The salsa and chips Homeboy now sells through Ralph’s supermarkets, and hopes to take into wider distribution through Albertson’s, were also designed to produce both income and brand awareness. Betty Hallock, deputy food editor at the Los Angeles Times, says the mango salsa has “a cult following,” but her favorite is the dark, smoky mole. And she says she prefers Homeboy chips over any others.
Homeboy also trains participants for other jobs, such as installing solar panels, and its silk screen business is profitable. But its steadily expanding food operations help support the other programs, not least as the world’s leading provider of tattoo removal. For trendy cooks elsewhere, tats are a status symbol; for an ex-gangbanger they are a stigma if not worse. “You’re always branded if you have gang insignia, even if you’re in a suit and tie,” says Di Dionisio. “Someone could take a shot if they recognize the rival tattoo.”
Father Boyle, a former prison chaplain, laughs when asked if Homeboy set out to become such a force in food. He came to Dolores Mission, the poorest Catholic parish in the city, in 1986, and realized gang members and at-risk youth needed job training or the cycle of violence could only continue.
“We started [:in 1992] with a bakery, an old abandoned bakery across from the church, and then we had a tortilla factory—someone had a tortilla machine in Grand Central Market. Then Pati, my receptionist for lots of years when I was pastor, had her own tiny restaurant where we started Homegirl Café, and I kept waiting for her to turn her place into our place.”
Homegirl Café now serves 2,000 people a week, and also has a catering arm. Because it and Homeboy Bakery are in the same gleaming center in Chinatown where tattoo removal, counseling, and legal services are offered, “people come by and get a drink and have a meal and are slowly exposed to change,” Zarate says.
“Everyone reaps the reward if we can slowly change lives through food. That is our hope: Jail to farm to table.”
Homegirl Café and Homeboy Bakery are located at 130 West Bruno Street, Los Angeles, and online at homeboy-industries.org.
Regina Schrambling is a longtime food writer in New York City best known for her acerbic Web site, Gastropoda.com. She is a former deputy editor of the New York Times Dining section who now writes for outlets ranging from Plate to Endless Vacation, and also blogs at Epicurious.com.