When Connections Cafe and Catering gets hopping, the stainless steel ticket holder spins round and round. During a recent lunchtime rush, Ruby Deal and Diana Garner quickly cooked and assembled sandwiches and burgers for employees around the Vancouver VA campus and Center for Community Health.
The cafe is a business venture of Lifeline Connections, a mental health and substance use treatment center that employs people in recovery. Orders are taken primarily online, made fresh in a small kitchen inside Lifeline Connections, and delivered in person (sometimes using a tricycle with an attached food box). The menu is traditional American lunch and breakfast fare; the California chicken sandwich is the most popular item.
The catch is that food can only be sent to buildings on campus sharing the same address: 1601 E. Fourth Plain Blvd.
“We’ve been getting busier and busier,” Garner said, adding that the cafe sees a lot of repeat customers. “I get a lot of compliments and I love that.”
More than 900 people work at the Vancouver VA campus. Another 163 Clark County employees work at the Center for Community Health, which houses several other organizations — all potential cafe customers.
Garner has been sober over a year and has worked in the cafe nearly as long. The cafe job pays her rent, helped her buy a cheap car, get her driver’s license and insurance.
“I have a whole beautiful life now,” Garner said.
It’s a similar story for Deal who, just two years ago, was homeless and sometimes staying at rundown motels. She was nervous about returning to work after using drugs and having a gap in her employment history.
“At first I was so embarrassed about my addiction,” Deal said. “Now, it’s part of my story.”
Today, she has a job she loves, a dog and people in her life supporting her sobriety, including her co-workers. New cafe employees tend to be earlier in their recovery process, so she finds herself mentoring them to be successful — not just in the job’s duties, but also in recovery.
Lifeline Connections CEO Jared Sanford said the cafe concept came about after staff recognized people in recovery have difficulty securing employment. Besides treatment, people need a safe place to live, a job and positive social connections.
“If we can align all those things for an individual, the chances of them maintaining their recovery dramatically go up,” Sanford said.
The model of employing clients is used by other nonprofits, such as Innovative Services NW, which has a janitorial business employing people with disabilities. (Lifeline looks to open a janitorial business, as well.)
Employment at the cafe is meant to be transitional, a step in the right direction. Garner, for instance, looks to become a recovery coach in hospital emergency rooms while Deal has an upcoming test to become a licensed insurance agent.
Overseeing the cafe crew is Chris Attaway, Lifeline Connections’ food services supervisor. Back when he was facilities supervisor, the kitchen was used for storage; before that, it was used as a training kitchen for blind patients. County health inspectors gave Connections Cafe and Catering a perfect score of zero during a Dec. 19 inspection.
“I have a good crew. I taught them well,” said Attaway, who worked for decades in the food industry.
He teaches employees skills such as how to wash dishes, prep food, box and deliver meals, stock inventory and interact with customers. Employees typically work 20 to 25 hours a week earning minimum wage, which increased to $13.50 hourly this month. Work hours are scheduled around therapy.
“Recovery always has to come first, and then everything else is just gravy,” Attaway said. “We want to break down as many barriers as we can to move them toward long-term recovery.”
Juggling a job and therapeutic schedule can be challenging, and if therapy falls to the wayside, relapse becomes more likely. Attaway knows firsthand the ups and downs of addiction.
“I started using when I was 7,” said Attaway, adding he was abused during his childhood. “I was a pint a day user by 10 and a fifth a day user by 13.”
He found his way to recovery at Lifeline Connections at age 41.
“I didn’t even know about detox till somebody said, ‘Hey you know about Lifeline detox? You should go there,’ ” Attaway said. “It took me a while to get it. … But it finally took. I had 10 years clean and sober last July.”
That’s about the same amount of time he’s been employed by Lifeline Connections where, he said, he’s blessed to work with people who are early in their recovery.
“Lifeline took a chance on me and changed my life. That’s what I hope to do with these guys,” he said.
For now, the cafe remains in the virtual world, but someday Attaway plans to have a sit-down restaurant. Besides serving employees on campus, Connections Cafe and Catering makes food for conferences or parties.
Last year, Clark County awarded Connections Cafe and Catering $79,207 from the mental health sales tax fund. It needs to make about $7,000 monthly to break even, which the restaurant recently started earning.