Community-uplifting Cafe 54 supports mental health recovery with “Fresh Food, Fresh Start”

January 9, 2020
By Meredith O'Neil
By Meredith O'Neil

Fresh food, fresh start.

If you’ve visited eclectic, colorful Café 54 in the past, you’ve supported mental health recovery, whether or not you were aware of it.

It all started with Our Place Clubhouse, or the Clubhouse, a psych-social rehabilitation center adjacent to Cafe 54. The Clubhouse acts as a community of peer support for adults in mental health recovery, offering therapy, meals, computers with WiFi, and a place to relax. It’s a non-clinical alternative that empowers those with serious mental illnesses to gain control of their progress, all while providing voluntary work activities and job development.

Joining the Clubhouse, a nationwide concept, is voluntary and membership is for life.

“Once a member, always a member,” says Joanna Keyl, Cafe 54’s development coordinator. Keyl oversees the progress of Café 54 employees.

Facade at Cafe 54 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Facade at Cafe 54 (Credit: Jackie Tran)

The first documented Clubhouse, called The Fountain House, was created in 1948 by six patients at the Rockland State Hospital in New York. As a reaction to the stigma the patients felt from their diagnosis, they came up with the motto: “We are not alone.” The motto has spread nationwide, dismantling the stigma and isolation of mental illness. Tucson followed suit with a revolutionary restaurant of its own.

Coyote Task Force

Enter Coyote Task Force, an employment-focussed nonprofit dedicated to helping adults who are recovering with mental health disorders in downtown Tucson. Our Place Clubhouse, Café 54, and nearby thrift store Re-Threads are all programs that fall under Coyote Task Force.

Café 54, the restaurant component, supports people living with mental health disorders, including those with a history of drug abuse. It provides “formal work adjustment training and job placement,” according to their website, and embodies a motto of its own: “Fresh Food, Fresh Start.”

Interior at Cafe 54 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Interior at Cafe 54 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Cafe 54

When entering Cafe 54, you’ll find a funky mix of colors and exposed brick interior—Clubhouse members contributed the art to liven up the space. The mixed media artwork, paintings, and drawings are for sale–all proceeds go straight to the artist.

In keeping with Café 54’s mission, employees must first complete training before they are launched into the workforce independently. Generally, the work training program takes from three to nine months to complete, supplemented by part-time work in four-hour shifts. The program focusses on the acquisition of skills, such as cooking, baking, washing dishes, cashiering, serving, time management, good communication, and teamwork.

Employees get on-the-job training, assistance in building a resume, and they can practice interview skills in mock interviews. The focus, however, is in building confidence.

How do you become a Café 54 employee?

If you have a Serious Mental Illness (SMI) or General Mental Health/Substance Abuse (GMH/SA) designation, a doctor referral is needed if you wish to take part in the training program. You can also self-refer, which requires you to come into the cafe, fill out the paperwork, and allow the staff to contact your doctor.

Cafe 54 (Credit: Meredith O'Neil)
Cafe 54 (Credit: Meredith O’Neil)
It pays off

Keyl shared the success story of George, a previous employee of Café 54. George came to the café in 2015, and, at 54, started his first job (ever). After struggling with mental illness and spending time in jail, he kept showing up at the café wanting to work.

There were a few things George had to get used to, however.

“At first, he had a really hard time with it,” said Keyl. “We had to tell him to stop calling the other female employees ‘honey.’”

Regardless, George worked hard and was able to find a job at a local school washing dishes. He then went on to work at Cafe 54. This year, four years after leaving Café 54, he continues to work at the school and stops by the cafe every once in a while.

Club sandwich at Cafe 54 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Club sandwich at Cafe 54 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
You wouldn’t know unless you know

At first glance, you wouldn’t suspect that that Café 54 is a mental health recovery program. There are hints if you pay close attention though. Take the employee T-shirts, for example, with the “Fresh Food, Fresh Start” motto printed on them, and then there are the table numbers—each has the story of a famous person with a mental illness printed on it.

Like any cafe, guests can order from the menu, which features sandwiches, soups, salads, bowls, and seasonal baked goods.

The highlighted specials are both vegetarian options: Impossible Lasagna and an Impossible Burger on a brioche bun. Salads range from a Chopped Kale Power Salad with toasted sunflower seeds and crispy onions to Salade Niçoise with Grilled Salmon topped with whole grain mustard vinaigrette on a bed of spinach and spring greens.

A few standout entrees include the Korean Bowl, featuring marinated steak over a pile of fluffy rice with Napa slaw and kimchi, and the house-made sweet-and-spicy Chef’s Meatloaf, with belly-warming mushroom and thyme gravy over mashed potatoes.

Tea at Cafe 54 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Tea at Cafe 54 (Credit: Jackie Tran)
Community mindset

In addition to the restaurant, the cafe has hosted special luncheons in collaboration with the Iskashitaa Refugee Network—an integrational network of Tucson volunteers and UN refugees, which supports food security, reduces food waste, and supports the local food system.

To support Iskashitaa, Café 54 has provided space and utilities for refugee-led luncheons, featuring food from the host’s native cuisine.

In the past, luncheons have focussed on cuisine from Nepal, featuring momo dumplings, ashaar, curry chicken, and lentil dahl; Sudan, with dumplings, stews, and flatbread; and Afghanistan, with pakoras, vegetable and beef pulao, and khaddo, a spiced pumpkin stew.

There are so many people in need of support within our reach. A visit to Café 54 supports the belief that those with mental health disorders can find success.

Location and hours

Café 54, located at 54 E. Pennington St., is open from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Monday to Friday. They also cater to events.

For more information, visit

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