How Seattle cafe’s ‘radical hospitality’ serves recovery community

Why We Wrote This

There is strength in numbers. That’s why one Seattle cafe is brewing community, along with coffee, for locals turning away from trauma. 

Courtesy of John Jensen/Recovery Café
Recovery Café's founding director, K. Killian Noe (right), shares a moment with a member, Roxy.

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A Seattle cafe exudes a homey warmth with its tall windows and sunny yellow walls. No ordinary coffee shop, Recovery Café prides itself on its “radical hospitality.” It welcomes everyone who has been substance-free for 24 hours, no matter their stage of recovery. The cafe is where people are “both deeply known and deeply loved,” says founding director K. Killian Noe. 

The first of its kind in Seattle, the program has helped an estimated 9,000 people. It’s meant to offer visitors, known as “members,” long-term, supportive community – a critical but often missing pillar in recovery.

Jane remembers first walking into the cafe in 2011. Shell-shocked from months of living in homelessness and fear, she cowered in a corner and barely spoke. Eight years later, she is financially secure, has stable housing, and is an active volunteer at the cafe. She credits the community with saving her life. 

“Recovery Café has been a replacement for the family I don’t have,” she says.

Jane steps into Recovery Café, flashes a smile at cafe manager Terri D Rhodes, and heads to the coffee counter where another friend, Kelly, the barista of the day, is whipping up foamy lattes.

With tall windows and sunny yellow walls mounted with “Love” and “forgiveness” in big cursive papier-mache letters, the cafe exudes a homey warmth. People gather at a dozen tables, talking, sipping coffee, typing on laptops, or doing a puzzle. A self-serve buffet offers hot, hearty meals. Housed in a 1920s-era brick neckwear factory in Seattle’s Denny Triangle neighborhood, it has the feel of a local diner back East, or a rural Midwestern coffee shop where no one’s a stranger.

But this is no ordinary cafe. It is an unconditionally welcoming community, where every member is both recovering from trauma – such as homelessness, addiction, or abuse – and actively contributing to others’ healing. Or, as founding director K. Killian Noe says simply: It is a place where people are “both deeply known and deeply loved.”

Ms. Noe co-founded Recovery Café in Seattle in 2003, envisioning a long-term, supportive community that was a critical but often missing pillar in the three-legged stool of recovery, along with prevention and treatment services. A Yale Divinity School graduate, she co-founded Samaritan Inns treatment center in Washington, D.C., and shepherded the project for 15 years before moving to Seattle.

“The heart of it is the need to really belong somewhere,” says Ms. Noe, sitting at a cafe table surrounded by friends.

“We are all recovering from many different things … but at the deepest level we are recovering from isolation and loneliness,” she says. “We all need a place where … we are loved in all of our imperfections. This is where we start to change.”

The first program of its kind in Seattle, the cafe faced no shortage of need upon opening its doors in 2004. About 11,000 people are struggling with homelessness in King County, which includes Seattle and surrounding areas. The problem is compounded by mental illness and the abuse of alcohol and drugs, including opioids and methamphetamines.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Recovery Café is located in what used to be a 1920s neckwear factory in the Denny Triangle neighborhood of downtown Seattle.

Since 2004, the cafe has helped an estimated 9,000 people, serving more than 300,000 meals. Those aided, in turn, have given back to the cafe, working alongside some 400 volunteers each year to make the cafe the curative refuge it is.

The unique program was supported last year primarily by contributions from individuals and foundations, and to a lesser extent by government grants and in-kind donations. It has won several awards, and in 2016 its leaders launched the Recovery Café Network to spread the model nationwide. Today, 19 Recovery Cafés are either operating or preparing to open across the country – in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Together they serve about 1,500 people a month, says network director David Uhl.

“Replacement for the family I don’t have” 

Jane remembers first walking into the cafe in 2011. Shell-shocked from months of living in homelessness and fear, she cowered in a corner and barely spoke. A veteran who had been assaulted in the military, she’d recently gained shelter in a Veterans Affairs-sponsored one-room studio. She was so anxious that even inside her apartment she continued to sleep curled up in a cardboard box. 

