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Coffee, Tea and Camaraderie

Cafe Taps Into Gay Pride With Products

June 24, 1998|SUSAN ABRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Stonewall Gourmet Cafe serves up gay pride with its lattes.

Owner Michael d'Addio opened the West Hollywood coffeehouse--named after the historic Stonewall rebellion that gave birth to the gay liberation movement--as a gathering place for gays and lesbians.

Another inspiration for the business might have been Starbucks. D'Addio hopes to compete on a smaller scale with the big coffeehouse players, envisioning a chain of Stonewall cafes that will promote his line of coffees, teas and bottled water.

"I was looking for something that could become a good business within the gay and lesbian community, a good service," said d'Addio, a former television producer who left Hollywood in 1994 to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams.

D'Addio raised his start-up capital with the help of family and friends. Two years ago he incorporated Stonewall Gourmet Coffee Co., which produces 15 blends of arabica beans and a line of bottled spring water sold at the cafe and elsewhere.

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Three more cafes are in the works, including one inside the Village, the new $6.7-million Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center's satellite facility in Hollywood.

Stonewall Spring Water has been named the official water of West Hollywood's Christopher Street West Gay Pride Festival this weekend, which commemorates the Stonewall rebellion.

The Stonewall name is a touchstone for gays and lesbians, especially so for d'Addio, who as a "skinny 25-year-old kid" just out of a monastery in New York, was at the Stonewall Inn the day police raided it in 1969, touching off five days of rioting. Back then it was illegal to serve alcohol to gays in New York, and police frequently raided bars where gay patrons gathered. But on June 27, 1969, gays and lesbians at the Stonewall fought back, inspiring marches and protests for gay rights.

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"I missed my ride to Woodstock, so I went down to [Greenwich] Village to Stonewall to dance," said d'Addio, now 55. "I had left the Stonewall earlier before that actual protest happened, but I was in the neighborhood.

There was a lot of commotion, people pushing and shoving, and it began to escalate. I didn't realize all the backlog of anger . . . and pent-up frustrations that led to that."

Twenty-nine years later, d'Addio said, the spirit of the rebellion stays with him.

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"Stonewall was the turning point and beginning of gay civil rights. There's a reason the name stuck with me all those years," he said.

To foster that community spirit, each night the cafe offers activities such as live jazz and bingo. Proceeds from the games benefit AIDS Project Los Angeles.

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The label on the company's water and coffees includes an inverted triangle, a variation of the pink triangle that symbolizes gay pride.

Some industry analysts cautioned that targeting a specific community in hopes of an instant return can be a recipe for failure.

"I'm not sure gay people want to be that segregated" when they use products, said David Mulryan of Mulryan-Nash, a New York advertising agency that helps corporations target gay and lesbian consumers.

"I think in some ways [d'Addio] is on the right track, if he takes this urban trend and moves it" to gay communities in smaller cities, Mulryan said.

"There's no question that we want to work in high-traffic gay and lesbian areas," said Stonewall financial advisor Chris Barr. "There are 30 urban areas [in the country] where this will work."

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The company, which has seen revenue increase monthly since January, plans to eventually begin franchising Stonewall cafes, officials said.

The sole franchise is owned by Gay and Lesbian Assn. Social Services, which plans to open the franchise inside a former Out of the Closet secondhand store on Laurel Canyon and Victory Boulevard in North Hollywood. The new store will be called Stonewall Cafe, Bookstore & Thriftshop, said Teresa DeCrescenzo, president of the association.

A lease has been signed for a fourth coffeehouse at Santa Monica and La Brea boulevards.

It will include a coffee roaster and serve as a distribution center for Stonewall products.

"Even though Starbucks is the big player, there's still going to be competition from other [coffeehouse chains]. Somebody smaller can pay attention to the details," Barr said. "The second reason it works is because this is a very strong niche market. [Stonewall] has built-in name recognition and built-in consumer loyalty" in the gay community.

That's not to say d'Addio wouldn't be pleased if the Stonewall brand were to catch on with heterosexuals as well.

D'Addio believes the success of his first cafe on Santa Monica Boulevard, a street already crowded with competing coffeehouses, is a good sign for more Stonewalls across the country.

"This is like Broadway," he said. "If I can make it here, I'll make it anywhere."

SMALL BUSINESS: D6-D8

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