Growing Trend Sees Los Angeles Churches Launch Cafes to Build Community Beyond Sunday

Matthew Ng at the helm of Steeple House Coffee bar / Joshua Lurie

Wind west of the 405 freeway along Mulholland Boulevard and reach a parking lot at the base of Bel-Air Presbyterian Church. Climb a set of stairs, cross a courtyard, and you’ll reach Parable Coffee Lab, a café that’s promised “thoughtful coffee, epic view” since launching in December 2016. Parable combines a premium specialty coffee experience with one of the country’s greatest coffeehouse settings. On a clear day, panoramic views of the San Fernando Valley extend all the way to the Santa Susana Mountains.

Parable Coffee Lab is part of a growing trend of churches launching high-quality coffeehouses to build community beyond a single day of the week, practicing a wholesome ritual to generate revenue to fund on-site programs or off-site giving.

In the Los Angeles area, you’ll also find Holy Grounds at St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica, Steeple House Coffee at Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, Ignatius Café at St. Agnes Korean Catholic Church in University Park, and House Roots Coffee at Valley Korean United Methodist Church in Granada Hills. While some motivations overlap at these coffee bars, the experiences at each café are fairly unique and can compete with other leading coffee bars throughout L.A.

Parable Coffee Lab

Isaac Mason previously worked for Andante Coffee Roasters in Echo Park and in North Carolina. Bel-Air Presbyterian Church received gifts to upgrade an existing café. Carolyn Sams, a consultant for the church hired him and they collaborated to redesign the space and experience.

A glass front allows Parable to highlight those stunning views from their perch. Plants give life to an airy interior with light wood tables and benches, a bar with white metal stools, and a sign that reads, “The son of man came eating and drinking.” Jazz music played as Mason brewed Copa Vida beans using a two-group La Marzocco espresso machine, pour over cones, and nitro cold brew. Parable makes floral orange blossom, vanilla, and chocolate syrups in-house and sells Sugarbloom Bakery pastries.

According to Mason, Parable’s mission is to “reflect the fact that food and drink as parts of God’s creation are beautiful and are worth doing thoughtfully…Coffee feels like such a gift, that fruit grows and you can take the seed and turn it into this crazy drink. There is an amazing wealth of possibilities in that plant. It doesn’t exist for human pleasure, but human pleasure is a great side effect.”

The pastor — a coffee fan who’s roasted coffee at home and packs an Aeropress for camping trips — often notes that people spend more time at the movies than at church. The café is part of a concerted effort “to get people to want to spend time here, and not just because we have to.” That ethos extends to “neutral and approachable” design.

Between bible studies and services on Sundays, weddings, and memorials, food and drink have played a big part of the church’s ecosystem. “We wanted to be a place where we could explore possibilities for overlap of food, drink, and gospel,” Mason says. “What we feel in our brains and in our heart, is there a way that overlaps with what we drink and eat in the morning?”

“The old wave of church coffee is sell whatever coffee and at least the profits will do good,” says Mason. “We thought, what good can the actual product itself do? There’s still a lot of good we can do in the work of the café itself. In North Carolina, all the money went to community charity, but all the food came from U.S. Foods and was processed, with all sorts of big, sugary drinks. We want to get beyond that idea. Food going to charity is great, but how are you actually generating those proceeds?”

Parable operates like a ministry. All the money that doesn’t cover costs goes into the church’s general operating fund. In the future, Mason would love for money to go toward “food justice or food and drink experiences for people that don’t have the means.”

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Joshua Lurie