“When I first started coming here, I was a wreck,” Jane recalls. Eight years later, she is financially secure, has stable housing, and is an active volunteer at the cafe. (Jane and everyone interviewed at Recovery Café, apart from staff, asked that their real names be withheld to protect their privacy.)

“Recovery Café has been a replacement for the family I don’t have,” says Jane, who credits the community with saving her life. 

“Half of what is wrong with us, is because we are suffering from not having community,” she says, adding that visiting the space “is the highlight of my week.”              

The cafe prides itself on “radical hospitality,” welcoming everyone who has been substance-free for 24 hours, no matter their stage of recovery. 

Cafe co-founder Ms. Noe, who grew up in the Carolinas as the daughter of a Baptist minister, has a gift for genuine connection that infuses the cafe.

“She has a warm, bubbly personality that is very compassionate,” says Kelly, who discovered the cafe early this year while rebounding from major depression. “Her spirit brings out … welcoming and courage and confidence” in others. 

“Terri D, come over here!” Ms. Noe, who knows everyone by name, calls out in her Southern accent.  

Ms. Rhodes, the cafe manager, circles the tables offering jam pastries. She landed at the cafe in 2004 in recovery. “It was like I heard angels’ harps,” she says. “You couldn’t tell the staff from the members. Everyone was kind and loving. It was like God, I’ve arrived. It started making me think that nothing was wrong with me,” she says, tearing up at the memory even 15 years later.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Cafe manager Terri D Rhodes (l.) leads a moment of silence before daily announcements at Recovery Café on July 31, 2019, in Seattle, Washington.

At noon, Ms. Rhodes calls for five minutes of silence, then makes announcements and asks for volunteers for a list of jobs posted on the wall. Her colleague Tiffany Turner, who overcame addiction and is now a recovery coach and interim operations manager at the cafe, jots down names next to each task. Adam, who sports a Hard Rock Cafe sweatshirt and is on his 10th month of sobriety, offers to run tables.

Cafe visitors, known as “members,” are required to contribute to the community, doing chores such as making coffee or washing dishes. Some, like Ms. Rhodes, are groomed as leaders. Emily, who uses a motorized wheelchair, loves welcoming new members and telling them stories.  

“Doing the next right thing”

Another core feature of the cafe are meetings of small support groups called “recovery circles,” which members must attend weekly.

“You don’t just walk into a big group and start to trust again, you start to trust in a small group, and then it expands,” Ms. Noe says. Facilitating a circle for seven women recently, Ms. Noe reminds everyone to listen with open hearts, and respond not by offering advice, but by giving a gift from their own experience. 

Sally opens up about taking a moral inventory of herself as part of the 12-step treatment program. “I am not the same person I was four years ago,” she tells the group, her eyes brimming with tears. 

Jane relates how happy she is to have recently fallen in love and to be playing her harp again at the cafe, which hosts open mic nights, and classes ranging from yoga to writing.

Ms. Noe then turns to Martha. “I relapsed last week,” Martha says softly. She describes getting a hotel room for two nights to spend time with her daughter, and finding her strung out on drugs.

“She is literally dying, doing so awful,” Martha says, stone-faced. After the encounter, Martha says, she returned to an old hangout and got high for the first time in years. 

“This is what a terrible disease it is. What scares me is thinking I can help her, when I can’t help myself,” Martha says.

“Do you know how remarkable it is that you are sitting here, that you came back?” Ms. Noe asks, giving Martha a hug.   

“I am confused,” Martha says. “I am just doing the next right thing.”

The strength to take one step in the right direction is amplified by the cafe. In surveys, Recovery Café members report an increase in their sense of hope, connectedness, and their ability to recover quickly from a relapse, says Ruby Takushi, director of programs.

At its heart, Ms. Noe writes in her book “Descent Into Love,” the cafe aspires to become a community where each person draws upon their wellspring of love to call forth the light in others. Then together, she writes, they can “‘stand in and close the gap’ between those who have what they need to fulfill their Godgiven potential and those who do not.”

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