Though there are many capable young people in the city, she does not see a line of engagement between youth and businesses. Both she and Geesler feel that many businesses are failing to engage with and hire from the local community, especially youth and people of color. Mamacitas’ mission is therefore about facilitating the line between youth and businesses. It aims to provide young people with job skills that can translate to other leadership positions or even to starting companies of their own.

Alongside poverty, Oakland faces a struggle with human trafficking and sexual exploitation of women. “Human trafficking is a very deep wound in this community,” said Lancaster, “and it’s rarely talked about. It’s so tremendously rampant.” For that reason, Mamacitas is also a specifically female organization that serves as both a safe space and a source of income for young women.

“Whether you are getting out of a life of prostitution or just a youth growing up in East Oakland, a job is your first need,” Lancaster said. “There’s no way to thrive without a job.”

With a job at Mamacitas, the young women not only learn the food and customer service skills necessary to set up and run the pop-up cafe, but also work with Geesler and Lancaster in the decision making and financial planning aspects of the business.

Mamacitas Café employees. Photo courtesy: Mamacitas Café
Mamacitas Café employees. Photo courtesy: Mamacitas Café

At the moment, Mamacitas is focused on expanding into a permanent space, with the help of the Kiva loan. The business has been making its dough in Geesler’s kitchen, which is too small for the volume of opportunities that Mamacitas’ staff wants to take on. If everything goes according to plan, the loan will help them move into a brick and mortar space in downtown Oakland in the fall, as well as purchase more equipment and expand the menu to add a breakfast bar.

It’s not the first time the company has turned to crowdfunding — the pair launched Mamacitas with the help of a Kickstarter last year — but this time they are looking for loans rather than donations, and they’re asking for just enough money to propel them through what Geesler calls a “growth moment.” With more space, the company will be able to train more young women, who can in turn contribute the skills they have gained to further Mamacitas. Geesler said that keeping the talent they cultivate in the business, at least long enough to bring more young women fully into the fold, is crucial.

“Once we build their base, they’re invested,” she said. “They want to help us grow. These young women become invested in our vision, and that’s how innovation happens.”

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