‘Fresh food, fresh start’: Tucson cafe doubles as training program for people with mental illness

Laurie Taylor is program manager for Café 54, a downtown Tucson restaurant that provides employment training for individuals with mental health conditions. As someone living with schizophrenia, Taylor, photographed on Sept. 27, 2022, understands the importance of having role models to look to when recovering from mental illness. “Sometimes it’s hard to share those details, but it lets people know they’re not alone,” she says. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Mercedes Diaz looks over an order ticket during the lunch rush at Café 54. Diaz, 22, is on the autism spectrum and has a diagnosis of serious mental illness, but she doesn’t want people to say that she “suffers” from her diagnoses. “I am high-functioning, so I understand things,” she says. “I don’t really let things bother me.” (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Mercedes Diaz fills containers with mustard as part of her prep work at Café 54. She has gained experience in a variety of positions, from food prep to running the cash register. “It’s kind of cool knowing that what they’re serving is what I made at the back,” Diaz says. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Café 54 job coach, Jonathan Porter, trains Mercedes Diaz in kitchen prep. Porter focuses on a combination of hard and soft skills that can help trainees succeed in the workplace. Training is often highly individualized and can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. “We meet you where you’re at,” Porter says. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Mercedes Diaz brings out an order for a customer. Research finds that two-thirds of people living with severe mental illness “express a strong desire for work.” There is also evidence that employment for people with severe mental illness can lead to better long-term health outcomes. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Near the end of lunch, customers finish their meals at Café 54. Because of its location in downtown Tucson, the dining area usually is packed on weekdays with regulars and new customers alike. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Kenny Bailey works dish duty at Café 54. He joined the program to become more comfortable working with customers and broaden his interpersonal skills. “I want to learn how to get over that social fear and try to better communicate with people around me,” Bailey says. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Juliette Duran cuts bread for croutons in the kitchen of Café 54. She hopes to take the skills she’s gained in the job training program into a position at another bakery or cafe. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Juliette Duran, who is recovering from addiction, will soon graduate from the workplace training program at Café 54. In addition to finding a job, Duran hopes to become a peer specialist to help others like her. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Jenni Brooks ladles soup for an order near the end of lunch rush at Café 54. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Sous-chef Jenni Brooks fires up the grill in the back kitchen in preparation for the lunch rush. Brooks has extensive experience working in kitchens and is constantly impressed by the trainees at Café 54. “Every single person here … is on a different level, like a better level,” Brooks says. “They want to learn.” (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

TUCSON – At first glance, Café 54 looks like any other eclectic and artsy lunch spot, with drawings, paintings and collages covering its red brick walls. But take a closer look, and the unique mission of the eatery becomes apparent.

Table numbers that customers receive after ordering include the story of a famous person with mental illness – the singer Adele, for example, who has been open about living with depression. And those who work in the restaurant wear T-shirts displaying its motto: “Fresh Food, Fresh Start.”

Located in downtown Tucson, Café 54 serves as an employment training program for people with mental health conditions or developmental disabilities. Trainees are paid to work as cashiers, cooks, dishwashers and servers. The goal is to help them gain new skills and land a permanent job in the workforce – just as soon as they’re ready.

“We believe that recovery is possible for anybody, and oftentimes that’s best achieved … through community involvement and through employment,” said Jeff Grobe, executive director of Coyote TaskForce, a nonprofit advocating for adults with mental illnesses.

The organization opened Café 54 in 2004 to create a nonclinical setting to help people achieve their goals, whether that be employment, developing social skills or making friends.

“We’re trying to break through the stigma of mental illness,” Grobe said. “Every single meal that we serve is an opportunity for somebody in the Tucson community, or outside of that, to recognize that mental illness is not the barrier that it used to be, and it doesn’t have to be a barrier at all.”

Mental illness affects 1 in 5 adults across the country, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In Arizona, more than 1 million adults have some sort of mental health condition – but about one-third do not get needed health care, often because of cost. People of color are even less likely to get mental health care, NAMI reports.

Of the estimated 11 million adults living with serious mental illness in the U.S., as many as 90% are unemployed, studies show. Yet research indicates that most of those individuals want to work and consider finding employment a top priority.

Supported employment, which matches people with severe mental illness to appropriate jobs and offers ongoing support during employment, is an evidence-based practice that can help patients succeed, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

At Café 54, trainees usually are referred by psychologists, psychiatrists, case managers and other behavioral health providers. Employment at the cafe can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months and can be extended depending on the trainee’s individual needs.

Mercedes Diaz waits for food orders at Café 54. Diaz said she’s learned a lot in the fast-paced environment and is excited to put those skills to use in the future. “Communication is everything,” she said. (Photo by Laura Bargfeld/Cronkite News)

Mercedes Diaz, 22, who has been a trainee for nearly three months, has mental health challenges and is on the autism spectrum, but she said she’s never let that keep her down.

“I’ve always wanted a job. I’m a fast learner, and I like to pick up things,” she said. “They love me here, because I like to learn new things.”

Diaz has worked both front and back of the house, checking food, manning the cash register and delivering plates to tables. But her time at Café 54 ends this month. She’s looking into positions at Harkins Theaters and Fry’s, and has aspirations to someday work for Amazon and maybe become a school teacher.

“I’ve never had a job before this,” she said. “The people here have been really supportive, and it feels like a family. I’ll be sad to leave.”

Related story

During their time at Café 54, trainees work with a job developer who helps them create resumes and cover letters and apply for positions. These coaches, Diaz said, “guide us to work on our next chapter in our life.”

Success stories like Diaz’s are what Laurie Taylor, program manager at Café 54, strives for.

Diagnosed with schizophrenia in her 20s, Taylor remained stable on medication for 10 years before a new doctor said she was misdiagnosed and took her off the drugs. Within a year, Taylor said, she lost her job, became homeless and ended up in jail.

After undergoing court-ordered treatment, she stabilized and pursued her certification as a peer support specialist. She was hired at Café 54 in 2014 and provides day-to-day support and facilitates monthly recovery team meetings with trainees to assess their progress.

“There’s more to it than just employment,” she said. “We’re helping people find housing. We’re helping them get stabilized on medications. We’re teaching them coping skills and encouraging them to attend therapy and creating this community of support.”

The program has had many success stories. Grobe specifically remembers a trainee who’d suffered a traumatic brain injury but changed his life after Café 54.

“He learned both the front of house and the back of house skills,” Grobe said. “He just needed a chance, he needed an opportunity … and now he’s working in finance. He comes back and he volunteers all the time for us. …

“Those success stories are why we do this. Somebody gets that job, and you can see their face light up. They get their first paycheck, and they call us about it. … It’s just an amazing feeling, because that person’s life has significantly improved in that moment.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Kaden Kleinschmidt expects to graduate in May 2024 with a master’s degree in journalism. Kleinschmidt has interned as a reporter with The Northern Light in Anchorage, Alaska.

Laura Bargfeld LOH-ruh bAHrj-fEld (they/them/theirs)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Laura Bargfeld expects to graduate in December 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Bargfeld recently completed fellowships through the RWJF Southwest Health Reporting Initiative and News21.