The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jan 04, 2016

Jobs at San Jose street cafe provide opportunity for area homeless

Posted by Vignesh Ramachandran

Photos are courtesy Kartma Street Cafe.

For the last month, people walking near Market and Santa Clara streets in downtown San Jose have been doing a double take at an outdoor street cafe. It’s not just the coffee; it’s the sandwich board that advertises, “The street cafe that’s ending homelessness.”

Those words are true to their core: Kartma Street Cafe – a project of the Downtown Streets Team – is training and employing people who are working their way out of homelessness. The refurbished cart has sleek branding, artisan coffee and, since the street café’s launch in November, three once-homeless team members have been employed for 30 hours per week, making $15 an hour.

Kartma in action. Courtesy Kartma Street Cafe.

“One of our team members moved in [to a home] the same day he started with us,” said Rob Sanchez, project manager of Kartma Street Cafe. Since then, all three employees have either been housed or have received housing vouchers thanks to a community-wide effort, Sanchez said.

Knight Foundation provided Kartma with $25,000 in support to expand economic opportunity.

Benjamin D., one of Kartma’s coffee specialists, said the response from the community has been really positive and he’s enjoying being part of a social enterprise. Benjamin, who asked that his last name not be used to protect his privacy as he rebuilds his life, was housed the first day he started working with Kartma, with support from various community organizations. Becoming a barista was something Benjamin said he has always wanted to do; he’s already come up with a “Benjamin’s Special” (a mixed vanilla latte and caramel latte) that some of the regular customers order.

“I’m here because I want to be here,” he said optimistically, ringing up customers and having friendly conversation on a recent Friday morning — one customer headed to jury duty, another talking about his Christmas vacation plans.

The project took root over the summer with Kartma’s Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which raised more than $19,000. Kartma refurbished an old cart to transform it into the hip, socially driven street cafe it has become for San Jose passersby. Chromatic Coffee, a Bay Area-based small batch coffee company, has been helping with training team members and roasting a special blend of coffee that Kartma sells.

Matt Brading, who works at a startup across the street from Kartma, has become a regular customer since he discovered the cart in early December. Brading says Kartma is one of the “coolest” things he’s seen in a long time in downtown San Jose. “When we go to Kartma, we’re greeted with a smile,” said Brading, adding that he’s become good friends with the Kartma team.

“There’s just definitely something about the idea where it’s just really resonating with the community,” Sanchez said. “We almost can’t grow quick enough in a sense,” he added. Since the November launch, Sanchez said they’ve had requests to open similar concepts as far away as Kansas and even London. Kartma is in talks with other Bay Area cities and local hospitals to expand the concept, he said.

Kartma also wants to take the concept mobile. By spring, Sanchez hopes a “tuk-tuk” cart will be ready so that Kartma can move around to sell coffee in high-demand areas: outside arenas, public transit stations and parks.

But for now, Kartma’s first stationary cart in downtown San Jose continues to sell everything from lattes to cappuccinos to chai to hot chocolate. Sanchez makes clear that Kartma not only has a social mission, but “also an extremely high-quality product.” Through January, the street cafe is open 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Vignesh Ramachandran is a Bay Area-based freelance journalist. He can be reached via email at

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